POSTSCRIPT / January 12, 2020 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Must journalism, patriotism clash?

THE LATE Jose Luna Castro, our editor at the pre-martial law Manila Times, once called me to his office to discuss my story about the then foreign secretary saying he was not aware that a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier docked at the Subic Bay naval base the day before.

The story was written in the context of an agreement that nuclear weapons are not to be brought into the country without the prior written consent of the Philippines. The aircraft carrier, while nuclear-powered, was not itself a nuclear weapon, but….

The usual practice when the US sought permission was for the Philippine government to ask if nuclear weapons or armaments are on board – to which the standard response was the US neither confirming nor denying their presence.

My story asked why the foreign secretary was not informed of the nuclear warship’s port call when the relatives of Fil-Am seamen on board, plus the hundreds of excited bar girls of Olongapo, knew of its coming weeks in advance.

I also told Joe Luna (how we referred to him when out of earshot) how I got my nuke story – which was by catching the slightly inebriated foreign secretary when his defenses were down. He was capping a busy day at Padre Faura with his nth shot of his favorite Scotch.

My editor told me, then an eager-beaver newly assigned to the diplomatic beat: “Before you’re a reporter, you.are.a.Filipino!” I felt he was telling me to be careful about embarrassing the country, if not its esteemed officials, or myself.

But his words did not jibe with my orientation that my primary guide as a journalist was the truth, with public interest as utilitarian value-added. Embarrassing or shielding government officials hardly figured in my handling of the facts.

This career footnote comes rolling back from the late 60s as similar issues swirled around media after President Trump triggered warlike activities with his ordering the Jan. 3 airstrike that terminated top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport.

Paul Farhi of Washington Post wrote Thursday: “As potential conflict looms, some pundits suggest reporting skeptical of the administration is unpatriotic. It’s not the first time.”

He quoted Pete Hegseth, a veteran and weekend co-host of President Trump’s favorite program, “Fox and Friends,” saying: “I bemoan the fact, especially since the Iraq War, that it feels like patriotism is largely dead among our journalism corps. Where is the home team for a lot of these people? Taking a moment to cheer and appreciate that when America kills one of our enemies on the battlefield that’s a good thing. It just doesn’t feel like that exists much anymore.”

The same point had come up, he noted, “in the days preceding the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when CNN correspondent Peter Arnett outraged some Americans by presenting the view from Baghdad; in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; and in lesser national security incidents since then.”

President Trump himself has repeatedly questioned reporters’ loyalties. The news media, he claimed, are “the enemy of the people.” His incessant use of the term “fake news” to refer to reports that riled him has given currency to that tag.

Farhi wrote: “Journalists have defended themselves for years by pointing out that there’s a bold line between loyalty to the country and fealty to the people who are running it. Skepticism of those in power is patriotic, too, as the veteran editor and author Bill Kovach wrote in the wake of 9/11:

“A journalist is never more true to democracy — is never more engaged as a citizen, is never more patriotic — than when aggressively doing the job of independently verifying the news of the day; questioning the actions of those in authority; disclosing information the public needs but others wish secret for self-interested purposes.”

Farhi: “This may be especially true during wartime. Officials in the Nixon administration deemed the New York Times and The Washington Post unpatriotic for publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret government account of US military involvement in Vietnam, though in hindsight the publication stands as a landmark of democratic action and journalistic truth-seeking.”

Any miscalculation could spark a bigger conflagration. Martin Baron, editor of The Post, said: “Most of the press wasn’t aggressive enough in questioning the premise for the Iraq War, when the Bush administration rationalized US military action with false and misleading statements about that country’s development and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.

“The highest responsibility of the press is to report thoroughly, vigorously and probingly when this country’s leaders take actions that can put the lives of American troops and others at risk.”

Joining Asian editors in multisectoral forums across the US in 2003, including one at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, I was surprised by what struck me then as the US press’ hesitation to question the WMD rationale of the invasion of Iraq.

On the role of the press vis-à-vis the government, what we said in our Postscript of Dec. 31 bears repeating:

Private media must take a position that is more critical than collaborative in relation to government. No private media practitioner or journalist must be on the payroll of the government or a government-controlled entity.

Private media, regardless of what their owners think or envision, perform a duty akin to the check and balance relationship among the three co-equal branches of government.

Government officials who exercise a certain amount of control over the lives and fortunes of citizens must submit to the strict accountability required under Article XI of the Constitution. Media help check on them.

With the erosion of the constitutionally mandated balance among the three co-equal branches – with President Duterte wielding a disproportionate influence on the Legislature and the Judiciary — the more media should heighten their vigilance against abuses.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 12, 2020)

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