Author’s note: this piece was written in Original TMX. In these times of protracted word wars between television stations, this experiment – once again – says my peace.
Originally posted May 21, 2007
< gonna be quite long >
Sometimes I wonder if my experiences as a campus journalist ever amounted to me being “part of the media,” or if I ever was a “media man.” I’ve had my fair share of “media experiences” like interviewing the likes of Erap Estrada (the former President) and Bojo Molina (who is unknown to many who haven’t watched “F.L.A.M.E.S” or “The Mariano Mison Story”), covering everything from demolitions to worker’s strikes to student rallies. My friends say that most student journalists can’t hold their candles to me. To me, it wasn’t about me being “a good journalist,” but it was a matter of holding the same job for 11 years, despite having had a conflicted past with it.
But one thing was that in spite of my differences with my paper and the media in general, I’ve always defended it. To me, the media represents the actualization of freedom of speech and the right to free expression. The mistakes of the media are “human” mistakes, and there’s nothing and old-fashioned erratum can correct. I was all for de-criminalizing libel. I thought that a newscaster is just doing the job expected of him/her. I thought that there was nothing wrong with the freest press in Asia.
But after a much-needed break from the grind, I realized that I thought wrong. Thinking that the media – mainstream or alternative – presented the “realities of life” was undoubtedly part of a “false consciousness” I fostered for myself as being part of the media. This amounted to me revisiting my old conflicts with media and subjecting it to the pains of a dialectic. I realized that what you see is different from what you experience, and the view of things do change when you see it from a different angle. It’s not a matter of merely writing an article from a different perspective or viewing a newscast from another channel, but a matter of seeing and understanding media from the strange perspective of being formerly from it, and now being a consumer of it. From what I though of myself to be a “media practicioner,” I have metamorphosed to being what I think of myself as a “media critic.”
Politicians and public figures complain about being “victimized” by the media, although it is elucidated in very shallow and personal terms. But I think that “victimization” is not something exclusive to a politician or a celebrity, but is something that is inclusive to the public in general. The way I see it, people are silent victims of the media. Presented with no other alternatives to major networks, broadsheets and tabloid journalism, consumers – in this case “customers” – of mainstream and “alternative” media outfits and enterprises are forced to consume a general media product that belittles their intelligence and disregards their agency. transforms the public into passive and willing victims of the path to enforced and institutionalized intellectual degeneration, moral degradation, and outright dishonesty.
The views in this entry are strictly my views and do not reflect the views of other organizations, individuals and such. Criticism of all kinds – constructive, personal, degrading – are welcome.
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Introduction: Coronel’s “idiotization” thesis
Shiela Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) mentions of the “idiotization” of Philippine news. It’s very evident in primetime news programs, where anchors act like hectoring demagogues, where the reportage largely consists of police reports and crime stories, and so on and so forth. To news executives, they merely “report the news as it is,” that what is being reported is merely a reflection of what’s going on in society. But rather than elevate the level of discourse in Philippine news, the level degenerates. In effect, the viewer is treated like, well, an idiot, force-fed crime stories, showbiz scoops and political scandals.
When I first read Coronel’s article a few months ago, I thought that she was a bit “biased” and that her claims are largely founded on statistical evidence, which is something I’m not very keen on. But the more I watch TV news, the more I realize that there is merit to the “idiotization” thesis. It is something pervasive in Philippine media, a syndrome, if you will.
“Syndrome” is a light word, something that pertains to a brief attack of something periodic. But the idiotization of media – in this case Philippine media – is something that goes beyond something like a social “influenza.” The degree by which we, the people, are turned into passive idiots is something that not only makes us sick, but makes us immune as well. It’s more like a plague.
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Let’s start with a microcosm. Back when I was a practicing campus journalist, I have always been told that “to write is already to choose.” This means that a journalist should not and cannot attain absolute objectivity in reporting the news: the mere fact that he/she chooses who to interview, where to get sources and how to write the article is itself an affirmation of bias. It, however, was a choice: you have to choose your bias. Almost everyone in the school paper professed being biased “to the students” or “to the people,” but I didn’t believe this. To me, the paper is a public service and a public trust: because a journalist does public service he/she must state publicly where he/she is coming from. Part of good editorial policy should be that at the beginning of a new editorial term, the paper should make clear its objectives and thrusts for the term and state its biases clearly and publicly. This was not “suicide,” as my co-editors termed it, but it was a matter of keeping things honest and on the level. This means that the reading public knows the standpoint and viewpoint the paper is coming from for every article or editorial piece it publishes.
What I “preached” in the school paper’s newsroom, though, wasn’t something readily accepted. Many of the arguments that led me to resign from the paper were caused by this rift between conflicting journalistic philosophies. While they argued along the lines of “editorial independence,” I made it clear that the political and ideological affiliations and leanings of its members (myself included) did not make complete “editorial independence” possible. While they hired apprentices and new staff members on the basis of their receptiveness to and acceptance of educational discussions and their political work, I worked only with those who were already experienced or demonstrate a satisfactory capacity to handle the job. But beyond that was a difference in how to handle bias: to them, it was important to continue a tradition of “alternative journalism,” to report the news the mainstream media does not report on and to be the “voice of the oppressed.” I was all for tradition and voicing out the concerns of the oppressed: what I wanted, though, was for these to be made explicit to the reading public. It was not a matter of a militant editorial term taking in the opinions of non-militants to “balance out” the school paper as proposed by many readers. Instead, the paper should make it clear from the very beginning where it’s coming from, what ideology it adheres to, what causes it supports and what direction it’s going to take.
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Media’s business end
But then again, that’s the theoretical ideal. I now know why my seniors and my superiors protested against my ideas from the get-go: media is not just about “public service” as I always thought, but it’s also primarily a business. It’s not just a matter of monetary profit, but a matter of social profit as well. Stating your biases publicly is fine, for so long as it doesn’t hurt the business end of your outfit. “Informing the public” is not as simple as it sounds. Being a source of information, you have to pick your information. It’s a lot like picking grapes for wine: you don’t drop the whole bunch in. Instead, you select the biggest, juiciest and the most flavorful ones. The business end of the media is not about protecting the interests of the reader, but protecting the interests of the business.
You have to have an established network that supports the business end of your outfit. In a school paper, for example, your support network is not composed of the students who mandatorily pay for school paper fees, but from the organizations and supporters that protect you from the flak that you’re going to get left and right everytime you publish something that will rouse doubt on the “objectivity” demanded of you. You can proclaim “editorial independence” or stand by the assertion that you are an “institution,” but that’s simply not enough. From the get-go, it is imperative to build alliances with organizations and umbrella alliances that will not only defend you from impending flak for your stands and actions, but also a reader base. People have to read you: if they don’t, you’re dead. No readers mean no new alliances. No new alliances means no support. No support means no paper. It’s that simple.
Earlier, I likened the editorial process to picking grapes for wine. There’s another apsect to that: you can’t make wine that everybody likes. It’s the same thing with a newspaper: you can’t make articles that everybody likes. This will confound many people: just how exactly do you get the job done if you can’t please everybody? It’s quite simple, really. You have a support base in those who read you, so you cater to this support base. You don’t have to make articles everybody likes, you only have to make articles your support network likes. You don’t please everybody: instead, you please the people who are pleased with you and who you are pleased with. This is not technically “alienating” the reading public, because there’s really no one to alienate. Those who don’t read you – either by virtue of ignorance or because they protest your editorial standpoint by “boycotting” you – are not, strictly speaking, your readers. You don’t have to make articles for them, you only have to make articles for your network. You publish articles for those who are sympathetic to your cause, but at the same time and in effect, you publish articles that are sympathetic to their cause. It’s not a mere matter of “exchange” or “reciprocity,” but it’s a matter of business. In business, you and your customer have to think alike, you have to reach a point of congruence. In business, congruence makes deals materialize – it’s a matter of cinching a deal because you know there’s a deal coming, not because you merely “expect” a deal. You don’t “converge,” since with that arrangement, something has to give. If you buckle, no paper. Again, it’s that simple.
Some may think that an arrangement like this is “corrupt.” Ethically, yes, it’s definitely corrupt that it’s nauseating. But politically, it’s not. People talk about “media ethics” a lot nowadays, but there’s also such a thing as “media politics.” Politics is grounded on the survival imperative. Biologically, you can’t survive without food for four months and without water for three days. But in society, you can’t survive without having a hold on the politics of things. Politics has often been called “the economics of social survival” for good reason: it’s all a matter of investment and return. The social “stock market” is about investing in the right people and you get good returns if you play the game well. Media is not all that different: people invest in you, in return you invest in them, and this cycle of investments continue on for so long as you both reap the benefits of the investment. This creates bonds forged and strengthened by time and more and more investments. If the bond goes up, you both go up. If the bond goes down, you both go down. It’s all a matter of protecting mutual interests – it’s called “shareholding.” Yes, it definitely looks and sounds very, very familiar. It’s a game of survival: if a paper doesn’t survive, it’s dead. Yet again, it’s that simple.
At this point, at least, we have a clue to why primetime news shows so much crime stories, why newspapers are so politically inclined, why certain advertisers choose this network over another, and why many school papers are in reality not “independent.” And like many things that I hold strong opinions of, this is definitely going to hurt.
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The newscaster as a hectoring demagogue
In the case of primetime news, it’s all about ratings. Had we taken the logic of news executives that they report things “the way they are” with a less-than-critical mind, the streets should be so full of vehicular crashes, the jails should be so jam-packed with petty thieves and rapists, that our major cities are raging infernos of sheer doom and terror, and that at every waking moment there’s a 100% chance that we’ll be robbed at knifepoint, hostaged in a bus, raped by our stepfathers, killed by a gunman, or commit suicide in the confines of our very own homes. The thing is, the big networks don’t report what’s really going on, but report the news they deem profitable to their demographic: the C, D and E classes who have their TV’s turned on for 18 hours a day, looking for some measure of suspense and action to spice up their otherwise boring and uneventful lives. The lower class does not understand the many socio-economic implications of the fluctuating performance of the Philippine economy or the ramifications of Paul Wolfowitz resigning from the World Bank after nepotism charges were filed against him. Instead, they understand the polarizing and simplifying effects of elementary dichotomies like good and evil, police and criminal, fire and firefighter, hostage-taker and negotiator, and so on.
This is what “sells” to the primetime audience, who understand convoluted soap opera storylines and inanities in “reality TV” shows, but demonstrate an inadequate understanding of their roles and responsibilities in building a society grounded on the principles of social justice, rights and equity: the antitheses of which are broadcasted on TV in the form of “poll fraud” allegations, paraphilic rapes and “public service announcements” involving the network’s “foundation” literally peddling and hawking scenes of poverty and disability to every TV in the nation just so that they can say that they are “for real” in the lame over-dramatization that passes for their brand of “public service.” You don’t see commentary and debate on primetime news, but you see “reports” on the next “wholesome girl” to land a “sexy pictorial” with some men’s magazine or some “funny” feature story about a strange frog. Rather than conscienticize the public about the real situation of divisiveness in the nation, the networks have effectively re-divided the nation between who’s part of the network’s family, who’s in the network’s heart, and who watches government officials prattle on about the accomplishments of this “Strong Republic” that has sustained compound fractures on every single bone of its body.
What would have been acceptable, in this case, is for the networks to admit where they’re coming from. We – in this case I – cannot and will not settle for vague, poetic and metaphorical abstractions of things that don’t sound like an open declaration of bias. After all, it’s bad for business: “bias” is a four-letter word. But what’s good for business is bad for the public consciousness: the choice for sources of news is limited because it’s profitable to keep it limited. When the other network goes on commercial, you go on commercial too, to compete with revenues.
Broadcasting interns, who of all people should have a better knowledge of modern practices of journalism than the antiquated method of applying the style of radio to television and vice versa – start to report like they’re covering the police beat all the time. And for what? Ratings. You don’t report the news in order to inform the public anymore, but you beat the other reporters to the source of the news and have an “exclusive.” Then you shove the damned microphone right on the face of the grieving mother of the victim or ambush the politican-in-question while he/she is entering his/her car. You could have told me before that that was the way you’re going to do the news. But you won’t, because it’s bad for business.
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Newspapers: the freehold?
The abomination that is primetime news makes me more of a newspaper guy, but sometimes, I just don’t get it anymore. Everytime I pick up a newspaper nowadays I’m not spared from the same force-feeding of information in primetime news, especially with tabloids. Sure, they’re cheap, but I don’t have to read the graphic descriptions of a 70-year-old grandmother getting run over by a semi truck while I’m having my coffee. Heck, I don’t even have to read the tabloid version of last night’s rape story in all of its graphic detail, more so those serialized sex stories that would actually induce, or at least fuel the thought, of the damned sex crimes so prevalent in primetime TV news. Worse, reading a tabloid is like getting showbiz bits intravenously fed to you: blind items are easier to solve than brain-wracking Sunday Sudoku puzzles, and you’ll definitely be the first to know of celebrity closet queens and sex scandal royalty.
Well, there’s always the broadsheet, right? Well, not really: the major broadsheets of the country will never declare their political biases to the public and leave that to the monotony of topics in their opinion pages and the monotony of their news, in the hope that the implication is much less dangerous than the explication (which is often not the case). And yes, there’s an entire section for the chaos of Metro Manila while the rest of the nation is covered by one-paragraph newsbriefs. Everyday, it’s the same thing: not because it’s a slow news day, but because it’s what’s profitable for their interests. The way I see it, you can classify the major broadsheets in the country can be divided into three: those who are against the government but don’t explicate it in the interest of keeping its advertisers and perpetuating its agenda, those who serve the purpose of being the other paper’s competitor and runs the same stories as them only re-worded and rephrased to protect their own business interests, and those who tread the path of “objectivity” to the dot that they publish useless news and “praise releases” for politicians but make good profits in classified ads. I’ll leave that to you, since there are three major broadsheets in the Philippines today and it’s pretty easy to guess just what is what.
So you don’t like tabloids, you don’t like broadsheets, and you happen to be a college student in a state university that prides itself on “academic freedom.” Well, you’ve got a paper rich in history and tradition, but full of all the crap that you’re going to have to stomach because you pay for it in advance and you have no choice. Yes, they are as “objective” as an executioner on the day of a beheading, but the staff is at the very front row of a rally: which is the best place to “cover” a “violent dispersal” or a “show of force” of a couple of dozen students. We make mistakes, but we can always apologize for them next month: be it a misspelling of a name, a factual error, or a bigoted slur that didn’t really mean or imply anything anything offensive but really meant, hmmm, let’s see, a “bundle of sticks.” It will always be a slow news day on campus: nothing (and I mean nothing) is more important than the “big issues” that have never changed since the 1970′s, since time immemorial – imperialism, capitalism, and our inalienable right as journalists to stay on campus on off-hours – and we will use the same analysis and the same course of action because history repeats itself, even if it’s the 21st century and the envelope of ideas and courses of action have expanded to allow other ideas to come in. But our ideas are better because we’re much more “scientific” and “objective” in our analysis: the mere fact that our ideas and courses are action are completely congruent, practically similar and totally alike to the ideas and courses of action of another political party is completely and totally coincidental.
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Conclusion: Never that simple
Well, I said it was going to hurt… don’t say I didn’t warn you.
These opinions aren’t completely unique, though: many people share the same opinions about the Philippine news media, but the problem is few people actually “complain,” much less do something about it. It’s not about passive and ready acceptance of the way things are, but it has been a constant process of turning and rendering people passive, accepting things for the way they are. It’s “idiotization:” it’s not an instantaneous transformation of a reader or a viewer into what passes for an idiot. Instead, it’s a process: it doesn’t take too long, you just bombard the populace with racy tabloids in the morning and have them watch the primetime news in the evening. You do this enough and you’ll have a nation that has been desensitized to the effects of everything, from tragedy to social obligations to the state of their lives in general. After all, it’s in the news. You can’t argue with facts. Since the news are made up of facts, you can’t argue with the news.
I’m not a journalist, nor have I been schooled in “actual” journalism: some of my claims here would probably be dismissed as “delusional” interpretations of what I see in TV or what I read in the papers, or from my own experiences as a writer. But like I said earlier, many people share the same opinions about the Philippine news media. The reason why we act so passively and we seem so “ready” to literally ingest the news is because we have no choice. “Truthfulness” and “fairness” in reporting goes beyond the “objectivity” that there is in reporting the news or the “sexiness” factor that comes with marketing the news product: it is being truthful and fair about what the product is. Being in the media you have the power over what information the general public knows, but you have the responsibility of ensuring these people the right to know. And in that sense, you don’t keep a secret from the public.
Granted, you can’t publish or show everything, but you have to keep things honest. Good media practicioners are upfront about what advocacies they support, what business interests they have and where they stand. They don’t claim to be objective if they’re obviously not: news is about calling a spade a spade. They don’t report news items that would make a quick sale in the newsstands or go through these overwrought and overspent material that makes a person tired of reading or watching the news, the news is instead accurate, timely, truthful and fair. If you can’t present the two sides of a story, say so. It’s that simple.
Of course, in media, things were never “that simple.” If it was, our problems wouldn’t have been this complicated.