Category Archives: Newsstand: Column

Column: Aquino: ‘Incompetent’ and ‘insensitive’

The fourth edition, as it were, of an annual roundup of anti-Aquino criticism. Published on November 26, 2013.

At least once a year in the last three years, I’ve tried to document the patterns of criticism directed against President Aquino. I got started because of what I thought was unfair criticism; I continued partly because of the vigorous, sometimes orientation-altering feedback, and partly because tracing the patterns can be instructive and useful to understanding politics, Philippine-style.

The documentation is hardly comprehensive; my so-called field notes are only preliminary; indeed, as I wrote at the get-go about the patterns I discerned, “there are others, some of them perhaps better objects of study than the ones I’ve chosen.”
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Column: ‘Is it true, is Ted Failon dead?’

“Catastrophizing” disaster coverage. Published on November 19, 2013.

Read, and wince. “During this time, they said, girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted.” It won’t be easy to identify which esteemed media organization ran this sensational passage.

This post-apocalyptic vision was a description of the horrifying conditions at the Convention Center in New Orleans, days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the famous city in August 2005. But as it turns out, it was a description that was not (and perhaps could not have been) independently verified. The source (the “they” who did the saying) were unnamed refugees; other sensational details in the story with the remarkable headline “City of rape, rumour and recrimination,” could also not be verified, or were later proven false.

The British spelling in the headline is a clue, but it isn’t much of one. Because that story, with that headline, and that passage, was published by the “normally staid” Financial Times.
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Column: The bully in Miriam Santiago

This column, written in the immediate aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda or Haiyan, generated intense feedback in the comments thread on Inquirer.net — many of the abusive kind. I guess that’s what happens when a politician is treated, or treats herself, as a celebrity, as a “darling of the media;” the fans come out with their daggers drawn. An interesting experience. Published on November 12, 2013.

I write out of a sense of duty—knowing not only that “politics” is the last thing people want to read about these days but also that other subjects (discussed fortunately in other columns or in the news pages) are, truly, matters of life or death. But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s “star turn” at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing last week was so wrong, on so many counts, that letting it slide under a storm surge of post-“Yolanda” media attention would be an injustice. Bear with me.

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Column: Going negative on P-Noy

From intuitive processes to systematic errors. Published on November 5, 2013.

Inquirer colleague and top business journalist Dax Lucas raised an interesting point on Facebook a few days ago. Linking to an image of the Inquirer’s Oct. 31 front page, which carried the headline “P-Noy: I am not a thief,” he wrote: “A key tenet in psychology and communications: the mind edits out words like ‘not’. So avoid stating in the negative.”

I thought it was interesting advice, because the President did not in fact say those exact words. I phrased my comment as a question: “Curious: Does this tenet work in languages other than English, such as the Filipino Noynoy used?”

Dax acknowledged my response, and graciously said he needed to study the matter, but others following the conversation immediately volunteered that, yes, the communications axiom worked in non-English languages too.
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Column: The pork barrel and the Left

A new lease on political relevance. Published on October 28, 2013.

There are various shades of red in the political spectrum, but for the sake of argument I will adopt the convention in use in many newsrooms and identify the Philippine Left as those associated with the National Democratic Front (NDF). These political forces include some of the most successful party-list groups in our history, such as Bayan Muna.

Their success is apposite, because it explains two telling political developments in the last decade. At the same time, their indisputable mastery of the parliamentary arena, or at least of the processes of entry into that arena, obscured the specter of irrelevance that haunted the Left during the first three years of the Aquino administration. The pork barrel scandal, however, has altered the political landscape dramatically.

The argument, in other words, is that the pork barrel scandal has given the Left a new lease—if not exactly a new purpose—on life.
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Column: The $20-hotdog: thinking about pork

Published on October 15, 2013.

Some thoughts on the pork barrel scandal as it now stands, but first a short anecdote.

Last Thursday, on a busy street corner in midtown Manhattan, I stopped to buy a Sabrett hotdog. I paid for my $3-lunch with a $5-bill. When the vendor gave me my change, it was a sheaf of bills—considerably more than the $2 I was expecting. I gave the bills back to him, and said, “Thanks, but I only gave you five.” He gave me a quizzical look, then handed me two singles.

I stepped off the curb, feeling pleased. I headed straight for my next meeting, eating the hotdog along the way. (It was as good as I remembered.)
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Column: ‘Obnoxious bluntness’

Published on October 8, 2013.

The other week, I had the privilege of attending three events in Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts, the venerable commonwealth that is almost but not quite as old (here’s a fun fact) as the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas. Allow me to record some of my main impressions.

First on the list was a forum I helped organize and which featured Nieman fellows from Asia. “Old Traumas, New Dilemmas: Four Asian Media Perspectives,” hosted by the Harvard University Asia Center and the Nieman Foundation, ranged over a great diversity of topics. Sayuri Daimon, the new managing editor of the Japan Times, remembered lessons learned from coverage of the Fukushima disaster; Chong-ae Lee of the Seoul Broadcasting System made an appeal, based on personal experience, to revisit the historical record; I spoke on the politics of the pork barrel.

But it was Yang Xiao of China’s Southern People Weekly who made the strongest impression; his description of the challenges facing China’s liberal media in the post-Olympic era began with a scrupulous sketch of the specific Chinese context of “liberal” but ended with a simple declaration of journalism’s true purpose: To speak truth to power.
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Column: Instructions in Singaporean pragmatism

Published on September 24, 2013.

I had a chance to join 14 other Asean journalists in a wide-ranging interview with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week. ANC’s Coco Alcuaz, formerly of Bloomberg, has already written of Lee’s pragmatic approach to the territorial disputes between China and some Asean member-states.

It is worth repeating the most important quote from Lee. Asked by Siti Hajar of the Borneo Bulletin whether the territorial disputes between certain Asean states and China can be resolved sooner rather than later, he replied:

“It cannot be resolved. These are territorial disputes. I say it is mine, you say it is yours. Whose is it? So either I say sorry, I made a mistake, it is yours; or you must say sorry, you made a mistake, it is mine. And no government can say that. So therefore, I do not think that the overlapping claims can be cleared up. They will remain overlapping. But what you can do is manage the situation, avoid some escalation at sea, on the land or sea itself, and where possible, do joint development of the resources which are there, which I think is Brunei’s approach from what I can see.”
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Column: The Good Samaritan parable as news story

Published on September 17, 2013.

Some readers have asked about the “writing experiment” I attempted last month at the Loyola School of Theology, when I sought to discuss the church-media dynamic by, among other things, rewriting a famous Gospel parable. Perhaps the best way to explain what I was up to is to show, not tell. If you will allow me then, here is an extended excerpt:
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Column: Marcos was the worst

The closest a column of mine has come to going viral (over 5,500 shares, some 3,000 Facebook recommends on Inquirer.net). This was published on September 10, 2013 — a day before the late, still-unburied dictator’s birthday.

GLORIA ARROYO practiced what the Freedom from Debt Coalition called “fiscal dictatorship”—impounding allocations at will and realigning items in reenacted budgets without congressional authorization. (Those who visit her at the hospital where she is detained may continue to deny reality, but it was this control of the budget that allowed the pork barrel scam to flourish.) Joseph Estrada centralized jueteng operations right in Malacañang. (He also forced the Social Security System to buy stocks for which he received a P180-million commission.) Compared to Ferdinand Marcos, however, Arroyo and Estrada were rank amateurs.

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Column: Back to Ninoy, forward to PCP 3

Published on September 3, 2013.

I promised reader Lyndon Rutor I would link to columns I’ve written before that argue an important historical truth: that Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino followed the same path to heroic martyrdom. They suffered in the last 10 years or so of their life in the name of a higher cause; they chose to risk a return from exile; they embraced the near-certainty of death.

These columns may be found through the search function or the tag cloud in my Newsstand blog (at johnnery.wordpress.com). One, in particular, may serve to stand for all the others. In “The Aquinos in our life,” the third installment of a four-part series prompted by the death of Cory Aquino and written in August 2009, I repeated a distinction between the old and the new Ninoy that I first discovered in late August 1983.

“What became obvious to me and to many others, after Ninoy was assassinated and Filipinos who grew up during the martial law era scrambled to discover a clearer picture of the new martyr, was that the man who died on the tarmac . . . was very different from the helicopter-riding whiz kid whose political ambition had known no bounds.”
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Column: Looking for church at the #MillionPeopleMarch

Column catch-up, all over again. This piece was written after the so-called Million People March, and was published on August 27, 2013.

In August 1999, or just over a year after the popular Joseph Estrada took office as the country’s 13th president, a major protest rally brought the Makati central business district to a standstill. A hundred thousand people, perhaps 120,000 at the most, occupied the intersection of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas; they were there, mainly, for three reasons: They went to signal their disapproval of the Estrada administration’s Charter change campaign; they went to sympathize with the plight of the Manila Times, then recently shuttered, and the Inquirer, then undergoing the second month of an unprecedented advertising boycott, both in circumstances many believed to have been orchestrated by Malacañang; not least, they went because Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino asked them to.
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Column: What Aquino and Rizal had in common

A tale of two martyrs. Published on August 20, 2013.

They came home. They did not have to; the threats they faced to life or liberty were real and manifest, the work they could have done outside the country to continue to contribute to the freedom struggle useful and varied.

The advice they received was almost uniformly negative. “I am prepared for the worst, and have decided against the advice of my mother, my spiritual adviser, many of my tested friends and a few of my most valued political mentors,” Ninoy Aquino wrote in his arrival statement. He had planned to read it the day he returned to Manila 30 years ago; he did not get the chance.

Jose Rizal prepared two letters before leaving Hong Kong in June 1892, to return to the Philippines for the second time. They were to be opened in the event of his death; about three years after his execution, Apolinario Mabini became the first to make them public.

In the letter addressed “A los Filipinos,” Rizal wrote: “The step that I have taken or I am about to take is undoubtedly very perilous, and I need not say that I have pondered on it a great deal. I realize that everyone is opposed to it; but I realize also that hardly anybody knows what is going on in my heart.”

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Column: Truth and hyperbole in basketball

Max Weber at the rainbow arc. Published on August 13, 2013.

It was a teaching moment, and Coach Chot Reyes seized it. After his Gilas Pilipinas team ended the so-called South Korean curse on Saturday and earned a ticket to the world basketball championships in Spain next year, Reyes had a message not only for his players but for anyone who cared to listen.

“I wanted to have a quick huddle with the players. I told them, ‘Congratulations. We have achieved our objective, now our dream is at hand.’”

And then he said (I am using a slightly edited version of Interaksyon.com’s fuller account of my batchmate’s statement at the post-game news briefing): “I don’t know if there were [already] people here in one [of] my earlier interviews. I said, our objective was to win a medal but our dream was to win it all. So we have achieved our objective, now the dream is at hand.”

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Column: Confirmation bias: A case study

Links to follow! Published on August 6, 2013.

The other Friday, I had the privilege of speaking before over a thousand delegates taking part in De La Salle University’s exceptionally well-organized Student Media Congress. In direct response to the organizers’ request, I talked about how newspapers like the Inquirer were “redefining reading” and “taking print to the next level.”

I argued the following points: globally, print is very much alive; it has a future that will excite the younger generation; it will continue to form a part, even a leading part, of the media mix; and augmented reality (like INQSnap) is transforming print as we know it

This is how the Rappler story, by David Lozada, reported my half-hour on the stage:
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Column: “Hysterical sex”

Famous writers playing word games. Published on July 30, 2013.

Spoiler alert: This column is entirely, unapologetically, about writers and writing.

Last week, three literary lions of late 20th-century London gathered in New York City to read and make merry. “The occasion,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “was a rare joint appearance by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the literary equivalent of a concert by the Three Tenors—or perhaps a friendlier version of the Yalta conference, with three longtime allies jostling to carve up whatever territory might still be controlled by big-dude British literary novelists of a certain age.”
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Column: Talking peace with the MILF

Reading the latest signed agreement, looking for clues. Published on July 23, 2013.

Can the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front still end in failure? We got a reminder in recent weeks that peace with the MILF remains very much a work-in-progress—and that progress is never guaranteed.

MILF officials aired their frustrations over the delay in the resumption of what are officially still called exploratory talks; when the 38th round finally pushed through, in Kuala Lumpur, the negotiations seemed to have teetered on the brink. It took an unusual extension before the government and MILF could agree on the final language of the Annex on Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing.

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Column: What would Ignatius do?

Still playing catch-up, but only six more to go before the Newsstand column archive becomes current. Six entirely different columns, beginning with this one on the Ignatian approach to discourse. Published on July 16, 2013.

Having been asked to play a small part in the second Ignatian Festival this coming weekend, I have found myself in the last several days wondering what it is exactly that draws me, again and again, to Ignatius of Loyola.

The author of the Spiritual Exercises and the founder of the Society of Jesus was an extraordinary man. The contradictions of his life would give a soap opera writer pause: a vainglorious soldier become ascetic priest, a restless romantic turned organization man, a stoic (wounded in the siege of Pamplona, he underwent leg surgery twice without so much as a complaint) who shed tears at Mass.

Not least, at least for me: An indifferent writer, who could change lives with the turn of a phrase.

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Column: Let us now praise a holy man

Excerpts from a pastor’s journal. Published on July 9, 2013.

“I think it is now three years since I last used a typewriter,” Pope John XXIII began a letter to his brother. “I used to enjoy typing so much and if today I have decided to begin again, using a machine that is new and all my own, it is in order to tell you that I know I am growing old…” He had just turned 80.

Shortly after he died, about a year and a half since sitting at that typewriter, his spiritual notebooks and some of his letters and special prayers were published as “Journal of a Soul.” A few years later, I found my father’s copy of the book; I have been reading it, on and off, ever since.
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Column: When the United States lost its way

Published on July 2, 2013.

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In 1981, the diplomatic historian Robert C. Hilderbrand wrote a pioneering study of the first attempts by the US government to “manage” public opinion. The book’s early chapters focus the spotlight on William McKinley, the president who prosecuted the Spanish-American War and launched the American conquest of the Philippines.

I found the following paragraph in the first chapter (titled “In the Ways of McKinley,” an allusion to one of the standard accounts of the McKinley years, Margaret Leech’s “In the Days of McKinley”) all but revelatory.
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Column: Doubting Edward, or Wolf cries boy

Published on June 25, 2013.

What should we make of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower? The exclusive accounts of Glenn Greenwald and others from the Guardian, sourced from a week’s worth of secret interviews with Snowden in Hong Kong, are rock-solid, the proofs they offer incontrovertible.

The secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) on April 25 of this year, compelling the Verizon telecommunications company to provide copies of the “meta data” of all telephone calls in its system to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing, daily basis.” The secret 41-slide PowerPoint presentation of a massive monitoring program that allows the NSA to directly access the computer systems of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and other iconic tech companies, called Prism. The two petitions from US Attorney General Eric Holder to the Fisa, which sought broad powers to scour communications even without a warrant.

And yet some of those who may be expected to welcome Snowden’s revelations have raised doubts about the intelligence contractor’s story. Famous feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, sounded the alarm about the United States turning into a police state in 2007. Last Friday, however, she wondered aloud on Facebook whether Snowden was the real thing.
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Column: Rizal’s equal

To mark another Rizal birthday–his 152nd–I thought of training the spotlight on the other great leader of the Propaganda Movement. Published on June 18, 2013.

Marcelo del Pilar left behind dozens of letters—altogether a wonderful read for Filipinos interested in history. Many of his letters were written in Filipino, especially those he wrote to his wife and his daughters, but these also include important, indeed historical, letters to Jose Rizal.

I think Del Pilar was very much Rizal’s equal as a political writer; it is instructive to read La Solidaridad, for example, when their bylines or pen names appear in the same issue, sometimes even one after the other. Del Pilar was no novelist; perhaps he lacked what the eminent literary critic V. S. Pritchett called, in an entirely different context, the “vegetative temperament” necessary to write a novel. But Del Pilar had an instinct for politics (he never apologized, as Rizal did repeatedly, for sacrificing art or life or fill-in-the-blank “on the altar of politics”), and that instinct informed not only his analysis but also his pragmatic conduct in the circles and corridors of Madrid.
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Column: 150 times a day

Column No. 250–appropriately enough, for one who first entered the commentary space as a political blogger, a repurposing of a blog post. Published on June 11, 2013.

Allow me to run something I posted on my blog last week—on June 5, in the middle of the World Newspaper Congress in Bangkok. Having heard yet another resource speaker repeat the newly popular research finding that smartphone users “check their phones 150 times a day,” I was moved to check the basis of the research for myself.

At the 2013 World Newspaper Congress and in its parallel conferences… the ascendancy of the mobile space is a recurring theme. The one idea that sums up this compelling vision of the present-sliding-into-the-future is the “150 times a day” meme:

WAN-IFRA@NewspaperWorld22h
According to research, people are checking smartphones on average 150 times a day @iRowan #editors13 #wnc13

That tweet, from the conference organizers’ official account, is representative. Of the hundreds of tweets and dozens of links I followed, many versions of the meme follow the same three-fold form: the attribution to “research,” the extension of the scope to “smartphones,” and the assertion of the frequency, “150 times a day.”

But is this statistic for real?
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Column: Rizal in the Catholic Encyclopedia

“Rizal, hidden in plain sight.” Published on June 4, 2013.

The first Catholic Encyclopedia was published about a hundred years ago; preserved inside this monumental work, like fossil in amber, is an unlikely and dated entry on Jose Rizal. Make that “carbon-dated.” The errors and emphases of this 1912 entry allow us a close, specific look at a particular era, when Catholic Americans in the Philippines had all but rationalized the national hero as one of their own.

The encyclopedia was a milestone in Catholic apologetics; it remains a favorite of many. The first edition in particular, published in 16 volumes (including index) between 1905 and 1914, has its online fans; two versions of this landmark reference available online are worth noting. The New Advent is a lovingly crowdsourced version started by Kevin Knight; the Original Catholic Encyclopedia is a massive scan done by the valiant apologists at Catholic Answers.

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Column: When a watchdog turns lazy

In which I express my disappointment, in one particular instance, with the CMFR; published on May 28, 2013.

Jeers to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) for flagrantly misrepresenting a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial, and substituting lazy memory for careful research.

On April 30, CMFR published a critique of a front-page Inquirer error. In “Another Inquirer ‘mistake’,” the media watchdog took the newspaper to task for attributing a Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) statement—on the April 20 New People’s Army attack that wounded Gingoog Mayor Ruth Guingona and killed her driver and her bodyguard—to the party-list group Bayan Muna.
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