Column: The four deans: partisanship, not journalism

Published on May 12, 2015.

LAST WEEK, “the present and past deans” of the UP College of Mass Communication issued “Fact or Fiction?” a strongly worded statement expressing “its [sic] grave concern over the highly unprofessional coverage of the Mary Jane Veloso story by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.” In particular, the deans (only four of them, not all of those who have served in the position, as the definite article seems to imply) criticized the Inquirer for the reports it carried in two issues: those of April 29 and 30.

There is no quarrel, I have no argument, with the first point of criticism. (And please allow me to be clear: What follows is my personal opinion, not the position of the newspaper that has been home to me for almost 15 years.)

“In its April 29 headline and story (‘Death came before dawn’), the PDI quite dramatically announced the execution of Mary Jane Veloso in Indonesia, an execution which it turns out never actually happened because Veloso was given temporary reprieve.” This was a major error, one compounded by the melodramatic and meme-friendly phrasing of the headline. The newspaper apologized for the error twice, first on Wednesday mid-afternoon through a statement circulated on other Inquirer platforms, and then on the front page of the newspaper on Thursday. The apology came with a resolve to do better: “We are revamping newsroom processes to better inform and serve our readers and stakeholders.”

This apology merited no mention in the statement of the four deans; neither did the fact that, as the apology stated, the Inquirer media group’s “mobile, radio, social, and web platforms were able to report Mary Jane’s last-minute reprieve.” Perhaps the four deans wanted to focus on the newspaper alone; fair enough.

“Without proper investigation, PDI had created fact out of a non-event, thereby undermining the newspaper’s credibility and raising questions about the competence and integrity of the PDI editorial staff.” This conclusion is humbling, and was already the subject of much soul-searching within the newspaper even before the deans issued their statement.

But I have serious objections to the deans’ other points of criticism. Let me focus on the two most egregious.

“The next day, on the front page of the April 30 issue, the PDI followed up that initial error of April 29 with an article entitled ‘A miracle happened,’ as if human intervention had no role in keeping Veloso alive.” Now here the four deans overreach, and betray their religious illiteracy. They seem to think that miracles happen in a vacuum, rather than precisely through human action. Of course humans intervened, starting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s decision to grant a temporary reprieve. That does not make the reprieve at the literal last minute any less miraculous in the eyes of many Filipinos. The deans’ criticism of the use of the word “miracle” is what is called cavilling, and (as I hope to show) cavilling of the partisan kind.

(I must confess to some bewilderment at former Dean Georgina Encanto’s decision to sign the statement; surely she knows better. But miracles happen, even in UP.)

The word “miracle” resonated with the public because that’s exactly how the last-minute reprieve appeared to many Filipinos: as an extraordinary fact, not easily explainable by the circumstances. Was there interpretation involved in the choice of the headline? Of course. Journalists are supposed not only to report what they see, but to interpret it—in part by offering the necessary context. I submit that “A miracle happened” offers exactly the right kind of context; in fact, Mary Jane’s own mother Celia is quoted in that story as saying, “Miracles do happen.”

The next point of criticism is the crucial one, not because it offers an unanswerable argument (far from it), but because it reveals the partisan (antiadministration) bias of the deans’ position.

“Moreover, in the same issue, another story quotes the Indonesian Attorney General as declaring that Mary Jane Veloso’s reprieve was ‘due to P-Noy plea,’ a diplomatic statement obviously made for the sake of courtesy and to preserve Indonesia’s good relations with the Philippines. Both statements, however, reveal ignorance of or a bias on the part of PDI against the efforts exerted by such groups as the Filipino migrants’ group Migrante International and its networks, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), and even of such individuals as Manny Pacquiao in the granting of the reprieve.”

That paragraph is worth a closer study, because in it the good deans, argue, startlingly, that in the Veloso case, journalists must ignore what the chief lawyer in charge of the case said. We do not know how the four deans came to conclude that the Indonesian official’s statement (issued, in fact, by the spokesperson) was diplomatic pabulum “obviously made for the sake of courtesy.” None of them are journalists, but perhaps they are diplomatic experts. Their disapproval of the Inquirer’s use of the Indonesian official’s quote, however, tells us they want to offer another context.

They reject the miracle context because they do not agree with it, even though the reporting includes Celia’s own quote. They reject the reporting which quotes the Indonesian official because they do not agree with its implication (favoring the Aquino administration), and propose another context: “The reality is” it was the NUPL that saved Mary Jane. What is happening here? They want to substitute their news judgment for those of the Inquirer’s reporters and editors.

That may be, perhaps, a commercially viable proposition, but it is academically indefensible. Instead of serving journalism’s higher interests, the deans are content merely to be partisan.

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