Column: The ‘handpicked’ hypocrisy of the Rappler lawsuit

Published on March 1, 2016.

I HAVE many friends in Rappler, and I think highly of the work of a good many members of the Rappler staff. In fact, just three weeks or so ago, I found myself in the position of recommending a senior editor from the online-only news organization for a prestigious fellowship.

But I vigorously take issue with Rappler’s decision to sue Commission on Elections Chair Andy Bautista; the case is not only based on a highly selective reading of the facts, but also wrapped, self-justifyingly, deceivingly, in the mantle of freedom of the press and public interest.

What is essentially at issue here is Rappler’s unarticulated assumption that, because it is an online-only news organization, it deserves lead-organizer status in all three presidential debates.

That was the fundamental principle behind the arrangement that Rappler signed on to, together with other media organizations: The Comelec wanted to promote voter education by tapping “lead organizers” to conduct televised debates. The idea was raised in the first meeting held at the election agency’s head office as a possibility; the lead organizers’ responsibility to other media organizations was discussed in detail in that and in succeeding meetings; many meetings were needed before a memorandum of agreement acceptable to many parties was reached. (For the record, the Inquirer signed “with reservations,” because the provisions were still lopsided in favor of the broadcast networks. Rappler, in its own recollection, signed the MOA “based on good faith assurances that [online] access would be granted.”)

I wish to be clear as ice. The lead-organizer concept was the basic idea behind the Comelec plan. To reach the most number of viewers and listeners and readers possible, under a restrictive timetable that ran only a few months long, the Comelec thought it was best to work through the largest media organizations. It would not be easy or inexpensive to conduct the debates according to the schedule the election agency drew: Mindanao on Feb. 21, the Visayas on March 20, Luzon on April 24, and the vice presidential debate in Metro Manila on April 10.

But, from the start, the responsibilities of each pair of lead organizers (one pair per debate) were clear, and repeatedly emphasized by the Comelec. And over time, the details fell into place: Lead organizers would allow access to other media organizations through at least a “media center.” They would act as “press pool,” sharing photographs or video clips. They would make available, for free, a clean audio feed of the debate, to be used by any radio station interested to air the debate live. They would work with the Comelec on accreditation. And so on.

In exchange, the Comelec allowed each pair of lead organizers to enjoy limited exclusivity: broadcasting and livestreaming rights on the day of the debate.

Rappler has uncharitably described this arrangement thus: “exclusive broadcasting and livestreaming rights to handpicked partners—to the detriment of all other media outlets, including the government-owned PTV4.”

At that first meeting, which I attended, Rappler should already have raised its objections to this handpicking. But it did not. Instead, it argued for the right to livestream the debate. If I recall correctly, it had been invited as a lead organizer for social media; the other media organizations immediately and correctly pointed out that we all had our own social media operations, too. A few representatives were vocal about the folly of allowing an online organization like Rappler to act as though it were a lead organizer for all four debates. Eventually, after a couple of meetings, the Comelec decided to invite Rappler as a lead organizer, together with the previously chosen CNN and Business Mirror, of the April 10 debate.

When, two days before the first presidential debate got underway, Rappler was still unable to win Comelec approval for an arrangement that the other media organizations had, as a matter of consensus, already turned down, it filed suit.

In other words, Rappler was happy to be one of the “handpicked partners”—until it couldn’t get its way. Then suddenly the issue became Comelec handpicking. I say, hypocrisy.

The lawsuit is based on an untenable assumption: That “millions of Filipinos” won’t be able “to watch the upcoming presidential debate [the Feb. 21 GMA-Inquirer debate in Cagayan de Oro] on their phones, tablets and computers.”

This is patent nonsense; it was nonsense on the day the lawsuit was filed, and it’s nonsense today. Traffic on the GMA website and on Inquirer.net on debate day were multiples of their usual Sunday levels; as of this writing, the recording of the “livestreaming” of the debate has become the single most viewed video clip on the Inquirer’s YouTube channel. Millions of Filipinos were in fact able to watch the debate on their phones, tablets and computers.

Rappler’s official statement scored the Comelec chair for what it said was a decision that was “out of touch with reality.”

It is clever marketing but bad journalism to claim that Rappler represents the new online reality. The online operations of the lead organizers of the first debate, separately, draw more traffic—on phones, tablets and computers—than Rappler. On social, GMA outstrips Rappler by an “AlDubbed” mile.

The petition Rappler filed in the Supreme Court and the official statement it released through its Views section made it appear as though the debates—the first officially sanctioned by the Comelec in a quarter-century— were a setback for democracy. I’m afraid this lawsuit’s first casualty is the truth.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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