Column: The “stigma of print”

Published on March 10, 2009

It is a commonplace in Shakespeare studies. Tudor England labored under a so-called stigma of print, when publication using the then-new printing press was thought to be, well, “baduy”. Manuscripts remained the preferred mode of publication, in large part because they were, by nature, elitist. Only the best “read” them.

That, at least, is how the theory works. The phrase comes to mind, because the death rattle we hear from the newspaper industry suggests it may prove useful in a new context, in an afterlife. In our increasingly digital age, will stigma attach anew to publication-by-printing-press?

I can only agree, of course, when colleague Conrad de Quiros describes the background against which we must come to terms with the death of many newspapers. “Newspapers may go, but not so news and not so reading.” The instinct for news, the human capacity for reading (a capacity largely untapped, until the invention of the printing press and Martin Luther’s revolutionary appeal for the Christian faithful to read the Bible for themselves) made newspapers both necessary and possible.

But the question we must ask ourselves, especially those of us in the Philippines caught in right-of-reply absurdia, is: What kind of news? What kind of reading?

One all-too-possible answer: Not enough of the stuff we truly need as citizens in a democracy.

Paul Starr, in his indispensable critique of the state of media (in The New Republic, out last month), fashions a case out of the ruins of US newspapers: “The concern about newspaper retrenchment in general is not just the declining number of reporters, but deterioration in the quality of journalism. As the editorial ranks are thinned, internal checks on accuracy are being sacrificed.” And: “Besides cutting back foreign, national, and state coverage, newspapers are also reducing space devoted to science and the arts, and laying off science and medical reporters, music critics, and book reviewers.”

Can the new online sites, earning only a fraction of the revenues newspapers used to generate, subsidize the kind of coverage we have come to expect?

Ethan Zuckerman, who flagged Starr’s report, sums it up neatly, using a term he has popularized: “Starr’s worry, like mine, is on the future of ‘difficult journalism’ — deep investigative work focused on state capitals, on city finances and on international coverage. His worry is that as politicians and businesspeople understand that the press is no longer watching, it becomes more tempting to bend the rules. Hence, his subtitle: ‘Hello to a New Era of Corruption’.”

I will be the last person to deny the possibilities inherent in other media; I’ve worked in TV, written online, taken part in “convergence” special reports (as well as gotten my hands dirty in Gutenberg’s original medium.) I am no sentimentalist for newspapers. But, at least for our generation, it seems to me they are worth saving. The democratic experiment may be at stake.

* * *

After reading reporter Doris Dumlao’s piece on GlobalSource’s latest monthly report for the Philippines, I scrounged around for a copy. I was more interested in the research firm’s handicapping of the strongest presidential candidates, rather than its must-read analysis of the Charter change and martial law options open to the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration.

As I have tried to do in previous columns, GlobalSource anchors its reading of the 2010 elections on survey results. No surprise, then, to see that we share essentially the same short list of winnable candidates. (The only exception is the firm’s inclusion of deposed president Joseph Estrada, who faces an insurmountable legal obstacle that not even a career in cinematic special effects can hurdle.)

I must quibble, though, with the way the two top-flight Filipino economists who wrote the report made use of a common assumption. “But based on indicated preferences, we are quite sure that any candidate of a unified opposition party will get an overwhelming majority. This is pretty much the rule of thumb of local political analysts.”

Well, yes. Even Estrada would have likely lost in 1998 if Jose de Venecia, Raul Roco, Renato de Villa and Alfredo Lim had combined forces. But what would happen in 2010 if the leading candidates failed to unite against an administration standard-bearer, or indeed (a scenario not too distant from GlobalSource’s own reading) if the Arroyo administration decided, as a matter of strategy, not to field an “official” candidate? Who would be the “opposition” then?

My point: The rule of thumb GlobalSource references may not get much of a workout next year. And even if it did, the idea of an “overwhelming majority” should be carefully reconsidered. No post-Marcos president has won even a simple majority of the vote; under our first-past-the-post, no-runoff system, attaining a simple majority has become difficult indeed.

* * *

Dulaang Sibol, the Christian theater group of the Ateneo de Manila University high school, is staging a special show of “Sinta,” Onofre Pagsanghan’s masterpiece of “trans-adaptation,” on March 21, for the benefit of the Sibol Hesus School Foundation.

The following weekend, on March 27, Bart Guingona reprises his acclaimed role in “The Atheist” at Teatrino.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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