Column: Criticizing journalists, continued

More on the Mai Mislang affair and its implications for the practice of journalism. Published on November 9, 2010.

Tonight, sometime past 10:30 or so, TV5 will air an episode of “Journo” discussing the controversy over Assistant Secretary Carmen Mislang’s insensitive, undiplomatic tweets on Vietnamese wine, men and (the motorcycle) throng. My column last week prompted the producers and the program host Luchi Cruz Valdes to include me in the discussion. It is not a talk show, so how it will turn out is a mystery to me. I understand that other columnists and bloggers were interviewed too: my friend Billy Esposo from the Star, Connie Veneracion from the Standard Today and Jove Francisco, the reporter, anchor and pioneer blogger from TV5.

I am only too acutely aware that a writer does not exercise full control over his words in a TV interview; allow me then to reiterate some of the points I sought to make, albeit in a more organized fashion.

Let me begin with last week’s column. What did I say, exactly? I’ve shoehorned the summary into the form of a syllogism, one each for the two main arguments.

First major premise: Mislang committed a major mistake. “There is no question that Mislang’s tweets were bad diplomacy.” First minor premise: Mislang should be sanctioned. “Perhaps the appropriate sanction would have been a reprimand, and a decision to leave her out of official delegations in the future.” First conclusion: The
“unexpected vehemence of the opinion of many journalists” calling for her
resignation was a disproportionate reaction.

Second major premise: Journalists “labor in an error-prone profession.” Second minor premise: They should grant to others “what we in the media expect our audience to give us on a daily basis: the benefit of the doubt.” Second conclusion: Journalists “need a greater sense of proportion.”

I rather doubt that I was able to put these points across as clearly as I could have; perhaps I can borrow that convention speechwriters use and which reporters are familiar with, and say: Please check against delivery!

It was a wide-ranging interview; I would like to sharpen the points I tried to make by addressing the most common or most compelling arguments against my position.

The argument from immaturity. This, perhaps the most frequently cited reason for President Aquino to force Mislang’s resignation or to fire her, seems to me to actually consist of two related propositions. Either her “snooty and ignorant” tweets were a major diplomatic embarrassment, or they reflect a disqualifying incompetence, or both. But I argued that in fact the consequences of Mislang’s faux pas were minor; Vietnam displayed a surer sense of self and shrugged the whole thing off. As for Mislang’s merits as a speechwriter, I have no basis to pass
judgment; I don’t know which speeches she ghosted. But I did say this: Teddy
Locsin was caught in a worse display of immaturity; Cory Aquino had to tell him
to apologize after flashing the dirty finger at a crowd of protesters. But is there any doubt that Locsin was the best presidential speechwriter in our history?

The argument from equivalence is exemplified by the claim of Malaya’s redoubtable Ellen Tordesillas, who equated President Aquino’s absolution of Mislang’s mistake with his refusal to let Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno resign despite the jueteng controversy his close friend had found himself involved in. As I said in the hour-long interview, this is false equivalence. Mislang’s mistake was tactless and intemperate, but was at best peripheral to her job. Puno’s was central to his (unusual) appointment as the civilian official in charge of the entire national police. He admitted entertaining feelers from jueteng lords, and then doing nothing.  If journalists treat these mistakes as essentially the same, then we really
have lost our sense of proportion.

The argument from factionalism. A producer told me that, in response to my observation about Billy Esposo’s take on the Mislang controversy (It’s “a PR job,” I said more or less, for the Samar faction in the Aquino administration), Billy reportedly replied that this was only to be expected since I belonged to the opposing “Balay” faction. I hope Billy was misquoted, because this is news to me. Billy and I have something in common: We both did not vote for Mar Roxas. More, I have written before about the sense of superiority and superciliousness that
sometimes came all too easily to Roxas in the Senate. Isn’t the basis for
“membership” in the Balay group—as Billy among others have repeatedly
alleged—loyalty to Roxas? I have written at least one column that defended the
argument advanced by someone identified with the Samar group (for which I got
grateful e-mail). Did that make me a Samar member that week? The truth is, I am
just a journalist following stories where they lead.

The argument from idealism. This is probably the most powerful argument for firing Mislang; it was raised, among others, by producer Booma Cruz, after the interview. We would all like to have only the best people working for us; more so if it’s the President’s staff we’re talking about. I agree, but I also think that excellence thrives not only in a competitive environment, but in a fair one. This brings me back to the original question I raised last week: “When, I would like to know, did my profession adopt the one-strike policy?” Such a policy is not idealistic at
all, because it fails to recognize what many journalists have benefited from:
error as a spectrum. Some of the best journalists I know have recovered from
mistakes that would have been immediately disqualifying if Twitter had been
around.

To these and similar arguments, I proposed one counter-argument from unintended consequences. Officials with a Twitter account are a good thing; by pouncing on every error as fatal and final, do we really want to discourage them from tweeting?

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

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