Column: When a watchdog turns lazy

In which I express my disappointment, in one particular instance, with the CMFR; published on May 28, 2013.

Jeers to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) for flagrantly misrepresenting a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial, and substituting lazy memory for careful research.

On April 30, CMFR published a critique of a front-page Inquirer error. In “Another Inquirer ‘mistake’,” the media watchdog took the newspaper to task for attributing a Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) statement—on the April 20 New People’s Army attack that wounded Gingoog Mayor Ruth Guingona and killed her driver and her bodyguard—to the party-list group Bayan Muna.

There is no question that the attribution was a mistake—something which the Inquirer’s online edition corrected as soon as it could. I am not too certain though whether the other “flagrant inaccuracies” CMFR cites are mistakes in the same category. Did the statement clear the NPA of extortion, for instance, as alleged by reporter Nikko Dizon? All journalists are taught to go beyond “stenography,” meaning one should not merely repeat a source’s statement, but report it in the right context. That is a principle even CMFR teaches. That was what Dizon did; she brought in the context.

Bayan’s Renato Reyes had said: “It is not surprising too that the Armed Forces of the Philippines says that the NPA checkpoint was done because of the alleged refusal of Mayor Guingona to pay campaign fees to the NPA. This is meant to make the incident appear as a case of plain extortion, detached from the bigger picture which is the ongoing civil war and the stalled peace negotiations between the GPH and NDFP.” Using this very passage, Dizon reported as follows: “Renato Reyes… dismissed military claims that the New People’s Army (NPA) attack on the convoy of Mayor Ruth Guingona was a ‘case of plain extortion.’ ‘It is detached from the bigger picture, which is the ongoing civil war and the stalled peace negotiations,’ said Reyes.”

I think that was a reasonable reading of the passage, but I also recognize that other journalists, or the CMFR staff, may see the matter differently. It is utterly dismaying, however, to see
CMFR forget its own standards and castigate a newspaper for not merely (and accurately) repeating a statement, but actually reporting it.

In a bid to do its own contextualizing, the CMFR post sought to paint a portrait of the Inquirer as biased against the Left. “This is not the first time that the Inquirer has revealed its political and ideological bias against any group that it perceives to be ‘leftist’.” To support this astonishing claim, the high-profile media watchdog group then dug deep into the archives and came up with… one piece of evidence, from all of three years ago.

It is worth quoting CMFR’s phrasing in full, because it is destined to be a classic of high-minded ignorant expostulation. “In one instance, on March 18, 2010, a story on the Hacienda Luisita dispute by former New York Times and International Herald Tribune stringer Carlos H. Conde became the occasion for the Inquirer to write an editorial critical of the article because Conde had interviewed then Anakpawis party-list Congressman Rafael Mariano whom the Inquirer had repeatedly described as a ‘leftist,’ implying that no one with ‘leftist’ views deserves being quoted because they’re ‘biased’.”

The “facts” in this passage are all wrong. The New York Times story was not written by Conde but by the Southeast Asia bureau chief at that time, Norimitsu Onishi—it says so right on the Times page which CMFR thoughtfully linked to, but apparently was too busy to read. The editorial (again, there is a link) was critical of the article not because Mariano was the source, but because (together with another Aquino critic) he was the only source. And nowhere does the editorial refer to Mariano as “leftist” or “biased”—which begs the question: Where did those scare quotes come from? (Even the date is wrong; March 18, late at night, was when the editorial was uploaded to the website. Following still existing convention, however, the actual date of the editorial is March 19—the day of issue.)

In a nine-paragraph editorial that squarely placed the burden of the Luisita issue on presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino (hence, the editorial’s title, “Noynoy’s albatross”—another clue that CMFR seems to have missed), only two paragraphs dealt with the article as falling “markedly short of the Times’ usually rigorous standards.” The second, longer one reads as follows:

“Consider just one instance: To support the story’s sweeping claim that ‘most farmers’ groups, scholars and businessmen question the department’s figures’ (referring to the Department of Agrarian Reform’s statistics on redistributed land), the writer, the Times’ Southeast Asia bureau chief, relied solely on Anakpawis party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano. We do not question Mariano’s credentials; we only wish to point out that the story did not identify him as ideologically opposed to CARP itself, or as a vigorous campaigner against the extension program passed last year and which met the expectations of the more moderate bloc in Congress, or, indeed, as a close political ally of senatorial candidates running on the slate of Aquino’s main rival. (Note to the New York Times, whose main audience knows next to nothing about Philippine politics: There is more than one color in the Philippine political spectrum. That simple truth is not reflected in your choice of confirmatory sources.)”

Apparently, the color-blindness runs to CMFR too. If a modicum of research, or even just a close rereading of the original material, had gone into the post, CMFR would not have rushed to display its ignorance. But if there was no research or rereading, then CMFR—defender of journalism’s best practices, trustee of the most prestigious journalism awards—relied on faulty memory alone. Not exactly good practice, that.

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