Column: Barbarians at the gates?

Published on April 1, 2008

The controlling metaphor to describe the work of journalists is gatekeeping. The image suggests not only the making of distinctions (this story should be denied entry; that story should be allowed through) but also the power of definition: The news is what editors or producers or reporters say it is.

But when gates are falling down all around us, what is left for gatekeepers to do? (I am reminded of the old dig at Microsoft’s closed, monopolistic thinking: The open alternative, it was said, is No Gates, No Windows.)

In an increasingly open media environment, the reader or the viewer or the listener or the user defines what is news: The news is what I’m interested in, when I’m interested in it. That last condition is telling: When we access the news has important, indeed industry-changing, consequences for the news profession. It raises yet another question about underlying assumptions: If a gate is open all the time, is it still a gate?

To journalists of the old school, this emerging world is deeply unsettling.

* * *

In Tagaytay City last Saturday, about 30 delegates to the fifth Media Nation conference put their heads together to consider the future of the so-called mainstream media. The role of professional journalists in a world being radically redefined by Facebook, YouTube and Google, at a time that public discourse is given shape partly through virtual forums like the comment threads in colleague Manolo Quezon’s must-read blog, is undergoing reinvention too.

In 2004, in a talk I gave, I thought the formula was transition: The role of the journalist is changing from gatekeeper to navigator. Now I’m not too sure. The changes are taking place, and at a faster pace than we would have expected only, say, four years ago. (Our preteens and young teens are already living in a markedly different world.) But perhaps the choice open to working journalists is not too stark. Not either-or, but both-and: both gatekeeper and navigator.

* * *

In whichever role, credibility is a key factor. The surest way to lose ours is to make egregious mistakes. But even small mistakes, or inaccurate reporting we do not even think of as mistaken, can have serious consequences.

Take the case of the second question in Romulo Neri’s petition before the Supreme Court. Much of the coverage and commentary I’ve read or viewed phrases it, more or less, in this wise: Did the President tell Neri to give priority to ZTE Corp.’s national broadband network (NBN) project?

(The two other questions which Neri refused to answer under an obviously overbroad claim of executive privilege are of the same kind.)

In fact, the second question as asked during the Senate hearings is phrased differently. Was Neri dictated upon (by someone higher than him, presumably President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), to prioritize “the ZTE.” (Father Bernas got it right in his column yesterday.)

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita’s letter of Nov. 15, 2007, claiming executive privilege, itemized the three questions in a somewhat uneven list.

“Specifically, Sec. Neri sought guidance on the possible invocation of executive privilege on the following questions, to wit:
“a) Whether the President followed up the [NBN] project?
“b) Were you dictated to prioritize the ZTE?
“c) Whether the President said to go ahead and approve the project after being told about the alleged bribe?”

The first question was asked by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the last by Sen. Pia Cayetano. It was Sen. Loren Legarda who asked the second question. As the transcripts of the Senate hearings record it, she raised the question in the context of competing bids for the NBN project.

Legarda may have used the unfortunate word “project” to refer to the ZTE proposal, but it is clear from the context, especially from the question about Amsterdam Holdings Inc., that she wanted to find out whether the President had ordered Neri to give priority to the ZTE bid. (A yes would have been extremely revealing.)

What explains the mistake? A number of possibilities: Perhaps, busy journalists chasing a deadline conflated the (NBN) project with the (ZTE) proposal. Perhaps editors and editorial writers succumbed to what used to be called MEGO (Mine Eyes Glaze Over, meaning prose that sets one to distraction). Perhaps, as Orwell reminded us half a century ago, language that is built using pre-fabricated phrases is really meant to conceal thought, not reveal it.

Does the mistake matter? I would like to think so. It matters as a question of detail; accuracy is something we should demand from our news providers (whether professional or amateur). But it matters also as a test of fairness; the question about whether Neri was told to prioritize a certain company’s proposal cuts to the heart of the issue. Was a certain favor granted?

If the second question were about prioritizing the project as a whole, it wouldn’t make as much sense now, would it?

* * *

Last week, a friend from a news wire agency asked me when the boycott of Malacañang spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo would start. The question applies only to local media, which continue to give airtime and newspaper space to an official whose job is to fill time and space with, well, deliberate ignorance. Note that the wire services have already stopped quoting her. Some gates, apparently, still stand.

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