Category Archives: Readings in Media

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 Inquirer.net — 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 johnnery.wordpress.com). 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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Column: 150 times a day

Column No. 250–appropriately enough, for one who first entered the commentary space as a political blogger, a repurposing of a blog post. Published on June 11, 2013.

Allow me to run something I posted on my blog last week—on June 5, in the middle of the World Newspaper Congress in Bangkok. Having heard yet another resource speaker repeat the newly popular research finding that smartphone users “check their phones 150 times a day,” I was moved to check the basis of the research for myself.

At the 2013 World Newspaper Congress and in its parallel conferences… the ascendancy of the mobile space is a recurring theme. The one idea that sums up this compelling vision of the present-sliding-into-the-future is the “150 times a day” meme:

WAN-IFRA@NewspaperWorld22h
According to research, people are checking smartphones on average 150 times a day @iRowan #editors13 #wnc13

That tweet, from the conference organizers’ official account, is representative. Of the hundreds of tweets and dozens of links I followed, many versions of the meme follow the same three-fold form: the attribution to “research,” the extension of the scope to “smartphones,” and the assertion of the frequency, “150 times a day.”

But is this statistic for real?
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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.
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Column: The sheer inadequacy of single-factor analyses

The last of a series of seven election-related columns, an attempt to understand Grace Poe’s stunning first-place finish in the Senate race. Published on May 21, 2013.

Apparently, there was a sympathy vote for the late, defeated presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. At least that is what many commentators, both professional and on-Facebook-only, assure us is the meaning of Grace Poe’s 20 million votes.

I can understand why the senator-elect sees her unexpected victory as vindication for her father; it is harder to understand why so many seem to think that that is the only meaning. Or why—and this is my main argument—there should be only one explanation.
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Column: Breaking the survey mirror

Published on May 14, 2013.

I must disagree with the esteemed Randy David, when in his May 9 column he lumped election surveys together with “political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, [and] corporate financing of electoral campaigns” as obstacles to modernity.

By that measure, every single modern polity that the Philippines can possibly look to as template is premodern. In fact, given that mature democracies use election surveys even more heavily than the Philippines does, by Randy’s own criteria they must be even more backward than we are.

I must quarrel especially with his reduction of the purpose of election surveys to the general notion of trending, and thus of the bandwagon. To quote the passage in full: “Interestingly, theorists of modernity do not fret over the fact that premodern societies do not measure up to these standards. They believe that societal evolution eventually favors the emergence of autonomous political systems. In short, whether or not there’s an explicit law banning them, political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, corporate financing of electoral campaigns, and the use of surveys to sway voters are bound to become less important, or even obsolete, as society becomes modern.”
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Column: Does the Holy Spirit read social media?

In which I suggest, ever so gently, that two cardinals revisit their theology of the media. Published on March 26, 2013.

The retired cardinal archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, had a ready answer when asked, upon returning from the conclave in Rome, why the media failed to predict the identity of the new pope. “God does not read social media,” he said.

That is the quote as found in Lito Zulueta’s comprehensive March 17 report in the Inquirer. On Zulueta’s Twitter account, the quote, tweeted at least a day before the newspaper came out, specifically names the third person of the Holy Trinity: “because the holy spirit does not read social media” (no caps).

The Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time blog remembered Rosales’ quip in the same, specific, fashion. Cris Larano’s engaging post quoted Rosales as saying: “The joke in Rome is that Pope Francis was elected because the Holy Spirit didn’t read social media … or watch CNN.”
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“Habemus Papam”

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The third edition of the March 14, 2013 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer–which went to press past three in the morning.

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August 20, 2013 · 7:12 am

Column: Tagle’s pope; Benedict vs the media

Published on March 12, 2013, at a time of heightened speculation about the possibility of a pope from Asia.

I haven’t finished reading Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s dissertation, a theological thriller titillatingly titled “Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II: The Influence of Paul VI,” just yet, but one passage has struck me with the force of revelation.

“But Paul VI also poignantly laid bare the irony at the heart of the papacy: the divinely instituted center of communion constitutes in the present time the greatest block to Christian unity. The lofty view of the papal office supported by a sure faith is cast in an almost tragic shade.”

This insight, which I understand Paul himself recognized, is sandwiched between a recapitulation of his “abundant reflection” and “innumerable musings” on papal primacy as the gift of the first Vatican Council, and his “slow acceptance” of the teaching that supreme power over the Church was shared by the communion of all bishops, “united to its head.”

This tension which Paul felt with all his being reflected one of the central challenges of the second Vatican Council. In Tagle’s formulation: “Collegiality as a mark of the renewal of Vatican II must be related to the papacy as defined by Vatican I. This issue proved to be one of the most contested in the council”—and gave Paul, perhaps the most conflicted of all 20th-century popes, “the most torment.”
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Column: Sabah and the limits of history

Published on March 5, 2013; the crisis began when the so-called “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” landed in Lahad Datu on February 11.

Among the many commentaries and perspective-setting pieces I’ve read on Lahad Datu and the crisis in northern Borneo, I found five particularly useful. Some conflict with others on crucial points; each has a different emphasis—but all agree that history is alive, kicking dust in Sabah.

Last Sunday’s Talk of the Town featured a bracing survey of the historical and regional background by the eminent scholar Jojo Abinales: “It’s borders with long(er) histories, stupid.” The opinion columns that same day carried retired Chief Justice Art Panganiban’s distinction-making crash course between ownership and sovereignty, “Understanding the Sabah dispute.” Randy David’s “Who owns Sulu?” a column which ran a week before Panganiban’s, anticipated the inevitable follow-up question, about the impact of ownership claims on issues of sovereignty.

Two outstanding journalists who have done work in history have also written on the subject in other places: Ed Lingao’s “History catches up with Sabah,” on the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism website, is a reflective attempt to dig up “the roots of the dispute”; while Glenda Gloria’s “Sabah, Merdeka and Aquino,” in Rappler.com, trains the spotlight (rightly, in my view) on the role of, and our country’s relationship with, our “stern neighbor” to the south, Malaysia.
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Column: Beholding: Cardinal Tagle as thinker

Published on February 26, 2013.

I suppose that anyone who has seen Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle speak can testify to his gifts as a preacher: He is a truly engaging speaker, who connects to his audience both because he appears to be thinking on his feet, fashioning his words to suit or reflect the nuances of the occasion, and because his preaching is animated by a very strong sense of structure, and thus of direction. His audience knows where they are at any given moment, and where the good bishop is headed.

There is nothing of performance in his talks; he does not jump up and down, he does not wear loud colors, he does not use flashy graphics.
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Column: Is there, in fact, a Fifth Philippine Republic?

Questions, plus an infographic on the jump page. Published on February 12, 2013

In its “Ten Facts about President Aquino,” an illustrated information sheet distributed to help mark his birthday last Friday, Malacañang emblazoned Facts No. 11 and 12 under an image of the President: that he was the 15th President of the Philippines, and the fifth President of the Fifth Republic.

Is he? The usual list of the country’s presidents begins with Emilio Aguinaldo, who proclaimed Philippine independence on June 12, 1898. (The same day, incidentally, when Apolinario Mabini came to work for Aguinaldo; Mabini did not approve of the proclamation he had no part in writing.) We then skip an entire generation, and resume our count in 1935, when Manuel Quezon becomes the first president of the Commonwealth. In 1943, when the Philippines is under Japanese occupation, Quezon is reduced to leading a government-in-exile in Washington, DC; and Jose Laurel becomes president of a parallel republic. On Quezon’s death in 1944, Sergio Osmeña assumes the presidency; in May 1946, he loses the presidential election to Manuel Roxas. Roxas retains the presidency when the Commonwealth is dissolved and a prostrate Philippines is granted independence on July 4, 1946; he is followed in office by Elpidio Quirino, Ramon Magsaysay, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos.

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Column: Reenacting Leila, banning Mar

On police theater, reenactment drama–and the uses of YouTube. Published on February 5, 2013.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas’ initiative to ban the presentation of suspects without their consent has largely gone unremarked. I happen to think, however, that it is a genuine advance in civil liberties, and may even help improve police performance.

To be sure, it is long overdue; the police practice of presenting suspects in a public setting, with members of the media usually standing in for the public, started many decades ago. Pushing the ban through must have taken considerable political will: There is no groundswell of popular support for the change, and the country’s police culture sees the tradition not only as unproblematic, but indeed as a necessary marking of a procedural milestone.
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Column: Taking a swipe at the Cardinal?

Published on January 29, 2013. It seems Inquirer.net added videos to the story some time after my column came out.

A Jesuit friend I esteem cried foul recently over Karen Boncocan’s characterization of a major homily given by the new Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle. (The homily, on the occasion of the Feast of Jesus the Nazarene, was read, or rather extemporized, on Jan. 9, but I read my friend’s e-mail to me only the other day.)

My friend wrote: The “news report about Chito Tagle taking a ‘swipe’ against the RH Bill makes gratuitously speculative assertions that I think are inappropriate for a news report. If she [the reporter] were an opinion writer, one could let that pass. But she is supposed to be reporting news and what she does is make assertions here that cannot, in my view, be squared with the actual text of Chito’s homily. Would you know anything about whether this is just a lapse or according to some kind of editorial policy?”

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Column: Saved by the CIA

The CIA, in the Hollywood imagination. Published on January 15, 2013.

The controversy over “Zero Dark Thirty”—specifically, over whether Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden accurately depicts the truth about the use of torture—has revived the old debate about the movies’ debt to the historical record. Another Oscar-nominated, based-on-a-true-story, starring-a-persistent-agent-from-the-Central-Intelligence-Agency movie that takes some liberties with the historical record, is also very much in the news, but except for the occasional critical story or post, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny trained on “Zero Dark Thirty.”
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Column: Rejoinders: Pacman, Sotto, atbp

This column, I realized on rereading it, can also be understood as an attempt to understand what “Christian” does not mean. Published on January 8, 2013.

Allow me to tie up some loose ends from 2012, stories and letters which have nagged at me for some time. Let me start with the most recent.

My friend Joan Orendain, the popular publicist, wrote “An open letter to Manny Pacquiao” the other week; the letter to the editor saw print on Dec. 27. It offers what she calls “a Christian point of view” for the just defeated boxer “to consider.” But in fact I saw nothing specifically Christian in Joan’s unfortunately dismissive attitude to Pacquiao.

The online version of the letter ran up impressive statistics: almost 3,500 shares, over 500 recommendations on Facebook. I can understand the letter’s appeal, beginning, as it does, with the candid confession that it was written by “one who is pleased—not happy, just pleased—that you lost your last two fights.” But to borrow Joan’s opening putdown, it seems it was Joan herself who turned out to be “in a highly confused state.”

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Column: Vulnerable journalists and angry revolutionaries

Published on November 27, 2012.

Do journalists, generally speaking, earn higher salaries than civil servants? The pattern of views I heard at the Media Nation conference over the weekend, which dwelt on corruption in the media, suggests that the reality is dramatically different—especially in the provinces.

In fact, almost everyone at the conference agreed that “local” journalists (a label, by the way, that many of those working in provincial newspapers or radio stations despise as insufferably Manila-centric) are more vulnerable to corruption. A large part of the reason is their economic situation. It should be self-evident, of course, that economic need alone does not explain the prevalence of corruption, in media or in other sectors. The knowing reader or viewer can easily name a handful of already wealthy media personalities for whom corruption is (or looks to be) a way of life.

But if the testimony of veteran media professionals is any guide, need can drive the desperate to extremes.

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