POSTSCRIPT / April 4, 2010 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Where to draw the line for partisan columnists?

ETHICAL HEART: As one who jumped from campus writing to professional journalism, and stuck to its rules as best as I can for the past four decades, I am worried for this vocation that some say is older than the supposedly oldest profession.

Weeks ago, I wrote (Postscript, March 16, 2010) that newspapers will have to reinvent themselves to survive the onslaught of the giant radio-TV networks, the global swarm of the Internet and the now-ubiquitous hand-held media devices.

For one, television has been gobbling up in the current election season huge chunks of advertising revenue that in the past would have gone to newspapers.

But falling advertising income is a business risk that the print media, banding together for their common survival, will be able to resolve or minimize in time.

Meantime we have other serious problems that strike right at the ethical heart of professional journalism.

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PAGING MEDIA MOGULS: Let me start by claiming that I have seen it all — or maybe I should say virtually all.

Having been involved in all aspects of the newspaper racket — from beat coverage, photography, research, op-ed writing, editing, layout, printing, marketing, SS, etc. — I tend to take a more tolerant grandfatherly attitude when I see deviations from the rules as our elders in the academe and the industry have taught them to us.

(Do not be bothered by the term “racket.” Many of us old fogies use it more as a term of endearment than of denigration – the same lame reason for our occasionally comparing our trade to the oldest profession.)

But seeing issues of conflict of interest creeping in, and with nobody in authority doing something about the menace, I dare call attention to it in the hope that our elders, especially the almighty media moguls, will act on it.

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REPORTERS MANAGEABLE: It is good that mainstream media have assigned regular newsmen to cover each major presidential candidate and/or political party instead of rewriting releases manufactured by their media bureaus in Manila.

We presume that these close-in reporters, like the correspondents imbedded with the US-UK forces that invaded Iraq in March 2003, are fully provided for by their offices and will not need doles from the politicians they cover.

Rating their stories and those of the competition is not difficult. We can judge by their output if field reporters have been true or have sold themselves to the politicians they cover.

An additional in-house check is the seasoned editor, especially one who has been around, who possesses a knack for knowing if a reporter’s copy is true or false, has been sold or bought. How does he know? He just knows.

Generally, there is no serious problem with the stories filed from the field that cannot be rewritten out by an alert desk — or sent to the dust bin by hitting the delete key.

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WHAT ABOUT COLUMNISTS?: A more complex problem rearing its ugly head is in the writings of columnists who are presumed to have proved themselves and, therefore, can be trusted.

When that trust is broken, the readers are generally unaware of it, especially if the mind-conditioning through the column is carried out with marketing savvy.

More successful propagandists sometimes grow overconfident and even brag about it. A few times, the propaganda smuggled in the column is spotted by readers (and fellow writers) who see the same line/lie being reeled out with suspicious frequency.

Most times, the unsuspecting reader is carried away by the expert employ of emotional phrases and logic and a selective use of half-truths and innuendoes. There lies the danger.

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VENOMOUS SPIT: Is it right for a columnist to use his space to campaign for his chosen candidate/client and endlessly spit venom at his candidate’s rival?

Whether he is paid or not to write that way, or whether or not he operates in expectation of a reward, is immaterial. That he has used his column in violation of the basic principle of balance and fairness is enough reason to at least call his attention to it.

But we do not rule out the possibility that the writer is honestly unaware of the falsity or partiality of his exposition. Being human, we all commit mistakes.

One applicable rule here is for the writer to correct the error the first chance he gets. If he cannot accommodate a rejoinder in his column, he can ask for space for the purpose.

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STABLE OF WRITERS: It can happen that a partisan columnist is operating in connivance with other writers in the stable of a political operator.

They are easy to spot as, being lazy and in a hurry to make money, they usually use the same materials rewritten ad infinitum without verification or any attempt at balance.

By definition, a column being an opinion piece is never objective. While a news story must be as objective as is humanly possible (it is impossible), we cannot impose the same rule for columns.

Precisely, columnists are expected to give their considered opinion on current issues.

They can even come out for a candidate and explain the stance they have taken. If in the process they convince readers to vote for their man, that is a collateral benefit.

That we understand. But when the same columnists argue too passionately and virulently, like they hold the franchise to certain candidates, and refuse to allow just a sliver of argument from the other side, something is grievously wrong.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 4, 2010)

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