Column: Media’s ‘right to be believed’

Published on February 24, 2015.

A student at a “peace camp,” held on the grounds of the Southeast Asia Rural Social Leadership Institute in Manresa, Cagayan de Oro City, raised a troubling, provocative question during a session I took part in last Saturday. Given all the speculation and inaccuracy and rank irresponsibility in media coverage of the Mamasapano incident (these were his premises, shared it seemed to me by many other students in the peace camp, a good number of whom were Muslim): “Does the media even have the right to be believed?”

We should see this pained question first as an indictment of the media in general, but then also as a challenge. I am still processing the question in my head, but here are a couple of preliminary answers. The amount of drivel that has been said to fill airtime on radio and TV, or opinion columns in print and online, supposedly in pursuit of the truth behind the Mamasapano incident, has truly been astonishing. The inanities uttered by senators and congressmen, sudden experts in the conflict in parts of Mindanao, have reached a new low. The result has been a general sense of uncertainty and outrage, always a dangerous mix. (It was toxic enough to push former Tarlac governor Tingting Cojuangco over the edge of a new level of ridiculousness; she now imagines she is the mother of the dozens slain in Mamasapano—by what alchemy we do not know.)

But I also encouraged the students at the peace camp to persevere. There are bad sources of information in the media ecosystem, yes, but there are also good ones. Find out who they are, and support them. Better yet, join your voices to theirs. Of the three media roles (standard, search, social), the students had control over the third; they should use it to put pressure on the first.

* * *

Upon the invitation of the esteemed Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, I attended a “Theological Hour” at the Loyola School of Theology in Quezon City last Wednesday, featuring Fr. Gustavo Irrazabal, STD, the Argentine professor of moral theology, on “Theology of the People and Theology of Liberation: Two Latin American Perspectives on Faith and Social Justice.”

What is this theology of the people, which “once again prevailed” in the landmark “Aparecida Document” of 2007 (which Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio edited) and was referenced once more in the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” of 2013?

As I understand it, it is a variation of the theology of liberation, which spurns the Marxist (and pseudo-universal) analysis on which that theology is based, and instead embraces the particular cultural context of a community of believers. This particularity of culture is I think what allows Irrazabal to assert that the theology of the people “may help Catholic Social Teaching attain not an abstract universality but a concrete universality.”

In Irrazabal’s schema, the historical subject of the theology of liberation is the poor, while that of the theology of the people is the “people/nation.” In TL (to use his abbreviations), liberation is understood as primarily socioeconomic. In TP, it is understood as cultural-religious.

TP’s immediate connection to Pope Francis, as I understand it, is in the privileging of popular religiosity. It is seen, as Irrazabal noted, as the “core of Latin American culture” and, as such, as the “wisdom of the people.” There are “challenges,” to be sure. (Irrazabal: “For example, in popular religiosity, where is the resurrection?”) But the basic idea that the people know what it means to believe, that in fact religion is not opiate but elixir, is liberating—and is one reason why many Catholics from the Third World respond to Pope Francis so.

* * *

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago replied to my column on Tuesday with a letter the Inquirer published on Friday. I realize that the letter was in her media relations officer’s name, but applying the good senator’s principle of assertive leadership, which she is happy to recommend to military commanders and civilian officials alike, I read the reply as distinctly, personally, her own.

She took me to task for singling her out: “The opinion piece singled out Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago from all other senators who asked hard questions in seeking the truth about the Mamasapano clash. Nery was also selective in quoting the senator …”

And she criticized me for being personally hostile to her: “It appears that Nery has taken it upon himself to drag the senator down whenever she is widely supported by the public. We hope Nery can enlighten us on where his animosity is coming from.”

I do not bear any animus toward the senator; as she and her staff have apparently (and selectively) forgotten, I have also written before about how I had been impressed with her handling of a key martial law case, when she was a regional trial court judge. Even in last week’s column, I made sure to include the possibility that “she may yet be [a superior intellect], in the silence of her writing room.”

Some of my colleagues swear she is a warm person and a true wit. But my focus was on her display of arrogance in the Senate hall; surely she realizes it is the role of those of us in the media to hold public officials to account. I note that she did not contest the accuracy of the quotes I used, merely what she calls “contextual accuracy.” But the context is there in the video record, and in the available transcripts.

I would like to question the senator’s principal assumption, though. Does criticism have to be based on personal animosity? Can’t it be, as I trust mine was, based on deep-seated notions of civic-spirited rationality and democratic discourse? To think otherwise is to live in a black-and-white world.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics, Speeches & Workshops

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