Column: Ben Zayb and the possibility of journalism

Column No. 100, published June 30, 2009.

In Rizal’s novels, as in the Harry Potter heptalogy, journalists get a bad press. About a hundred years before J. K. Rowling gave us the “enchantingly nasty” Rita Skeeter, Jose Rizal created the equally inventive Ben Zayb. Or, rather, he transcribed the character from real life, Tolstoy-like. A footnote in the Locsin translation of “Fili” introduces Ben Zayb: “A character based on several Spanish newspapermen who wrote in the Manila newspapers, among them J. F. del Pan,  Francisco Cañamaque, M. Walls y Merino, and others.”

If like me you believe that  “Noli” and  “Fili” are a measure of our progress as a nation—if the indictments still sting, the reality hasn’t changed all that much—then the continuing resonance of Rizal’s low opinion of journalists is a matter of great concern. The Ben Zaybs of the profession continue to multiply, like mushrooms after a rain or tweets after a celebrity death.

Rizal, to be sure, wore a journalist’s hat, too—especially when he wrote those lead articles in La Solidaridad analyzing European political events. But between the writing of  “Noli” (published in 1887) and the writing of “Fili” (published in 1891), his distaste for journalists of the Ben Zayb variety deepened.

At one juncture in  “Noli,” he moves the narrative by reproducing the letter of an unnamed correspondent “from one of Manila’s serious and distinguished newspapers, venerated for its tone and true gravitas.” The letter praising the fiesta in San Diego town begins: “I have never before witnessed, nor did I ever expect to see, in the provinces, a religious festival as solemn, splendid, and moving as the one being celebrated in this town by the very reverend and virtuous Franciscan fathers.” (I am using the Penguin Classics edition.)

The reader of the novel knows, of course, that the reality (described before and after the chapter on correspondence) is just the opposite; impishly, the narrator calls on readers to “rectify any tiny but normal inexactitudes.” But in “Noli,” this fine specimen of colonial journalism merely cuts a ridiculous figure.

In “Fili,” Ben Zayb (the pen name the journalist uses, an anagram of his real name Ibañez) is almost a major character; he even gets an entire chapter all to himself. We first meet him as a passenger on the steamship “Tabo,” where he is described as a “prolific writer” who sees himself as the only real thinker in the entire colony. “Ben Zayb remained silent, half-smiling, perhaps out of respect or because he did not know what answer to give, despite his being the only thinking head in the Philippines!” (This and succeeding quotations are from the Locsin translation.)

But his real sins as a journalist become manifest only as the novel proceeds: he is always in the company of the powerful, he takes part in the manipulation of power—and he writes to sing the praises of or curry favor with the powers-that-be.

When the conspiracy to massacre the colonial administration at the wedding of Paulita Gomez and Juanito Pelaez is discovered, Ben Zayb rushes off to write what he is already thinking of as “the most sublime article that would ever be read under Philippine skies.” He systematically, ideologically, misreads details of the incident: “He interpreted Padre Irene’s [cowardly] act of placing himself under the table as an ‘impulse of innate valor which the vestments of a God of peace and meekness, worn throughout life, had not been able to dim’.” He ends his piece with a farewell to the governor-general, who was returning to Spain: “Go peacefully, brave warrior who with expert hand guided the destinies of this country in such calamitous epochs!” He reacts with practiced cynicism to the government’s decision to impose a news blackout on the incident, and thus on his story: “If only some other crime could be committed tomorrow or the day after.” And when some other crime does surface (a raid by tulisanes on a priests’ retreat), he imagines another epic story; when he is told, by the survivor, of the mundane details, he replies: “It cannot be! Keep quiet … You do not know what it is you say!”

In  “Fili,” the journalist is no longer an object of ridicule, but of outright contempt.

We can guess the reason for the change: After the success of  “Noli” and the launch of “Soli,” Rizal found himself in a war of attrition with the Ben Zaybs of real life.

They continue, even today, to occupy the strategic high ground: journalists who are players themselves. All journalists cultivate access, but journalist-players are members of the inner circle; all journalists seek the inside story, but journalist-players are insiders themselves; all journalists chase the facts, but journalist-players make the news and define the facts to be chased.

Rizal, in contrast: Can he be considered a real journalist? He wrote polemical novels, argued in print, served an overarching cause as a controversialist. He had “a point of view.” Doesn’t all that disqualify him?

In my view, much of Rizal’s work for “Soli” was in fact journalism: dedicated to the truth, concerned with public interest, verifiable and, above all, independent.

Not neutral, but independent. The distinction is crucial; otherwise there would be no such thing as opinion journalism. “Editorialists and opinion journalists,” we read in “The Elements of Journalism,” “are not neutral. Their credibility is rooted instead in the same dedication to accuracy, verification, the larger public interest, and a desire to inform that all other journalists subscribe to.” In other words, journalists need not be neutral, without a point of view. They only need to be independent of the people they cover.

They cannot, like Ben Zayb, play the game.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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