Published August 26, 2008
They make for painful reading: Letters from ordinary citizens or “observant readers,” accusing the Inquirer of grave bias. A post in Bong Montesa’s blog summed up their point of view in a telling question: “What is the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s agenda?”
Letter-writer Vicente Chuidian of Pasay City wrote to complain about the newspaper’s alleged bias against Court of Appeals Justice Jose Sabio. I must confess that I am a little put off by the pseudo-objective point of view he adopts: “But a content analysis of its stories, news columns and editorials on the Supreme Court investigation into the alleged bribery involving Court of Appeals justices seems to indicate that the Inquirer is obsessed to ‘cut down’ Justice Jose Sabio. For there is a common thread that an observant reader can discern—a uniform ‘spin,’ if one wishes to be judgmental—from its reporting.” I will explain why I find this kind of objectivity false, but Mr. Chuidian does raise a valid concern, and in doing so he is doing all of us a service. But the issue is not justice; it is journalism.
In his letter published in the Inquirer’s letters section on Aug. 23, he wrote: “Oddly enough, the Supreme Court is still receiving evidence on the investigation; oddly enough, the Inquirer editors and columnists seem to have predetermined that Justice Sabio is the wrongdoer; oddly enough, none of the Inquirer editors and columnists are speaking out for Justice Sabio.”
My two cents:
First, the idea that journalists should wait for the courts to pronounce judgment on an issue before venturing an opinion is deeply undemocratic. It also runs counter to human nature. I do not know whether Mr. Chuidian is a friend or a relative of Justice Sabio’s; but even if he weren’t (especially if he weren't), I as a practicing journalist would still like to know his answer to the inevitable follow-up: Would he question the Inquirer’s coverage if it were uniformly favorable to Justice Sabio? I have a hunch the “prejudgment” argument is really the “unfavorable” argument, in disguise.
(An analogy: When the Inquirer wrote an editorial “proclaiming” Alan Cayetano a senator, at a time political operators were busy defrauding him of his votes, the congressman did not complain. But the President’s lawyer did.)
Second, the idea that news reports, opinion columns and newspaper editorials work together in concert (to “speak out” for or against someone) is a mis-appreciation of the necessary division of labor that makes modern newspapers possible. Indeed, in concluding that a “common thread” can be “discerned” in the Inquirer’s “reporting,” Mr. Chuidian makes the basic mistake of offering examples from the opinion pages. The job of opinion columnists is to comment on the news; sometimes, they do make news, but the distinction between news and opinion, reporting and commentary, remains—to the benefit of readers, observant or otherwise.
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It may only be an approach to style, but Mr. Chuidian’s letter is written as though it were free of bias, merely the work of an “observant reader.” Again, I want to say that, personally, as a practicing journalist, I found his letter instructive. But, rather like the way some artists explain their work, not in the way he must have intended. He chooses three opinion pieces to support his claim that “reporting” was being spun. And he forgets that the first Inquirer editorial on the CA case gave Sabio the benefit of the doubt. That editorial concluded: “And yet it is Sabio’s decision to go public with the bribe allegedly offered to him by [businessman Francis] De Borja that, for now, gives weight to the justice’s claim. His having gone public, while embarrassing to the Court of Appeals, is the proper action of a man who has nothing to hide, and who fulfilled his duty by informing his superior of an attempt at bribery, and of the possibility that his colleagues may have succumbed to similar blandishments.”
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Even more painful to read than Mr. Chuidian’s complaint is the letter of Bobbie Sabio, the judge’s daughter, now circulating via email. (I have not verified whether she actually wrote the letter, but I find no reason to doubt its authenticity.)
I have no wish to intrude on a proud daughter’s private hell, but want only to place what professional journalists try to do, in some perspective.
For instance, she took the very nature of newspaper editorials as an argument against the professionalism of editorial writers: “The writers even have the temerity to label my father as a ‘double-dealer who is left with nothing but an empty bag’ and hide behind an editorial.” But editorials are unsigned precisely because they are meant to represent the newspaper’s position on issues of the day, not because the newspaper’s editorial writers (the editorial board, as they are known in US practice; leader writers, as they are called in the UK) want to hide behind institutional anonymity.
She may not believe me (and in fact as a columnist I do not speak for the newspaper I work for), but I do not know of any journalist, in the Inquirer or outside it, who does not share her conviction that, in the end, “the truth will prevail.” In that drama, however, we have different roles to play.
A newspaper does not have an agenda; only a script, a part, it tries to stay true to.