FIRST PERSONThe emasculated press
Let me first make a defining distinction: The press I refer to here is that which democracy intends as sovereign watchdog on the rich and the powerful, in other words, the ruling class.
VERGEL O. SANTOS
Let me first make a defining distinction: The press I refer to here is that which democracy intends as sovereign watchdog on the rich and the powerful, in other words, the ruling class. It is the press that the Constitution accordingly bestows a first-ranked and exclusive freedom — freedom of the press — because it has only words to deploy against wealth and arms.
That distinction needs to be made because the term “press” has become synonymous with “media” in contemporary usage, now embracing all purveyors of information. In fact, the corruption has gone so deep and so extensive the legitimate press may have to reinvent itself if it is to regain its effectiveness and be able to fulfill its original democratic purpose.
But reinvent how? The process transcends formula; it has to adapt to ever changing conditions; it has to battle impostors. The problem itself can only be wrestled more by feel than by technique. Even as a theoretical issue, it is too big and too complex to discuss here instructively.
Still, determining where the press failed, why, and how, is a necessary first effort. And for 2022 to serve as a guidepost, it should be viewed as the year in which the accumulation of press shortcomings through the years may have helped send this nation to a doomed future. Those years, running through Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, from 2016 to 2022, saw a press that had become either coopted or cowed, at any rate, timid — as someone I read somewhere said, press freedom is a trumpet; it is meant to be boldly blown (or something to that effect).
To be sure, the press has suffered killings and all sorts of intimidation and harassment — concocted court suits, Red-tagging, threats open and anonymous, and the arbitrary closing of at least one broadcast franchisee (ABS-CBN, the oldest and widest-reaching network no less). Of course, nearly the entire legislature, much of the judiciary, and many official oversight institutions did not need to go through any of that, not in the least, to be persuaded to succumb.
Thus, President Duterte, who never made any secret of his idolatry of Ferdinand Marcos, dictator from 1972 to 1986, had no trouble taking us down the authoritarian path. He put generals just retired in his Cabinet and in other lower-ranked but still powerful offices. He waged a brutal and indiscriminate drug war that has left thousands dead.
He was over-friendly toward communist China, favoring it with contracts and its businessmen and citizens with easy terms for residency, work, and travel. But his greatest gift of all to the Chinese was the one immeasurable loss to us particularly in these dire economic times — control over our resource-rich and strategic West Philippine Sea.
His hold on power was such that he was not himself done although his term was. A successor stepped up who could not have been worthier — Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Moreover, Marcos took Sara Duterte for his vice president; as crown heiress, she becomes her father’s longer-term insurance that he would not have to answer for his murderous, corrupt, and treasonous regime. If that’s the deal, indeed, it has held so far.
But how could a Marcos have recurred in a mere generation in a society whose openness is supposed to be constitutionally guaranteed by a free press? Indeed, how could that have happened on the sponsorship of Rodrigo Duterte?
It’s a usual criticism of the Philippine press that it falls short in professional capability and in ethical and moral standing. That criticism might be more or less fair at anytime, but to single out the press for culpability is grossly unfair. That’s even more unfair in the contemporary context, as defined by technology — by the Internet.
As a facility where anyone can dump information and anyone else can take anything for recycling and spreading, the Internet opens itself to the worst possibilities. Sure enough, being so easily corruptible, it has given rise to a prodigious non-stop cacophony of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, whose very size makes it next to impossible to police.
One fateful consequence of its free-for-all operation is a drowned-out press. In fact, its more insidious operators have appropriated the journalism profession itself, some of them even managing to give themselves an appearance of legitimacy, hardly a surprise in an impoverished, under-educated society like ours, easily seduced by such cheap joys and sense of power as can be had from tweeting, Facebook-chatting, or even plain Net-surfing. Blogging becomes its journalism.
Of course, a world of difference separates blogging from journalism. Journalism is informed by a range of disciplines acquired by its practitioners through theoretical education and continuous training on the job. A journalist’s work goes through multiple layers of checks to ensure its truthfulness and prudent dissemination. I always liken journalism to a piloted train, and blogging to a runaway one, being a catch-as-catch-can affair — arbitrary, individualistic, often untutored. The most insidious of its operators are the trolls — traffickers in disinformation for paying clients.
Some press organizations and individual journalists have gone online, although without necessarily quitting their old traditional platforms — print or broadcast. But the answer lies not solely in the choice of platform or mix of platforms; the answer has to take into consideration the predispositions of audiences as shaped by their habits and cultures, their levels of education and income, and their hopes.
But, again, how does the old press even begin to reinvent itself for the benefit of the same lopsided society that put a second Marcos in power and Duterte in untroubled retirement? How does the free press even begin to redeem itself?