Column: “Shadow of Doubt”: Dissenting opinion

The first of a two-part review of the must-read book of the year. Published on March 30, 2010.

On the copyright page of “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court,” Marites Vitug’s must-read book-length investigation of the Supreme Court, we find an inadvertent change in the subtitle. SHADOW OF DOUBT, we read, and underneath it: PROVING THE SUPREME COURT.

I think the case can be made that typographical errors are publishing’s equivalent of movie-making’s continuity gaffes, which Graham Greene, in a previous incarnation as film critic, and channelling Jean Renoir (I think it was), referred to as part of the unconscious poetry of films. I certainly like the accidental, new subtitle. It tells us what we need to know about the book: it “proves” the Court, in the sense of trying and testing it.

“Shadow of Doubt” seeks to lift the veil on the workings of the Supreme Court, and for her work Marites should be commended. Of course, the libel suit filed by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, for articles that she had written beforehand, is itself a kind of commendation. Indeed, I think a great many of the hundreds who made it to the book launch last March 16 went because (a) they were under the impression that the libel suit was against the book or (b) they wanted to show their support for Marites, precisely because of the libel suit.

I cannot praise the book highly enough, but I must be completely candid and say I do have some reservations about it. These reservations do not, in any way, diminish the significance of the book or the in-depth reporting that went into it. I thought, borrowing the conceit of legal language, I might devote much of today’s column to a dissenting opinion, as it were. Next week, the concurring opinion follows.

First, traces of the rush with which parts of the book were written remain. To cite just one example: On page 88, in the fourth paragraph, the club Velasco plays tennis in is introduced to the reader: “the Philippine Columbian, a members-only club in Manila.” Two paragraphs later, it is introduced again: “the Philippine Columbian, a historic social club in Manila.”

Second, some of the allegations, especially a number involving Chief Justice Reynato Puno, are weakly presented. To cite one instance: On page 152, in the first paragraph, we read, “During this time [the Ramos attempt to change the Constitution], Puno, an appointee of President Ramos to the Court, was said to have provided a legal brief on people’s initiative to Malacañang, crossing ethical boundaries.” Was said to? A major allegation like this, in a book of substance, needs, not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, but better sourcing.

Third, some of the justices’ thinking is, perhaps the word is not mischaracterized, but insufficiently understood. One example: On page 151, then-Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban’s position on mining is given the benefit of a dubious parallelism. “Panganiban would maintain that his mining decision fell within his advocacy for prosperity … His belief happened to jibe with the government’s position.” But what of it? Is opposition to the government’s position the standard by which we measure a judge’s personal philosophy?

Last, and most important, the best-written chapter is also the weakest. “Mortal Combat” narrates the battle over the Judiciary Development Fund, which led to the unprecedented (but ultimately unsuccessful) impeachment of a sitting chief justice, Hilario Davide Jr., on Oct. 23, 2003. The chapter privileges the version of events of then-Rep. Wimpy Fuentebella. It paints the Nationalist People’s Coalition as having been drawn into the conflict—instead of, as I and many other journalists continue to believe, having played the driving role from the start.

Not least, the chapter fails to reflect the role that the media played in the crisis and its resolution. The Philippine Daily Inquirer alone published 15 editorials in the 19 days between Oct. 23 and Nov. 11 (the day after the Supreme Court ruled on the issue). Was this important? The NPC members certainly thought so. They visited the newsroom to debate the issue; they told our House reporters so. And Davide certainly thought so. After the crisis, he wrote an extraordinary letter to the editor, thanking the newspaper for its support—and itemizing each of the editorials that gave him hope.

In including the Davide case as part of the pattern of the judiciary’s lack of transparency, I think Marites does what Rizal did to Morga: She tried to prove too much.

* * *

The New York Times has followed up its damning story on Hacienda Luisita with a profile of Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. I suppose Aquino supporters will be mollified, somewhat, by the largely positive portrait. Call me obtuse, but I think the story, again written by Norimitsu Onishi, the Times’ Southeast Asia bureau chief, again falls short of that newspaper’s usual standards. The “Saturday profile” would have been the best time to sketch in the looming shadow cast by Luisita, or insert a timely quote or two from Aquino’s critics on the Left. Again, I am assuming that the journalistic objective was to paint a rounded picture. But except for a line about legacy from Cenpeg’s Bobby Tuazon, and a generic reference to “his extended family’s interests” (of value only online, because of the link provided, but a pious generalization to readers of the print version), Noynoy essentially had the field to himself.

Well, there is also, in one instance, a bit of perhaps unconscious condescension on the reporter’s part, when he wrote that Aquino spoke “without referring to notes or consulting with any aides.” (Try inserting that characterization about, say, Barack Obama or Richard Gordon!)

1 Comment

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

One response to “Column: “Shadow of Doubt”: Dissenting opinion

  1. Pingback: Column: “Shadow of Doubt”: Concurring opinion « Newsstand

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