Category Archives: Readings in Media

Column: What we (still) don’t know about Antonio Luna

Published on September 29, 2015.

In “Heneral Luna,” the actor Alvin Anson portrays Jose Alejandrino—the revolutionary general whose memoirs serve as a supplemental source for the acclaimed movie. Those memoirs, published in 1933 and translated into English in 1949, offer the fullest portrait of his good friend, the mercurial Antonio Luna. It gives us vivid impressions (to borrow Luna’s favorite literary style) of his student days in Europe, his tumultuous year with the Army of the Malolos Republic—and, in 1896, his hour of treason and cowardice.

A two-paragraph section in Alejandrino’s “The Price of Freedom” and titled “Antonio Luna in the year 1896” makes for necessary reading.

“It appears in official documents that in this period Luna committed the greatest error of his life in denouncing the existence of the Katipunan and in revealing, during his imprisonment after the first outbreak of the rebellion, the names of some of his friends affiliated with the Society. Later, he explained however to me his aforesaid acts by saying that with the physical and moral tortures which he suffered during his imprisonment, and upon being assured by the Spaniards that he had been squealed upon by his own friends, denouncing him as an accomplice in the rebellion, his violent character made him lose his better judgment. And having fallen for the scheme woven by the Spaniards, he declared that those who had denounced him were more guilty than he.

“The events of 1896 separated us from each other, he having been prosecuted and later on sentenced to suffer imprisonment in Spain, while I left the country for China and Japan [on official missions for Emilio Aguinaldo to procure arms for the revolution]. We were able to see each [other] again in Kabite toward the month of July, 1898. He was returning home after having served his sentence in the Model Prison of Madrid, and he brought with him in his baggage books on military strategy and tactics and treatises on field fortifications. Above all, he brought with him a desire to atone for his past mistakes.” Continue reading

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Column: Apolinario Mabini vs General Luna

The first of five columns provoked, or inspired, by two viewings of Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna.” Published on September 22, 2015. 

Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” is a masterpiece of filmmaking; we should all see it. But it is, primarily, art; only, secondarily, history. Learning to distinguish one from the other is an exhilarating, necessary, education.

The “but” in the lead is a testament to the movie’s persuasive power. Much of this power lies in the astute casting, in the sweeping cinematography, in the compelling pace of the storytelling; some of it rests on the familiar structure of the narrative: of one against many, of country before self, of nation above class, of good versus evil.

The movie begins, and ends, with a disclaimer about creative license. Tarog’s reimagining of parts of Philippine history has inspired spirited discussion in the classroom or animated conversations over coffee or beer, about the shape of our history and about our own role in the shaping. (I overheard one conversation between early-twentysomethings; they were hoping that, perhaps, just perhaps, box-office results would lead to a trilogy of movies—a trilogy about Philippine revolutionary heroes, not comic-book or Young Adult characters!) Continue reading

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A revolutionary movie

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Column: “If the news is that important, it will find me”

Excerpts from prepared remarks read at the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines Summit on September 10, 2015, and published on September 15. 

I wanted to begin by revisiting our most recent collective trauma: [last] Tuesday’s traffic apocalypse.

One photo of the scene on Edsa went viral; [on Thursday], it [was] front and center of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was also the Top Story on [in the] morning.

Traffic PDI

As far as I can tell, it went viral on Twitter through @orangemagTV, an events magazine.

But it started as a photo taken by a 29-year-old man, now known to many simply as MykJosh.

The photo has since taken on a life of its own—including [a] seasonally appropriate version. Merry Christmas!

I thought I’d start with these images because they illustrate my theme: The evolution of media roles, from standard to search to social. I think this framework best makes sense of the chaos, the clutter, the constant change, reshaping the news and information landscape.

At least, it makes the most sense to me …. Continue reading

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Poe campaign: Royal passage stuck in real world

This 3,000-word feature, part of the Inquirer’s Charm Offensive Revisited series, ran on the front page of the May 5, 2004 issue—a week before the presidential elections. (This version differs slightly from the piece as published; I edited three or four infelicitous passages, made a couple of corrections, changed one translation.) 

Air of unreality

Fernando Poe Jr. is a king running for president. This explains his candidacy’s mass appeal; it also explains his campaign’s increasingly unappealing prospects of victory. An air of unreality marks his bid for the presidency.

Flashback to two Tuesdays ago. At the back of the makeshift stage constructed in the middle of Librada Avelino Street in Pandacan, Manila, campaign organizers call for more security about 10 minutes before Poe arrives. Local campaign supporters wearing blue vests are marshaled into the area, and they join the others already linking arms. With their bodies, they mark off a path for Poe. But the moment Poe exits his vehicle (a new Toyota Land Cruiser without license plates; he is, as is his wont, riding in the front seat), a frenzy difficult to capture on television spreads through the crowd. The pushing and shoving is claustrophobic. Even the supporters doubling as security shout and scream his name. “FPJ! FPJ! FPJ!” In their fervor, some forget to link arms.

Is this a political campaign? More like fans’ day for the popular movie actor known as “Da King.”

But the same unreality marks the rest of his campaign. His leaders belittle the surveys which Poe once ruled. These are being manipulated, says Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Poe’s personal campaign manager. They are the work of “analysts in air-conditioned offices,” Poe’s running mate Senator Loren Legarda says over a midnight meal. How do you measure your progress in the campaign, if you don’t believe in the integrity of these surveys? “We conduct our own,” says ex-Senator Ernesto Herrera, one of Poe’s candidates for the Senate.  Continue reading

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Column: A hollow victory

Published on August 18, 2015.

FOR A couple of seconds, right at the end of the President’s annual address, I thought I saw her hesitate—as if the waves of applause that greeted her had stirred a familiar thought, as if she half-wanted to say something more.

She certainly seemed pensive at the very end; it was a triumphant speech, but from where I sat, she did not seem to bask in the final, uproarious standing ovation. She waited for the applause to wind down, and then said, very simply, almost inaudibly, ‘Thank you.’

Perhaps she felt, at the end of the briefest of her five State of the Nation speeches, that she had not done enough, that in spite of all the staff work and President’s time that had gone into the speech, she had nevertheless come up short. Continue reading

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Column: The most subversive text of the year

Column No. 350, published on June 23, 2015.

For a good many of us, “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) will be the most subversive text we will read all year, or indeed for many years. The extraordinary eco-encyclical from Pope Francis contains explosive truths, not about the science of climate change, but about the persistence of poverty, the excesses of a market economy, the fetish for technology and the technocratic solution, the consequences of middle-class aspirations, the failings of the media, even the role of the human in a “rapidifying” world.

“Laudato Si” offers the kind of radical reading that subverts our assumptions, challenges our deepest convictions, makes us see anew. The lengthy document attempts to give a truly global treatment of the ecological catastrophe we all face; some or many of the notes the Pope strikes will be familiar to us, but taken together, the whole acquires a resonance unheard since “Gaudium et Spes” signaled the reconciliation between the Church and the modern world. Continue reading

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Column: When does opinion become an unpublishable stupidity?

Published on June 16, 2015.

I wish to revisit a topic that colleague Oscar Franklin Tan and I have debated in recent weeks: the role of commentary in the so-called free market of ideas. I have the sense that while we are both believers in free speech, we define the terms of the argument differently. To be more precise, we may have different ideas of what passes for publishable commentary in newspaper opinion pages.

The argument has not lost its appeal for me since Oscar first raised what I called his “seductive” but “untenable and misguided” appeal to Inquirer editors to screen out controversial opinion pieces like those contributed by retired Court of Appeals justice Mario Guariña III; I have continued to review my own response, borne out of the experience of working in opinion sections in three newspapers, including in particular almost a decade and a half with the Inquirer, to check my biases and trace the consequences of my position. But I am led to return to the subject because Oscar’s criticism of an opinion piece, in another newspaper, raises an even more uncomfortable question. Continue reading

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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.” Continue reading

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Column: Paid hacks and retards?

Published on April 28, 2015.

The other week, I had the privilege of addressing the national conference of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators on a vexing subject: the quality of discourse in today’s new media. In preliminary remarks, I made two contrasting assertions. In the last couple of decades the overall quality must have risen, because the Internet has made access to the best sources and references possible; at the same time, the volume of offensive language has also obviously increased, creating Augean stables of gratuitous insult and hate speech.

But my main purpose at the PACE convention was to raise two specific questions, based on a reading of online comment threads, including that of the Inquirer. Why are “paid hack” and “retard” the preferred terms of abuse online, and what can the country’s communication educators do to discourage their use? Continue reading

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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?” Continue reading

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Column: Privacy and social media: 12 theses

Published on December 16, 2014.

1. The current legal regime on privacy is based on a 19th-century understanding of the press. The influential Harvard Law Review article of Dec. 15, 1890, by Samuel Warren and justice-in-the-making Louis Brandeis, famously gave focus to the scope of that right: “the right to be let alone.” In other words, privacy as we legally understand it today has been mostly a reaction to a “too enterprising press.”

2. The article’s summary of the excesses of the press is harsh but also, as far as it goes, accurate, even today, almost 125 years later. “Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery. To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle.”

3. But social media is based on what we can call an opposite right, the right to be part of a crowd, the right to not be alone. In most cases, someone joins social media—posts a video of a Christmas party on Facebook, retweets a Dalai Lama quote on Twitter, endorses a professional on LinkedIn, and so on—in order to share something with a community.

4. The question, then, is: What does this new reality mean for the right to privacy today? Does the emergence of new media also mean a new understanding of the concept of privacy? Warren and Brandeis preface their research with a word about the evolution of law; we can take our cue from them. Continue reading

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Column: Benedict and Francis on social media

Published on June 3, 2014.

In a column I wrote over a year ago, I teased the country’s two cardinal-electors for asserting, in a news conference they called after they returned from the conclave that elected Pope Francis, that the Holy Spirit did not read social media. It was their good-natured way of expressing just how surprising the turn of events had been: the first resignation of a pope in 600 years, the first pope from the so-called New World, the first pope to be named after Francis of Assisi.

But I thought it was a mistake, theologically, to consider any form of media to be off-limits to God. I traced my argument back to Benedict XVI’s own thoughts on social media. As it happens, in the message he prepared for last year’s World Communications Day, Benedict had chosen to focus on social media. The title of the message was a useful summary: “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.”

If online social networks are spaces where the evangel can be shared, then by definition it cannot be off-limits to the source of the same good news. Continue reading

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Column: Becoming Asean (four steps at a time)

Published on April 8, 2014.

When I first heard of the idea last June, from Wong Chun Wai of the Star of Malaysia and Pana Janviroj of The Nation of Thailand, I thought it was a neat concept, worth doing—but at that time I understood it on merely conceptual terms. Imagine Southeast Asian newspapers with digital editions or e-papers grouping together, using the tablet space to offer their papers at a uniform rate and to attract advertisers interested in reaching a regional audience. A good idea, I thought, but not something I would necessarily find use for.

Turns out my imagination did not go far enough. In reality, the bundled subscriptions make for a terrific reading experience.

The other Friday, four members of the Asia News Network (Malaysia’s Star, The Nation, the Jakarta Post and the Inquirer) launched the joint subscription initiative. For a discounted rate, a subscriber to one e-paper gets full access to the three other e-papers. (JV Rufino took charge of the Inquirer side.) Last Sunday, I finally started the habit of downloading the other e-papers too—and now I’m hooked. Continue reading

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Column: The most popular Filipino in world history

Published on March 25, 2014.

Earlier this month, the Pantheon project website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab went live. Pantheon, or at least its first version, is an impressive but necessarily incomplete attempt to measure “the global popularity of historical characters” (this and other project-descriptive quotes are from the Methods section of the website). It uses two measures.

By the “sophisticated” measure Pantheon calls the Historical Popularity Index (HPI), the most popular person in history is the great philosopher Aristotle, followed closely by his famous teacher Plato. Jesus Christ only comes third—allowing the New York Times Magazine to reference John Lennon’s infamous quote in its story on Pantheon: “Who’s More Famous than Jesus?”

But who are the most popular Filipinos according to Pantheon? Continue reading

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Column: Aquino: ‘Incompetent’ and ‘insensitive’

The fourth edition, as it were, of an annual roundup of anti-Aquino criticism. Published on November 26, 2013.

At least once a year in the last three years, I’ve tried to document the patterns of criticism directed against President Aquino. I got started because of what I thought was unfair criticism; I continued partly because of the vigorous, sometimes orientation-altering feedback, and partly because tracing the patterns can be instructive and useful to understanding politics, Philippine-style.

The documentation is hardly comprehensive; my so-called field notes are only preliminary; indeed, as I wrote at the get-go about the patterns I discerned, “there are others, some of them perhaps better objects of study than the ones I’ve chosen.”
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Column: ‘Is it true, is Ted Failon dead?’

“Catastrophizing” disaster coverage. Published on November 19, 2013.

Read, and wince. “During this time, they said, girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted.” It won’t be easy to identify which esteemed media organization ran this sensational passage.

This post-apocalyptic vision was a description of the horrifying conditions at the Convention Center in New Orleans, days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the famous city in August 2005. But as it turns out, it was a description that was not (and perhaps could not have been) independently verified. The source (the “they” who did the saying) were unnamed refugees; other sensational details in the story with the remarkable headline “City of rape, rumour and recrimination,” could also not be verified, or were later proven false.

The British spelling in the headline is a clue, but it isn’t much of one. Because that story, with that headline, and that passage, was published by the “normally staid” Financial Times.
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Column: The bully in Miriam Santiago

This column, written in the immediate aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda or Haiyan, generated intense feedback in the comments thread on — many of the abusive kind. I guess that’s what happens when a politician is treated, or treats herself, as a celebrity, as a “darling of the media;” the fans come out with their daggers drawn. An interesting experience. Published on November 12, 2013.

I write out of a sense of duty—knowing not only that “politics” is the last thing people want to read about these days but also that other subjects (discussed fortunately in other columns or in the news pages) are, truly, matters of life or death. But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s “star turn” at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing last week was so wrong, on so many counts, that letting it slide under a storm surge of post-“Yolanda” media attention would be an injustice. Bear with me.

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Column: Going negative on P-Noy

From intuitive processes to systematic errors. Published on November 5, 2013.

Inquirer colleague and top business journalist Dax Lucas raised an interesting point on Facebook a few days ago. Linking to an image of the Inquirer’s Oct. 31 front page, which carried the headline “P-Noy: I am not a thief,” he wrote: “A key tenet in psychology and communications: the mind edits out words like ‘not’. So avoid stating in the negative.”

I thought it was interesting advice, because the President did not in fact say those exact words. I phrased my comment as a question: “Curious: Does this tenet work in languages other than English, such as the Filipino Noynoy used?”

Dax acknowledged my response, and graciously said he needed to study the matter, but others following the conversation immediately volunteered that, yes, the communications axiom worked in non-English languages too.
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Column: ‘Obnoxious bluntness’

Published on October 8, 2013.

The other week, I had the privilege of attending three events in Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts, the venerable commonwealth that is almost but not quite as old (here’s a fun fact) as the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas. Allow me to record some of my main impressions.

First on the list was a forum I helped organize and which featured Nieman fellows from Asia. “Old Traumas, New Dilemmas: Four Asian Media Perspectives,” hosted by the Harvard University Asia Center and the Nieman Foundation, ranged over a great diversity of topics. Sayuri Daimon, the new managing editor of the Japan Times, remembered lessons learned from coverage of the Fukushima disaster; Chong-ae Lee of the Seoul Broadcasting System made an appeal, based on personal experience, to revisit the historical record; I spoke on the politics of the pork barrel.

But it was Yang Xiao of China’s Southern People Weekly who made the strongest impression; his description of the challenges facing China’s liberal media in the post-Olympic era began with a scrupulous sketch of the specific Chinese context of “liberal” but ended with a simple declaration of journalism’s true purpose: To speak truth to power.
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Column: Back to Ninoy, forward to PCP 3

Published on September 3, 2013.

I promised reader Lyndon Rutor I would link to columns I’ve written before that argue an important historical truth: that Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino followed the same path to heroic martyrdom. They suffered in the last 10 years or so of their life in the name of a higher cause; they chose to risk a return from exile; they embraced the near-certainty of death.

These columns may be found through the search function or the tag cloud in my Newsstand blog (at One, in particular, may serve to stand for all the others. In “The Aquinos in our life,” the third installment of a four-part series prompted by the death of Cory Aquino and written in August 2009, I repeated a distinction between the old and the new Ninoy that I first discovered in late August 1983.

“What became obvious to me and to many others, after Ninoy was assassinated and Filipinos who grew up during the martial law era scrambled to discover a clearer picture of the new martyr, was that the man who died on the tarmac . . . was very different from the helicopter-riding whiz kid whose political ambition had known no bounds.”
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Demolition job

So (six weeks late to the show), turns out the final episode of Burn Notice is set in an abandoned newspaper building. Ouch.

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Jessica Zafra, on #twistedthursdays


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August 25, 2013 · 8:10 am

Column: Confirmation bias: A case study

Links to follow! Published on August 6, 2013.

The other Friday, I had the privilege of speaking before over a thousand delegates taking part in De La Salle University’s exceptionally well-organized Student Media Congress. In direct response to the organizers’ request, I talked about how newspapers like the Inquirer were “redefining reading” and “taking print to the next level.”

I argued the following points: globally, print is very much alive; it has a future that will excite the younger generation; it will continue to form a part, even a leading part, of the media mix; and augmented reality (like INQSnap) is transforming print as we know it

This is how the Rappler story, by David Lozada, reported my half-hour on the stage:
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Column: Doubting Edward, or Wolf cries boy

Published on June 25, 2013.

What should we make of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower? The exclusive accounts of Glenn Greenwald and others from the Guardian, sourced from a week’s worth of secret interviews with Snowden in Hong Kong, are rock-solid, the proofs they offer incontrovertible.

The secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) on April 25 of this year, compelling the Verizon telecommunications company to provide copies of the “meta data” of all telephone calls in its system to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing, daily basis.” The secret 41-slide PowerPoint presentation of a massive monitoring program that allows the NSA to directly access the computer systems of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and other iconic tech companies, called Prism. The two petitions from US Attorney General Eric Holder to the Fisa, which sought broad powers to scour communications even without a warrant.

And yet some of those who may be expected to welcome Snowden’s revelations have raised doubts about the intelligence contractor’s story. Famous feminist Naomi Wolf, for instance, sounded the alarm about the United States turning into a police state in 2007. Last Friday, however, she wondered aloud on Facebook whether Snowden was the real thing.
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