Column: Betrayed by the New York Times

Published on March 23, 2010. After this came out in the newspaper, a friend asked me online: Are you still friends with Caloy (Conde, the NYT’s Philippine correspondent)? My answer, then as now, almost four months later, is the same: Why ever not? We both believe in robust public discourse.

My apologies, in advance. The column title above is a shameless attempt at a rhetorical stunt: to show a form of the so-called media filter at work.

Headlines, you see, are an information-compression device. A headline packs an entire story, or more, into a few words. But who was it who said that to summarize was to betray? Sometimes a headline, or a column or a report, or even an entire series, can betray the truth itself, by giving a distorted picture of the subject of the coverage or commentary. A reader who has time to read only today’s column title may likely end up with a distorted picture of the column’s thesis or of the column itself.

Distortion can come in many forms; in the case of the recent New York Times article on Hacienda Luisita, written by Norimitsu Onishi, an Inquirer editorial last week sounded the alarm.

It urged Fernando Cojuangco, the cousin of presidential candidate Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and the chief operating officer of the holding company that owns Luisita, to either own up to or altogether disown the “blockbuster sound bites” attributed to him in the Times story; it also noted, however, that “the story fell markedly short of the Times’ usually rigorous standards. We say this because the story purported to give an overall perspective on both agrarian reform and the Luisita estate, but depended chiefly on sources known, at least in the Philippines, to be unsympathetic to the Aquinos or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program itself.”

I am of the same mind. I found myself disappointed (not betrayed!) by the story, because of its sourcing, and because it paints a portrait of a contentious issue using only one color (so to speak) in the reporter’s palette. Because these problematic sources were not properly identified (the standard remedy for so-called “polluted sources”), the mainly American audience the story was written for (it also appeared on the front page of the Times-owned International Herald Tribune) could not possibly be expected to appreciate the story’s limitations. (Not that, like any other member of the working press, I am unaware of my own.)

The story was filed by the Times’ bureau chief for Southeast Asia. (I gather that Norimitsu Onishi is a Japan-born Canadian journalist and, judging by the discussion on the “talk page” of his own Wikipedia entry, a controversial figure in his own right.)

The editorial referred to the use of one source, Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano, to substantiate the story’s most sweeping claim: “Most farmers’ groups, scholars and businessmen question the department’s figures,” referring to the land distribution statistics offered by the Department of Agrarian Reform. The story used another source, UP professor Roland Simbulan, to substantiate another blanket statement: “What is more, lawmakers, most of whom come from large landowning families, included loopholes in the program, critics say.”

As I argued in a Facebook “Note”: “Nothing wrong with this per se, but both the gallant Mariano and the cerebral Simbulan are known in this country (but crucially, not by the story’s predominantly American audience) as unsympathetic to either the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program or the owners of Hacienda Luisita or both. Many of us reading the story in the Philippines will get that; many American readers won’t.”

My good friend Caloy Conde, the Philippine correspondent for the New York Times, has responded to my online posts. Furthered by an insightful posting from Inday Espina-Varona, the Philippine Graphic’s editor in chief, the online exchange of ideas has been instructive, to say the least.

Allow me to speak directly to two of the issues raised in that (continuing) exchange, and to quote some parts without, it is my earnest hope, offending sensibilities or betraying confidences.

No one is above criticism. In responding to my first post, Caloy wrote: “One-sided? The story may seem sympathetic to the farmers but it is not one-sided. (Well, it may sound one-sided only to those who do not like its point.)” I hope I have misunderstood Caloy, but the way that parenthesis is framed suggests to me only one possible interpretation. As I wrote in my Note: “Let’s start with the basics. No newspaper or media organization is above criticism. This may sound like a belaboring of the blindingly obvious, but Caloy’s first parenthetical remark— ‘(Well, it may sound one-sided only to those who do not like its point.)’—suggests that he thinks the NYT story cannot be questioned on journalistic grounds, that only ‘those who do not like its point’ will criticize it. Surely this is a mistake.” (Unfortunately, I can no longer find Caloy’s reply to this first point.)

The critic’s own shortcomings do not negate his criticism. “The Inquirer, of course, does not pretend to be even remotely infallible. Hence, the correction box, the active letters page, the independent opinion section, the readers’ councils, the weekly mea culpa sessions, etc.” But some may see in this a lack of qualification on the part of the Inquirer to conduct any form of media criticism. Indeed, by pointing out the one-sidedness of the sourcing, the newspaper’s editorial may have given the impression that it was engaged in “ideological nitpicking.”

I can only reply with a quote from Inday. “I’d be more careful calling people ideological nit-pickers, especially when they’re people and newspapers that have also given some sympathetic play—fire and brimstone editorials included—to the Left. Even the best of friends will disagree some times. That does not automatically make them enemies.”

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

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