Column: Corrupt journalists

Published on November 20, 2012.

Earlier this month, four columnists (two from the Star, one from Manila Standard Today, and one from Malaya Business Insight) were observed using the same talking points—the term of art is “column feed”—to attack Sen. Franklin Drilon and his proposal for higher “sin taxes” on tobacco and alcohol.

As a quick search on Google would show, the columnists shared not only the same point of view or the same angle of attack, but also the same language: Three of the columns, for instance, described Drilon as having “a hard time keeping up with his colleagues.” Two columns had two almost identical and consecutive paragraphs, with telltale idiomatic twists giving the game away: “put Drilon on the hotspot fielding queries;” “appeared to be also grasping at straws.”

But was it corruption? No one doubts that there is an aggressive tobacco lobby, which favors the tax plan originally proposed by Drilon’s predecessor as Senate ways and means committee chair, Sen. Ralph Recto; did the concerted column-writing mean the lobby had reached out to the columnists?

And even if it did, was the outreach necessarily corrupt? Journalists attend briefings and take meetings and conduct interviews all the time; is, say, a press conference a form of corruption?
I do not mean to complicate the discussion; the reality is complicated, and teasing out the ambiguity is necessary work.

But this is not to say that the four columnists (one of whom explained the almost-miraculous coincidence in language and perspective to online reporter Angela Casauay as the result of journalists “who regularly play golf together”) don’t have some explaining to do. At the very least, they need to clarify how, Tito Sotto-like, they came to use, in their voice, someone else’s words.

For this reason alone, I hope all four columnists will take part in the ninth Media Nation conference this weekend. An annual opportunity for journalists from various organizations and working in various platforms to talk shop, to dwell on concerns held in common, Media Nation has inspired both new media activity (for instance, Che-Che Lazaro’s Media in Focus, which ran on ANC for several years) and the occasional review of organizational practices.

And for the first time, the annual conference will be turning its collective gaze on corruption in the media. Not an easy subject, but with the 2013 midterm elections only a few months away, a timely and necessary one.

* * *

The Media Nation conference in Tagaytay City will be bookended by two keynote addresses. On Friday, Nov. 23, President Aquino will open the conference. As he has done on at least four other occasions, he is expected to speak plainly with and to talk tough to the media; I have heard at least one Cabinet secretary say that Mr. Aquino sees it as part of his responsibility as head of state to “educate media.”

As the date is the third anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, I would expect the President to pay tribute to the fallen, but devote most of his time to explaining why the Freedom of Information bill has languished in Congress. If he will attempt to explain his recent notion that journalists will have nothing to fear from the “right of reply” proposal, he will find a respectful but absolutely unsympathetic audience.

The event will end with an address by Lech Walesa, the iconic founder of the Solidarity labor movement, who tangled with his country’s media when he served as Poland’s president.

* * *

When I started reading Denis Murphy’s commentary yesterday proposing the late Jesse Robredo as a modern-day saint, the surprise I felt (the shock of the truly new idea) quickly gave way to sympathy and appreciation. Blessed Jesse Robredo? Now that’s a thought.

To be sure, Murphy was making a nuanced suggestion, at once out of the blue and (like his own work among the urban poor) down to earth. He asked: “Will the Church canonize brave young people like Pedro [Calungsod] who know nothing of our modern world and little of their own world, or will it honor mature men and women of this age who have mastered the modern world’s sciences, systems, technologies and disciplines for good ends and still possess a heart and a mind for our traditional faith, and a mind and a heart for the poor?”

This is not a false choice, because, as Murphy writes, the world needs both kinds of saint. But the possibility that a married man, a long-time public official at that, could have lived a moral life of heroic virtue is tonic, for both the Filipino Catholic faithful and the Catholic church itself.

The suggestion reminded me of something I came across in my research on the Southeast Asian legacy of Jose Rizal. The hero’s personal conduct had led many to imagine him, if not a Catholic saint, then a moral statesman worthy of emulation.

A report in the April 6, 1907, issue of the British Medical Journal, for example, gave its readers a belated look at the life and death of an accomplished physician, who ended up choosing the martyr’s path. The report’s title: “St. Joseph Rizal, M.D.”

I realize this is not the sort of sainthood that Murphy has in mind. But it makes me think that the people may be ready for Murphy’s idea: mature men and women of the age, who have mastered the modern world, and yet “still possess a heart and a mind for our traditional faith, and a mind and a heart for the poor.”


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