Tag Archives: public discourse

Column: P-Noy and Du30, compared

Published on June 28, 2016.

THE TRANSITION from the Aquino to the Duterte presidencies gives us an opportunity to compare the two presidents. I have chosen the following three points of comparison; others may wish to discuss other reference points. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte comes out ahead in one, President Aquino leads in another. The third is a toss-up, with perhaps the Filipino public ending up losing.

First, their electoral mandate. No one of the presidents elected under the 1987 Constitution has received a majority of the votes cast in their respective elections. The combination of a multiparty setup and a first-past-the-post system all but ensures that all presidents of the Fifth Republic win with a mere plurality of the vote.

Of the five presidents elected since 1987, Mr. Aquino in 2010 won the largest share of the vote: 42 percent. Fidel V. Ramos became president in 1992 with only 23.5 percent. At 39 percent, Duterte’s share is the second smallest after Ramos’ not only since 1987 but in history. 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: 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: ‘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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Jessica Zafra, on #twistedthursdays


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August 25, 2013 · 8:10 am

Column: P-Noy’s Kabayan problem, and ours too

Published on July 31, 2012.

President Aquino is wrong to think that the fundamental nature of news has changed. But he is entirely in the right when he calls journalists to account according to journalism’s own standards. Unless, of course, journalists think those standards are only meant to be paid lip service.

“Negativity” in the news—the word the President used in his remarks at BusinessWorld’s 25th anniversary rites last Friday—has become the shorthand defining what an ABS-CBN story online would later call his “scolding spree” against the media, even though the real controversy erupted only after the President directly criticized ABS-CBN anchor Noli de Castro at the 25th anniversary party of the iconic “TV Patrol” newscast, later that same Friday. 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: The (self-) importance of being Harry

Another difficult piece to write, because as I say at the very start, I do like Harry Roque. Published on July 19, 2011.

I like Harry Roque. I do not mind that he styles himself, in his own blog, as an activist lawyer, because in fact that is what he is. I remember him best for his prominent role in the effort to impeach Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at a time when almost all of the political cards seemed to be stacked against the opposition. I met him for the first time at a conference in Hong Kong last year, where we served on different panels; I took to him immediately. I saw him as a family man and a patriot, the kind of affable Pinoy who seeks out other kababayan when travelling abroad.

His latest turn in the headlines, however, outraged me. In an attempt to head off any further debate on the possible uses of Zaldy Ampatuan’s testimony, he irresponsibly politicized the issue by claiming—without any evidence—that the so-called Balay faction in the Aquino administration was behind an effort to draft the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a state witness in the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre case. Continue reading

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Column: Lost boy, playboy, bad boy

Column No. 200. A second attempt to categorize the types of criticism leveled against the second President Aquino, published on July 12, 2011.

Last August, about six weeks after his inauguration, I tried to distinguish the “types of criticism [already] being leveled against President Benigno Aquino III and his administration” by identifying three patterns in the criticism. That attempt, under the column title “‘Politico’, ‘Inglisero’, ‘hacendero’,” drew a vigorous response from several readers. To the most lucid rejoinder, by Herbert Docena, I ceded my column space the following week. Continue reading

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Better than it sounds: Barack Obama

Notes on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC; third of a series.

On the third night of the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama walked out on stage and up to the podium with a heavy burden of high expectations. According to what has now gelled into conventional wisdom, he came off the stage three-quarters of an hour later with those expectations largely unmet. I am not too sure.

A comparison of his prepared text and his actual remarks (the Washington Post version here, the more complete New York Times version here) shows some differences; he too had responded to the moment as Bill Clinton did, but hardly on a Clintonesque scale. (The instance I remember best—I was following his speech on CNN with a copy of the prepared text—was when he dumped a reference to Google in favor of Steve Jobs.) Continue reading

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A master class in politics: Bill Clinton

Second of a series: Notes on Bill Clinton’s magisterial performance at DNC 2012.

Bill Clinton’s nomination speech on the second night of the Democratic National Convention was an outstanding, even thrilling example of political rhetoric. He made the case for Barack Obama’s reelection in an almost scholastic manner: He raised each of the main charges leveled against Obama’s presidency, and then argued masterfully against each of them. That in almost each instance he demolished the Republican view was icing on the cake; the real gift was the conversational but detailed approach to policy he sought to engage his increasingly rapt audience in. 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: The last of the Daily Me?

Written some three months before I got to meet the peerless Josh Benton. Published on May 17, 2011.

I first noticed it a few months ago, when I read Joshua Benton’s “Eight Trends for Journalism in 2011,” a presentation by the young director of the Nieman Journalism Lab before the Canadian Journalism Foundation in January. In the last paragraph of a longish discussion about the seventh trend (“New front pages”), Benton took time to praise the BBC’s iPad app.

“And I think one of the brilliant elements of it is that when you launch the app, it doesn’t present you with a menu of options. It doesn’t say, ‘Here are 17 options, choose one.’ It’s not a choose-your-own-adventure. It immediately tells you, ‘This is where your adventure should start.’ It puts you in a story right away. You don’t [have to do] any action, you’re immediately pushed in. And then it becomes, ‘How do you navigate from story to story?’ Instead of going to a story, hitting the back button, going to look over the other menu of options, then going back again. The metaphor that exists on a lot of iPad apps in the news world is swiping from story to story. Which is a very similar experience to what you traditionally had in newspapers—seeing stories and being able to dive in right there.” 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: Migz replies: Nery out to destroy my reputation

It may be best to think of this piece as the middle part of a trilogy of columns; it responds to the previous column, and it is followed by a detailed counter-response. Published on January 25, 2011.

IN THE last few months and until last week, I had been more or less incommunicado, completing a book project. But I was never completely out of the loop, and when I found out that Sen. Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri had written our publisher a lengthy letter in reply to my column on Sen. Loren Legarda and Zubiri’s case at the Senate Electoral Tribunal last week, I asked for a copy. His letter, it turns out, is too long for our Letters page (we cannot accommodate anything more than 3,000 characters long). Instead of sending it back to him to cut it down to the right size, however, I thought of running it here instead. I have done exactly that in previous instances, and I am only too glad to do the same thing for him. Continue reading

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Column: The end of “media” as we knew it

Published on November 23, 2010–the first anniversary of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre.

I do not wish to add to the unbearable burden of the families of the victims of the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre, especially those who lost loved ones who were not media workers, with another reflection on the massacre’s implications on Philippine journalism. The horrific killings—57 bodies recovered, one still missing—reveal more about life in the Philippines than the state of the media: The Philippine polity as an anarchy of families (to borrow Alfred McCoy’s evocative book title); the role of violence in society; the wages of greed; the coopting of much of the country’s security forces; even (in the case of the unfortunate victims who
merely happened to be driving by) the very gratuity of life when you are poor
or not powerful. Continue reading

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Column: One mistake and you’re out

This one was a doozy; feedback was both loud and intriguing. TV5’s new media-issues show Journo ran a comprehensive report on the entire Mai Mislang fiasco and its aftermath. Published on November 2, 2010.

Mistakes are inevitable in the practice of journalism. With the sheer amount of information that must be processed in preparing a newspaper or producing a newscast or publishing a website, it is almost impossible to get everything right: to make sure that every spelling is correct, every detail double-checked, every fact verified.

This is not to say that accuracy is an irrelevant principle; indeed, it is of paramount importance precisely because it is a difficult ideal. 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: Uncharitable, unkind

Published on May 18, 2010.

The iconic Conrado de Quiros and the redoubtable Billy Esposo, two columnists I look up to and who have never been less than generous with me, have written recent columns that strike me as more partisan than necessary, or indeed as intended. On the junking of Mar Roxas, Noynoy Aquino’s running mate, Conrad has written much the more nuanced analysis; Billy’s defense of this political maneuver is ruder and rawer, and thus harder to digest. But I hope I am not mistaken in taking their columns (the second part of Conrad’s is in today’s edition) as all of a piece.

I trust they will forgive my temerity. Continue reading

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Column: Tough but fair: The Inquirer debate

I did not realize, before I wrote this particular column, that I would be asked later in the week to write “teasers” about the debate for the front page. if I had known, perhaps I would have decided differently. Published on February 2, 2010.

Allow me to write about the sense of growing excitement shared by the many people working behind “Inquirer 1st Edition: The Presidential Debate.” Since Friday, hundreds of Philippine Daily Inquirer and INQUIRER.net readers have been submitting to the newspaper the questions they would like posed before the candidates. On Monday, campaign staff representing eight presidential candidacies were formally briefed on the process flow and logistics of the candidates’ forum. (A ninth was invited but could not make it.) And on Wednesday and on three other occasions this week, various panelists will meet to practice for the event, which takes place on Monday, Feb. 8, at the University of the Philippines. Continue reading

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Column: The iconoclastic Gloria A.

Published on January 19, 2010.

This is not an essay in religious psychology, but only a look—via Fr. Joaquin Bernas’ precise theses, John Rawls’ “overlapping consensus” and the underlying philosophy of TV’s “CSI”—at what may well be Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s true legacy.

* * *

I thought yesterday’s column by Father Bernas put paid to the debate over whether President Arroyo should name Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s successor. In 19 succinctly stated points (which he all but apologized for, saying he was forced to “write in telegraphic style” because “there are so many issues involved”), the foremost constitutionalist answered virtually all concerns raised in the debate. For instance: “The only instance I can think of where the presence of the chief justice might be indispensable is when the President is on trial on impeachment. But I cannot see that coming any time soon.”

Like many other political journalists, I am a layman forced to wrestle with legal and constitutional implications on a regular basis. Father Bernas’ theses-style approach, therefore, is useful for cutting through the clutter. For instance, an Inquirer editorial a few days ago took a few paragraphs to assert that Rep. Matias Defensor’s seeming desperation contrasted with the Constitution’s “massive calm.” Father Bernas disposed of Defensor’s panic in two sentences: “The original period proposed for filling vacancies in the Supreme Court was 60 days; it was extended to 90 days without debate … Thus even the Constitution believes that the vacancy can wait 90 days.”
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Column: The curse of singing journalists, atbp.

Today’s column. Considering my many friends in the ABS-CBN newsroom, not exactly easy to write. But as one of them pledged, All is fair indeed in love and war. Published on January 5, 2010.

I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD, RUNS ONE typical comment in one of the many available YouTube versions. Watching ABS-CBN’s “Ako ang Simula” music video, we can easily see why. It is catchy, powerful, unforgettable. It is also wrong.

It blurs, in the name of good citizenship, the already heavily smudged line between journalism and entertainment. 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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