Column: Media can be wrong too

Got a whole lot of feedback on this column, which was published on July 13, 2010. Quite a few of the letters seemed to have used the column as permission to bash away at the media; many others were more thoughtful, reflective.

Journalists have been in the news lately, and not always in a good way. I think, for instance, of the redoubtable Ellen Tordesillas, a reporter-blogger I admire, tangling with Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo. “Tangle” may not even be the right word to describe her encounter with the country’s chief diplomat. She argued with Romulo, passionately and even heatedly, in a news conference called by the Department of Foreign Affairs, about the legality of retaining political envoys for a few more months. Romulo sought to put an end to the discussion by talking about judgment calls: This is mine; deal with it. (He did say it more diplomatically.)

Ellen defended her conduct as professional: It’s part of my job, she said.

Was it? A reporter engaging in a debate with a source does not seem to me to be good journalism (but, of course, it certainly made for good copy). I do not mean reporters should act as though they were mere stenographers; they should certainly vet a source’s facts and positions. They should certainly be perceived as professionally skeptical (that is the right philosophical attitude, I think, when it comes to journalistic conduct). They should certainly not be treated as mere, value-free transmitters of the news. But they should not insist on their view of things—they are not, after all, the subject of the news.

That, I think, is what the feisty Ellen tried to do during that briefing (at least as I caught it on TV and seen it reflected in print and online stories): Insist on her perspective. That opened the door for Romulo to say, with some justification, that he had retained the ambassadors temporarily because it was his considered judgment.

* * *

Ex-journalist Carol Espiritu has also been in the news, as the facilitator of the media handling seminars President Benigno Aquino III ordered for his Cabinet. Her approach, at least as summarized the other day in her brother Billy Esposo’s column, follows an unimpeachable logic. But something she said after the first, much-publicized workshop, as (again) reported in the newspapers, caught my attention. She warned Noynoy against accidental excitement.

“We don’t want Noynoy to lose that spontaneity, the candor, that openness, which endeared him to a lot of people. But at the same time, I have to tell him as I tell the Cabinet secretaries, that we want to be intentionally exciting. We do not want to be accidentally exciting.”

I may be over-reading, but I thought her words were in fact a subtle putdown of President Aquino’s conduct during his first regularly scheduled news conference, which was regarded by many as almost as character-revealing as his post-proclamation briefing (where, among other things, he told Gen. Delfin Bangit it was time to go). In other words, I read her words as a vote of no confidence in Noynoy’s abilities. Can you imagine a press adviser to US President Barack Obama offering the same advice thru American reporters?

Both experience and statistical probability are on Carol’s side, of course. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before an expansive President, holding forth in yet another no-holds-barred forum, puts his foot in his mouth. But did Carol have to air the warning so publicly? In other words, Carol’s aside (to an Inquirer reporter!) turned into something that was itself accidentally exciting.

Even PR practitioners need to follow their own advice.

* * *

In the heady first weeks of the second Aquino presidency, the indispensable journalist Inday Espina-Varona offered “unsolicited tips” to the new government on the vexing matter of media relations. They are, for the most part, practical lessons I agree with or have learned from. But her eighth tip I found a bit worrying.

It was written, I am certain, with the monitory example of presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda’s exchange of Facebook comments with the self-styled “Juana Change.”

“When the President calls you his alter ego, he means that your face, your words and actions represent him. Until he says it’s okay to start representing your friends, DON’T. Not even if you adore them. And friends, do your loyal pal a favor by explaining that you’re big enough men and women to do your own fighting—unless you’re not, then get out of there.”

Seemly advice, for the most part, except that I found myself questioning its basic premise. Does a presidential spokesman in fact represent his principal in everything that he does? The idea that Lacierda’s defense of the Abads, in a Facebook comment thread, necessarily implicated President Aquino suggests that those following the exchange, and journalists covering it, could not distinguish between Lacierda’s person and his official persona. But in fact they did; I cannot imagine anyone thinking that Lacierda’s rather intemperate response to the self-evidently self-important “Juana Change” carried Noynoy’s sanction.

I realize, of course, that it is possible to deliberately mistake person for persona (or vice versa). In this sense, I agree with my good friend Inday. Spokespersons must take greater care in their interventions. But I do not recall any principle in journalism that turns this self-restraint into an absolute.

* * *

In all three instances above, I may actually be the one in the wrong. That’s okay, too, and I would appreciate criticism that points this out. Indeed, rereading the preceding paragraphs, I realize I have ended up defending three officials of the new administration. I did not set out to do that; perhaps it’s my own assumptions I need to revisit?

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

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