Column: Tough but fair: The Inquirer debate

I did not realize, before I wrote this particular column, that I would be asked later in the week to write “teasers” about the debate for the front page. if I had known, perhaps I would have decided differently. Published on February 2, 2010.

Allow me to write about the sense of growing excitement shared by the many people working behind “Inquirer 1st Edition: The Presidential Debate.” Since Friday, hundreds of Philippine Daily Inquirer and INQUIRER.net readers have been submitting to the newspaper the questions they would like posed before the candidates. On Monday, campaign staff representing eight presidential candidacies were formally briefed on the process flow and logistics of the candidates’ forum. (A ninth was invited but could not make it.) And on Wednesday and on three other occasions this week, various panelists will meet to practice for the event, which takes place on Monday, Feb. 8, at the University of the Philippines.

The newspaper has partnered with other media organizations to conduct election debates in the past and it will continue to do so in the future. Indeed, it will partner with the GMA television network for the last major presidential debate, I think in late April. But for the first time in 25 years of existence, the Inquirer will host a presidential debate by itself.

“By itself” is relative; the newspaper is co-presenting the forum with Globe Telecoms, in cooperation with the UP College of Mass Communication and 14 partner organizations (such as the Philippine Nursing Association and the League of Corporate Foundations). But for the first time, it has determined the format of the debate, and the structure of participation, by itself.

This is not to say that the event is exclusive to the Inquirer. On the contrary, it is open to all media. (A part of the hall will even be converted into a nook for live-bloggers or Tweeters, who can take advantage of the free wifi.)

As for the panelists: Five columnists and four editors are taking part in the debate, forming three panels of three interviewers each. There is one panel for law and politics (accommodating the country’s foremost constitutionalist, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. and former UP law dean and Harvard Law professor Raul Pangalangan); another one for “social issues” (moderated by leading columnist Rina Jimenez-David and including pioneering anthropologist Michael Tan of UP); and a third for economics and the budget (with former NEDA secretary-general Cielito Habito and opinion editor Jorge Aruta).

They are the taskmasters of what we would like to think is the “toughest test” of the 2010 election season. Tough but fair.

* * *

This may be a good time to discuss the question of fairness. Is the Inquirer fair to the presidential candidates? Sometimes the question is phrased more pointedly: Is the Inquirer biased for Sen. Noynoy Aquino?

I do not speak for the Inquirer, of course, so what follows is my personal view. But the attentive reader will recognize that many of the points I will raise are standard to the profession, and thus shared by many of my colleagues.

In the first place, the tradition of political endorsement the Inquirer follows (other mainstream Philippine newspapers too) is the exact opposite of that of US newspapers like the New York Times. The paper does not endorse candidates; subject to certain limitations, however, it is the opinion columnists who can, or do.

Secondly, the question of bias in favor of the Aquino candidacy arose because of at least three factors: the newspaper’s coverage of Cory Aquino’s death, its treatment of Noynoy’s declaration of intent and (not least) the presence of some Inquirer columnists in (some may even say their prescience about) the Noynoy bandwagon.

* * *

The death of Cory Aquino was covered extensively by the Inquirer; the newspaper even paid the icon of democracy the rare tribute of changing its color to Cory yellow. But (my view) this was as it should be. There would be no press freedom to speak of, or newspapers and radio stations and TV networks and online sites to do the speaking, if Cory had not made the democratic restoration possible. But even from the first day of the coverage, the newspaper did not hide the fact that it had had major differences of opinion with Cory and her administration. Most famously, on the US bases treaty, the newspaper thought then and still thinks now that Cory was on the wrong side of history. But as I understand it, this newspaper, born in haste, in December 1985, as a response to the sudden announcement of a “snap election,” carries the imprint of the thousand days between Ninoy Aquino’s assassination and the Edsa revolution in its very DNA. That explains its prickliness about abuse of power, its defense of democracy.

The paired decisions of Sen. Mar Roxas, to set aside his presidential ambition in favor of Noynoy’s, and of the young Aquino, to respond to the first real presidential draft in recent memory, made for compelling copy. In other words, it was an extraordinary news story, and it wasn’t only the Inquirer that saw it as such. Thus (in my view) this was as it should be, at least in the second half of August and the first week of September. Since then, except for one instance related to (indeed, caused by) the “Ondoy” emergency, the newspaper has covered the Aquino candidacy as any news professional sharing the same news judgment would.

The Inquirer’s opinion pages are known for their “fearless views.” Some views are fearless precisely because they outpace public opinion, may indeed help shape it. But a professional distance is observed between the news pages and the opinion section; ever since I can remember, the newspaper has followed the American tradition of a strict news/opinion divide. In other words, the opinion columns do not shape the news coverage. (The opposite, however, happens all the time.)

My point: “Inquirer 1st Edition: The Presidential Debate,” the first debate of the official campaign period, reflects the newspaper as it really is. Tough but fair.

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

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