Published on July 31, 2012.
President Aquino is wrong to think that the fundamental nature of news has changed. But he is entirely in the right when he calls journalists to account according to journalism’s own standards. Unless, of course, journalists think those standards are only meant to be paid lip service.
“Negativity” in the news—the word the President used in his remarks at BusinessWorld’s 25th anniversary rites last Friday—has become the shorthand defining what an ABS-CBN story online would later call his “scolding spree” against the media, even though the real controversy erupted only after the President directly criticized ABS-CBN anchor Noli de Castro at the 25th anniversary party of the iconic “TV Patrol” newscast, later that same Friday.
As he did in his third State of the Nation Address, Mr. Aquino certainly sought to draw attention to what he described as an excessive obsession with the negative, this time by zeroing in on the media. In his “TV Patrol” remarks, he said in Filipino: “If Juan de la Cruz’s nightly fare is bad news, then his heart and mind will really waste away from lack of hope.” On this point, it is easy to sympathize with the President, but hard to agree with him.
The news, unfortunately, has an affinity with the negative; that is merely the nature of the beast. Tens of thousands of airplanes take off and land every single day; that is not news. A single crash fills the airwaves and the front pages.
But that was not all the President said at the “TV Patrol” party. He also, and controversially, took De Castro to task, not so much for negativity, but really for betraying the principles of journalism; he accused the former vice president, more popularly known as “Kabayan,” of baseless speculation, irresponsible commentary and unacknowledged bias. (I have written once before on “Our Kabayan problem,” on May 31 last year to be exact, for some of the same reasons.)
It should come as no surprise that my colleagues in media are divided on the President’s conduct. On rappler.com, the redoubtable Chay Hofileña explained why the criticism of De Castro was inevitable. In a Facebook post, the estimable J. Alwyn Alburo called the President’s attack on De Castro disturbing, linked it with the criticism of media practices he also aired at the BusinessWorld anniversary and before the Philippine Press Institute last April—and wondered why watchdog news organizations should persist in inviting “the enemy” to mark journalism milestones.
My own instinctive reaction is: If we can dish out criticism, we should be able to take it.
An insult? Some journalists have criticized the President’s attack on De Castro as improper, because it was made in the wrong forum or on the wrong occasion. This criticism makes an elaborate home in the usual analogy of hospitality: When you are a guest, you do not criticize your hosts. Aside from reinforcing the unfortunate household fallacy that circulates in public discourse (e.g., managing an economy is exactly like managing a household), it also entangles some of the President’s journalist-critics in a bind: That means they actually expect him and other public officials invited to these milestones to offer only feel-good inanities.
But really: Is there a better time for any organization to measure itself against its founding vision than during its anniversary? I thought Mr. Aquino’s repeated invocation of BusinessWorld founder Raul Locsin’s “guiding light,” and his enumeration of the many qualities of “TV Patrol” that have endeared it to its public, was deeply appropriate, because these served as the benchmarks of his critique.
A spree? It has quickly become conventional wisdom to say that the President’s scolding spree began only recently. It didn’t. On Dec. 1, 2010, only five months in office, Mr. Aquino served as the guest of honor at the Inquirer’s own 25th anniversary rites. He gave a provocative speech, which was both generous (he praised the Inquirer’s role in history) and critical (he expressed occasional bewilderment at its news judgment, and asked all journalists, “our guardians against corruption,” to condemn “those from their own ranks who try to exert a corrupt influence on the government”).
In fact, I think it is already possible to see a real pattern of advocacy here; President Aquino sees it as part of his mandate to remind the media of its own, overriding responsibilities. We may disagree with this self-chosen role or its limits, but there it is. As he told the men and women of BusinessWorld: “[O]ur entire country is on a mission to change the behavior in our institutions—and media is not exempt from that.”
An enemy? Is the head of government the enemy of watchdog news organizations? That would be to cast the media’s necessarily adversarial role in public discourse in starker terms; journalists, after all, are citizens too. There is certainly something to be said against the pervasive habit of inviting top officials to mark our anniversaries. But in our system, the head of government is also the head of state, and we are part of the nation he represents.
This is not an issue of press freedom; I do not sense any kind of dictation or coercion, simply the (often ineffective) moral suasion of the bully pulpit. At the Inquirer anniversary a year and a half ago, the President vented his frustrations, and then said: “You chronicled the clamor for me to seek the presidency, yet after reading your paper, I sometimes feel that I’m losing even more of my hair. But, and may I emphasize: that is how it should be. You are not here to praise me. You are here to be fair to me, to the Filipino people, and to be true to yourself and to your vocation.”
This, I think, is exactly the kind of criticism journalism needs.