Today’s column. Considering my many friends in the ABS-CBN newsroom, not exactly easy to write. But as one of them pledged, All is fair indeed in love and war. Published on January 5, 2010.
I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD, RUNS ONE typical comment in one of the many available YouTube versions. Watching ABS-CBN’s “Ako ang Simula” music video, we can easily see why. It is catchy, powerful, unforgettable. It is also wrong.
It blurs, in the name of good citizenship, the already heavily smudged line between journalism and entertainment.
I have many friends in the ABS-CBN newsroom, and its trio of leaders—Maria Ressa, Charie Villa and Glenda Gloria—I both know and admire. I am also quite aware that, under Maria’s management, the ABS-CBN newsroom has fought a difficult but largely successful battle to recover its sense of professionalism after the vertigo of the Estrada years. I have also written, in this space and elsewhere, about seeing this sense of professionalism at work in ABS-CBN and its cable showcase, ABS-CBN News Channel. (I have enjoyed the opportunity to think, or mumble, on air, as a guest of several shows on ANC.)
One more thing: I know the tireless Arlene Burgos and like both the premise and the conduct of the Boto Mo Patrol Mo campaign she manages for the network, and which is directly related, as source to water, to the “Ako ang Simula” (I am the Beginning, or It Begins with Me) music video.
It is for these reasons that I found their singing-acting participation in the video deeply upsetting.
Watching the video the first time several weeks ago, I had a vague sense of unease. I was swept away by the visual narrative, but something held me back. It took several random viewings before I could put my finger on it. Then it hit me: The video makes no distinction between the tres Marias and other news journalists, who all can be seen and heard singing, and the professional singers, like the inimitable Bayang Barrios, who punctuate the video. Perhaps that was, in fact, the point of it all. But this inclusiveness is dangerous, because it sends the message that journalism is a mere subset of entertainment.
Let me be even more specific. I realized, over time, that I was disturbed by the images of my friends and colleagues taking part in the video as singers or actors—and even more upset that their participation was entirely unnecessary. Would the music video have worked without Charie hunched on the train and humming, without Pia Hontiveros leading a chorus of other journalists, without Maria and Glenda singing and staring directly into the camera? I think so.
Obviously, the decision was made, perhaps by the director (Paolo Villaluna) or the executive producer (my colleague-in-columny Pat Evangelista), to include the journalists in the song-and-dance too. (I’m not sure if I want to know what the reasoning process was like.)
But the ABS-CBN network has already come under fire for the celebrity news shows it airs every night and on weekends. These shows deal largely in faux or manufactured news; more damaging from the point of view of an emerging democracy, they devour scarce time and resources that could have gone to feed legitimate news programs.
There’s the rub. The “Ako ang Simula” music video is a product of this same entertainment culture. It not only treats the news anchors like the mass media celebrities they are; it treats even news executives as though they were entertainers too. Indeed, and here for me lies indisputable proof, over the Christmas holidays the music video was easily mistaken for the network’s traditional celebrity-driven plug. (We can also ask ourselves, Did Ed Murrow sing for CBS?)
“Ako ang Simula,” it seems to me, is a dead end for Philippine journalism.
* * *
Newsroom thoughts at the start of a new year: Hedley Donovan succeeded Henry Luce as Time editor in chief, and it was under his management that Time reached the peak of its journalistic reputation. In 1989, he wrote a characteristically self-effacing memoir, the first chapter of which listed a handful of “working rules” in “managing the unmanageable”—that is, the “intellectuals” (very broadly defined; he could have used “creatives” and the effect would have been the same) who constituted the Time group’s most important assets. Two excerpts:
“Bossing intellectuals is a high calling: The individual who undertakes this job is seeking to organize/improve/protect an environment in which creative people can do something close to their best work. Creative people may not always be so grateful as their boss thinks they should be. All the many ways that employees can be suspicious, resentful, or critical of the boss are accentuated when the employees are intellectuals. They can be temperamental, cantankerous … But it is still true that one of the greatest possible executive satisfactions is to feel you have helped bring out or bring along an intellectual talent. Sensitively managed, even large and complex organizations can stimulate and liberate creative individuals.”
“Don’t be stingy with criticism: It goes without saying that the manager must be generous with praise, but the judicious application of criticism to very touchy people is more challenging work. There are three messages that must be implicit in successful criticism of intellectuals. First, you can do better work than this; in fact, some of this is very good; I just wish more of it were as good as the best of it. Second, the same standards are being applied to your peers. And last, I myself want to be held, by you and others, to these standards.”