Column: Estrada’s memory game

Published on January 15, 2008

Like many other readers, I look forward to reading columnist Mahar Mangahas on the failure of all nine final pre-election polls in the New Hampshire primary to signal Hillary Clinton’s close victory. In the meantime, I will content myself with the best setting-forth-of-the-problem I have read: Gary Langer’s lengthy analysis written three days after the vote. (It can be found here.)

But while Langer, ABC’s director of polling, dispassionately describes “the state of play” that led to possibly the most egregious failure of polling since John Major’s non-defeat in 1992, I cannot help but think that there was a failure of punditry too. Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory in Iowa, and the long lines and overflow crowds that greeted him in New Hampshire, swept the American commentariat in a history-is-turning tide. (To be sure, even Obama got swept up in the euphoria of exuberant rallies, something Claro M. Recto, if he were alive today, could have warned him against.) But the exuberance, irrational or otherwise, also swamped the skeptical faculties of reporters and columnists alike.

I thought I had hedged my bets carefully enough in my last column, which began thus: “By tonight we should have a good idea whether the latest polls had gotten it right, or were skewed by temporary enthusiasm over Barack Obama’s historic win in Iowa.” The rest of my don’t-count-any-Clinton-out comment was a warning about Hillary hanging on to fight a war of attrition. But a faithful reader from the United States congratulated me for writing about the Obama phenomenon. Perhaps the skepticism I thought I had used was too muted as to be inaudible.

* * *

Every now and then, journalists get asked the fundamental question: How do we get the media to take notice of us, or our position, or our cause?

The question puts journalists in the position of a fish being asked for his considered opinion on the best sort of bait. At a freewheeling discussion last week, several journalists tried their best to talk about fishing in general, without betraying any school of fish in particular.

My own contribution was largely limited to making a distinction between feeding the media beast and taming it. Proposals to turn academic lectures into virtual press conferences, or to prepare print-ready press statements, or to invite prominent personalities instead of obscure experts — these all help to feed the media’s voracious appetite. But attempts to educate the media, to tame it, so to speak, must continue too.

As New Hampshire reminded us, sometimes the fisherman doesn’t really know where the fish are.

* * *

Last week, after the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan sheriff found that the infamous “Jose Velarde” bank account still contained over a billion pesos, Velarde — er, Joseph Estrada — took to the airwaves to denounce what he called “spin.” On prime time TV, and for the nth time, he denied owning the account or having anything to do with it.

Except that that is not what the Sandiganbayan special division found. In convicting him of two counts of plunder, the anti-graft court concluded that Estrada was in fact Jose Velarde.

Of many damning passages in the closely reasoned Sandiganbayan decision we can cite, let’s run with this one: “The Court finds that Estrada took advantage of his official position, authority, relationship, connection and influence to unjustly enrich himself at the expense and to the damage and prejudice of the Filipino people and the Republic of the Philippines: … b) by accepting and receiving, a commission in the amount of One Hundred Eighty-Nine Million Seven Hundred Thousand Pesos [P189,700,000.00] as consideration for the purchase by GSIS [Government Service Insurance System] and SSS [Social Security System] of the shares of stock of Belle Corporation pursuant to his instructions which amount was deposited in the Equitable-PCI Bank S/A 0160-62501-5 under the account name ‘Jose Velarde’ of which FPres. [Former President] Estrada is the real and beneficial owner.”

In the light of this finding, it is obviously Estrada who is engaged in spin. And we in the media may be helping him in his attempt to induce selective, if nationwide, amnesia.

In the TV program I saw Estrada on, his attempt to distance himself from the Velarde account — a matter already decided convincingly by the Sandiganbayan — was not questioned by the news anchor. Indeed, the Sandiganbayan’s conclusion was not raised at all. This was a dereliction of the journalist’s duty to shape the informed consent of the governed: To give Estrada a free pass on the question of his guilt is to play his version of the memory game—you win the more you forget.

I have already written about Daniel Boorstin’s concept of “erasure,” advertising’s characteristic impulse to erase the old product to make way for the new and improved. It turns out that that instinct animates the news media too.

* * *

Joyce Bersales of Anvil has set me straight. Asuncion David Maramba’s “Early Philippine Literature: From Ancient Times to 1940” retails for P245 (newsprint edition, the same kind I received from the textbook author herself). In one of the many mysteries of the last Christmas season, another price tag (for P19.75!) had crept its way into the wrapper that came with the book. So the marvelous overview isn’t, as I had written, an epic steal — just a lyrical one.

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2 Comments

Filed under Newsstand: Column

2 responses to “Column: Estrada’s memory game

  1. Willie

    Re Estrada, you should have named the journalist and the program in your post, for the benefit of those who failed to catch it. Don’t you think it’s part of your responsibility too as a media person to publicly call out colleagues who you think are veering away from your profession’s supposed ethical and objectivity standards?

    Maybe Philippine mainstream media, as a whole, is really just scared to “straighten out” on air Estrada and other extremely powerful men like him.

  2. Thanks, Willie. I’m somewhat conflicted about that. No, not the part about calling out colleagues, but the part about calling them out publicly. If word gets to them (and word in our very small world does get around), perhaps that’s enough for them (for me, too, in those instances when I make such mistakes) to take a hint?

    You may be right; very few people are willing to “straighten out” powerful people on air. But off cam, I think it’s a (slightly) different story.

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