Tag Archives: Opinion Journalism

Column: PH politics is a 600-year-old ‘balete’ tree

Published on June 2, 2015.

IT IS an imposing sight. The massive balete tree in Maria Aurora town, in Aurora province, is about as tall as a 15-story building and at its base is as wide as a three- or four-bedroom house. Tourists visit it by the busload, drawn by a simple superlative: It is known as the largest balete tree in Asia.

There is some slip-sliding, sometimes, and local guides also call it the oldest—but that title probably goes to the balete tree in Canlaon City, in Negros Oriental, which has an estimated age of 1,300 years, or more than twice as old. (I have not yet been to Canlaon myself.) But the tree in Maria Aurora is an extraordinary sight; first there is its sheer size; then there are the thousands of hanging roots that have descended (the tree starts as an air plant) to form an incredibly dense curtain right around it; and then there is the gap, just big enough to accommodate a crouching adult human, in the middle of the tree.

It takes only a couple of minutes to walk through the tree. The roots inside have been smoothened over the years, from contact with tourists’ suddenly helpless hands and wayward limbs, but being inside the tree, and looking up from within its hollow core at a hall of roots, is an eerie, unforgettable experience. Continue reading


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Column: Most influential opinion journalist?

My first column after a year away; I pay tribute to an excellent editor, both friend and mentor. Published on July 10, 2012.

A good number of names in almost any survey of the country’s most influential opinion columnists make their home in the Inquirer’s opinion pages. Some of these columnists have the advantage, not only of lucid analysis or illuminating prose, but of careers in television: I think, for example, of Randy David or Solita Monsod. Others equally gifted have become popular despite what may best be described as indifference to regular TV appearances: You have, for instance, someone like Conrad de Quiros or Michael Tan. Still others of similar talent become must-reads because they bear almost the entire weight of their profession on their shoulders: Consider Fr. Joaquin Bernas (law), or Ambeth Ocampo (history), or Amando Doronila (journalism).

It is an easy thing for me to suggest these and other names from the Inquirer’s opinion pages, but the fact that I can also suggests something characteristic about the pages themselves. As the print (and, since about a decade and a half ago, also digital) equivalent of the public square, these pages have managed to attract some of the most powerful soapboxes of the last quarter-century. Continue reading

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Column: Do all opinions matter?

The Inquirer feedback loop just got fat–or it did, about 15 months ago, some time before this column was published on May 24, 2011.

IN RESPONSE to Monday’s editorial on the designation of Mar Roxas as President Benigno Aquino III’s chief of staff, an online reader wrote, in an angry burst of colloquial Filipino: He hasn’t even started yet, and here you are already taking a shot at him! (I can no longer find the comment online, hence the paraphrase.) Continue reading

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Column: Opinion and the gullible columnist

In the rush, I forgot to include in the following column a reference to the “fake institution” mentioned in the “fake study”–not Harvard, obviously, but something called the Harvard Institute of Socio-Political Progression, with the hilarious initials HIS-PP. Published on March 29, 2011; the feedback was most interesting.

OVER THE weekend, Philippine Star columnist Carmen Pedrosa committed a terrible blunder. She criticized Filipinos as being the most gullible people in the world—and then used fake news about a fake study by a fake institution to prove her point. Unfortunately, ironically, pathetically, hilariously, karmically (insert your preferred or even makeshift adverb here), she did not realize the whole thing was fake. Continue reading

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Column: Bloodlust

A difficult piece to write, for obvious reasons. Published on March 22, 2011.

IT PAINS me to disagree with the dean of Filipino journalists, at whose last book launch, in October 2008, I had the happy privilege of serving as grateful emcee. But on the issue of the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, I think the eminent Amando Doronila is fundamentally mistaken. Continue reading

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Column: ‘Politico,’ ‘Inglisero,’ ‘hacendero’

A first attempt to “classify” about six weeks’ worth of criticism against a new administration and the new President. I forgot to explain, to the non-Filipino reader who may stumble upon the column, that “Inglisero” meant English-speaking. Published on August 10, 2010.

I became interested in the types of criticism being leveled against President Benigno Aquino III and his administration, now all of six weeks old, when he was criticized soon after his proclamation for, essentially, fulfilling a campaign promise. Criticism is vital to public discourse, of course; in opinion journalism, it is nothing less than the primary function. But it can and ought to be studied and critiqued. Continue reading


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Column: Media can be wrong too

Got a whole lot of feedback on this column, which was published on July 13, 2010. Quite a few of the letters seemed to have used the column as permission to bash away at the media; many others were more thoughtful, reflective.

Journalists have been in the news lately, and not always in a good way. I think, for instance, of the redoubtable Ellen Tordesillas, a reporter-blogger I admire, tangling with Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo. “Tangle” may not even be the right word to describe her encounter with the country’s chief diplomat. She argued with Romulo, passionately and even heatedly, in a news conference called by the Department of Foreign Affairs, about the legality of retaining political envoys for a few more months. Romulo sought to put an end to the discussion by talking about judgment calls: This is mine; deal with it. (He did say it more diplomatically.)

Ellen defended her conduct as professional: It’s part of my job, she said. Continue reading

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Column: Bias in surveys, etc.

A manufactured crisis; the conventions of opinion writing; coping mechanisms for survey laggards. Published on January 12, 2010.

Yesterday’s editorial piqued my curiosity. “Not least, the history of the Court itself belies [Rep. Matias] Defensor’s contention that the office of Chief Justice had never been vacant, not even for a day.” Good thing the Supreme Court maintains one of the better government websites.

On sc.judiciary.gov.ph, we can find a list of the country’s chief justices, going all the way back to Cayetano Arellano. There are a few mistakes on the list that even a non-lawyer can spot and which can easily be remedied, such as Manuel Moran’s date of retirement (May 29, 1951, not 1966) or the order of Roberto Concepcion’s successors (Querube Makalintal came before Fred Ruiz Castro). But in it too, Defensor can find the perfect rebuttal to his arguments. Continue reading

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Column: Ben Zayb and the possibility of journalism

Column No. 100, published June 30, 2009.

In Rizal’s novels, as in the Harry Potter heptalogy, journalists get a bad press. About a hundred years before J. K. Rowling gave us the “enchantingly nasty” Rita Skeeter, Jose Rizal created the equally inventive Ben Zayb. Or, rather, he transcribed the character from real life, Tolstoy-like. A footnote in the Locsin translation of “Fili” introduces Ben Zayb: “A character based on several Spanish newspapermen who wrote in the Manila newspapers, among them J. F. del Pan,  Francisco Cañamaque, M. Walls y Merino, and others.”

If like me you believe that  “Noli” and  “Fili” are a measure of our progress as a nation—if the indictments still sting, the reality hasn’t changed all that much—then the continuing resonance of Rizal’s low opinion of journalists is a matter of great concern. The Ben Zaybs of the profession continue to multiply, like mushrooms after a rain or tweets after a celebrity death.

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The proper task of the critic

Found a note I made just about 20 years ago, in which I copied the definition of “the proper task of the (social) critic,” as defined by J. Peter Euben, a university professor writing for the New York Times, in his review of “The Company of Critics,” by Michael Walzer:

exposing false appearances of his own society and pointing at the systematic abuse of power; giving expression to his people’s deepest sense of how they ought to live, using the common language which he raises to a new pitch of intensity and argumentative power; reiterating the regulative principles by which one might set things right; and insisting that there are other forms of falseness and other, equally legitimate, hopes and aspirations. Such a critic is bound but never wholly bound to the life he shares with others. He is never uncritical of those in power or of his allies whose similar complaints he often regards as wrongly directed or incompletely stated. He is at once inside and outside, a member apart, a critical patriot, civilly disobedient, committed to a democratic politics that is never democratic enough.

Something about this nuanced formulation (a response to Walzer’s idea of “connected criticism”) struck me in the gut when I first read it, years before I became a full-time journalist. Indeed, the phrase “at once inside and outside” stuck in my head, as a noble ideal of writing and a neat summing-up of the writer’s ideal life. I still think the same way today.

Of course, when I first read it, I had no idea that in 20 years’ time I would be able to find the original review online and, if only I owned a Kindle, buy the book off Amazon — “in under a minute”!

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Column: SWS over Pulse Asia; Nograles vs media

Published on June 9, 2009. The feedback on Facebook (especially on MLQ’s wall) was fascinating.

I must quibble with my friend Manolo Quezon’s assertion, in his column of June 4, that “the media were caught napping by the goings-on in the House,” the night the administration coalition forced the vote on the constituent-assembly resolution. He was among those I followed online as the session neared its scripted end; some of the chatter on Facebook and Twitter that I tracked attacked the absence of traditional media at the Batasan, “except for ANC.” The Inquirer was even mentioned by name.

I was worried enough as to ask the newsroom, and immediately relayed the answer through my own Facebook update: there were at least three journalists from the Inquirer group present at the proceedings. Indeed, Inquirer.net’s Lira Dalangin-Fernandez posted a comprehensive report online a mere 10 minutes or so after the ignominious vote; the Inquirer’s Gil Cabacungan Jr. filed a report that became the next day’s banner story; photographer Niño Orbeta caught vivid images (and was himself caught on ANC). I am sure the same thing can be said for other newspapers and media organizations worth the name; they covered the vote.

So why did quite a number of bloggers and Tweeters and plurkers think the mainstream media was missing in action? I can only guess why. Either they did not see reporters with conspicuous press IDs on the floor (for good reason: many of the reporters “cover” in the press room, where their computers and Internet connections are). Or they do not listen to AM radio (the major stations, including dzMM and dzBB, covered the proceedings live). Or they expect the mass media to reach them where they are, in the digital networks they have come to inhabit. Continue reading

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Column: The diminishing of Alex Magno

Blair compared; St. Paul dissed (sort of); Alex Magno deconstructed. Published on March 31, 2009 (with the print version hiding a head-slapping typo–“stringest,” instead of “stringent”–that makes me cringe. I am reminded of my five-year-old son quoting from his favorite cartoon show: “I … was weak.”)

One more word about the Tony Blair speaking tour. It may have been the most complete triumph by a British dignitary on Philippine soil since, well, Brig. Gen. William Draper landed unopposed, somewhere in Malate, in 1762. Of course, two and a half centuries ago, the British easily conquered the capital but faced great difficulty in the periphery. Continue reading

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Columnists’ secrets

poster-columnistv3From the invitation:

In his dissenting opinion on the landmark press freedom case In re Jurado, Chief Justice Reynato Puno (then an Associate Justice) wrote: “As agent of the people, the most important function of the press in a free society is to inform and it cannot inform if it is uninformed.”

A free press does not only inform; it also forms—public attitudes, the public’s appreciation of important issues, public resolve. In short, public opinion.

Opinion columnists bear a great responsibility for that crucial task of formation; the most influential columnists not only provide incisive analysis, they also on occasion do original reporting. In this way, they help shape the climate of opinion, the public discourse that sustains the democratic experiment.

How do they go about their work? What have they learned over the years about the handling of sources? Who do they trust? When they come under severe pressure, how do they cope? And why do they write what they choose to write? Two of the country’s most influential columnists, Jarius Bondoc and RIna Jimenez David, answer these and other questions.

In discussing and documenting their answers, “The Shaping of Opinion” seeks to deepen our understanding of the nature, and the possibilities, of public discourse.

Should be fun!

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