THE ASSURANCE by President Rodrigo Duterte that he respects press freedom and that he is not media’s enemy is not likely to change significantly mainstream media’s adversarial stance in relation to him and his cohorts in the power elite.
Except for a few elements who might mistake the President’s remarks Tuesday before the Malacañang Press Corps as an invitation to cozy up to him, by and large we do not expect the working press to break from its accustomed job of policing the government.
It has to be this way if the press, as the extra-constitutional Fourth Estate, is to help maintain the check and balance between the masses and those who wield power over them, between the rulers and the ruled.
History warns us that a leader with autocratic tendencies who is aiming to consolidate power will be constantly devising ways to turn private media from watchdog to a lapdog.
Operators at the top of the power structure should be relieved that the older libertarian concept of the press, which most of Philippine media have taken as gospel, has been somewhat tempered by the newer notion of media’s having social responsibility.
In the Philippine setting, Social Responsibility took on the form of Development Communication (DevCom) that Ferdinand Marcos told the then crony press to adopt and use to contribute to making the country great again.
But the dictator’s DevCom failed to catch on despite its merits and the accompanying propaganda. This time, Duterte’s communication experts may try weaving media’s having social responsibility with his “I’m not media’s enemy” theme.
Assuring the Malacañang press — and Philippine media by extension — Duterte said in the Palace program:
“Never mind about our relations. It’s always adversarial… Wala naman tayong galit. We do not fight with each other. I do not hate anybody here or else I would not be inviting you to my place… I am not your enemy.
“Your quest for truth, that is your business, not mine. At the end of the day, it’s not my property. It’s just public interest. Your truth is not my truth and everybody’s truth… There are always two sides of the coin. My truth, your truth and the public perception.”
• No such thing as ‘objective’ news
NOW and then, there is thrown into the discussion the complaint that news in mainstream media is not objective.
Pardon me, but there is no such thing as an “objective” news story — for the simple reason that news as we know it is the product of a highly subjective process. News is often delivered to us wrapped in bias.
The process includes the gathering of materials, rechecking and selecting which ones to use, organizing them into a story or a show that the publisher or the producer hopes the target audience will like.
Having been processed by humans (although they/we sometimes sound like God) exercising value judgment, news is thus necessarily subjective. It is futile to expect it to be objective.
From one who has been immersed in the news business for half a century, our advice to the mass audience – and to critics — is to demand not objectivity, but balance, fairness, depth and humaneness. We will elaborate on these later, after we get through the turbulence.
This piece, being typed 35,000 feet above the Pacific, is not an attempt to justify the lack of objectivity in our daily news fare, but only to try to explain it. (We are, btw, on Philippine Airlines PR 127 (JFK-YVR-MNL) heading West to escape the winter.)
Mainly for convenience, we use here terms which may seem to oversimplify topics and concepts that actually grow more complex as we dig deeper into them.
Note, for instance, the terms “story” and “show” into which we have grouped the communication packages being offered by publishers (print media) and producers (broadcast media). “Story” can also include blogs and short text outbursts in Facebook and Twitter.
We call every item in print media – be it a news report, column, editorial, feature, photo essay, etc. – a “story.” And everything we listen to or watch on broadcast (radio-TV) media – a newscast, comedy skit, documentary, interview, etc. – is a “show.”
This “Postscript” column is a “story,” as is the news on the Chinese being brought in as a third telecommunications player – a development with serious national security implications.
Our favorite teleserye “Ang Probinsyano” and “Showtime” of Vice Ganda are definitely TV shows – as are the weather bulletins, Noli de Castro’s reading a report on another drug-related EJK in Tondo and Karen Davila’s searching interviews of the high and mighty.
All these stories and shows being retailed on mass media platforms are, we repeat, far from being objective – which is a dim and distant goal. By eschewing malice and being at least fair, a media outfit may not have to bother with objectivity.
It would be unrealistic to enact a law — as some congressmen with scant background in communications once tried to do – requiring media to balance their presentation by using at the earliest opportunity the side of whoever felt aggrieved by a story or show.
Enacting a law requiring such a balance would result in newspapers and radio-TV shows devoting half of their time or space to the other side of previous stories or reports. That would interfere with the content evaluation by editors and directors and wreak havoc on the media business.