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Feb 26

The Explainer: Media and campaigning

That was a scene from “Citizen Kane.” Orson Welles, playing a thinly-disguised version of the famous publisher William Randolf Hearst. The crusading publisher and media and their causes is an enduring image to this day.

So in current campaign, what role should media be playing? And more importantly, can it play that role?

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

Whenever a public discussion takes place, a lot of things have to be assumed, if our time isn’t going to be spent endlessly explaining everything, which leaves no time to discuss anything new. When I talk about a cat, for example, I assume you know what a cat is; and as it is for simple things, so should it be for even more complicated things.

But because our educational system, in many ways, isn’t what it used to be, there are terms media throws around that neither media nor you, the audience, don’t take time to think through.

Take the term by which media and its observers love to use, to refer to itself- “the fourth estate.” What does it really mean? We have to go back to revolutionary France to figure this out.

King Louis XVI was running out of funds, and like many kings before him, he decided to convene a parliament to vote him more funds. In France, the parliament was called the Estates-General, and it was composed of three classes of men, because women weren’t politically in the picture. These classes were:

The Church, The Nobility, And Commoners, though these were really uncommon men whom today we’d call the middle class. All three eventually came together in opposition to the king, and toppled him. They did so because of the newspapers and political scandal sheets of the times.

Wikipedia provides an interesting observation by Edmund Burke. He observed that “A Fourth Estate of Able Editors, springs up,” and Thomas Carlyle popularized the term and explained it in this manner:

Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures. the requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. The nation is governed by all that has tongue in the nation: Democracy is virtually there.

 

Using the term “Fourth Estate” then, is a kind of code, or short hand, for some pretty serious ideas.

First, it means the press –the old fashioned term that includes today’s print, broadcast, and online medias- is necessarily a power unto itself and views itself as such;

second, that because it’s on par with other, more traditional authorities, it must necessarily compete with, and even oppose, those powers.

Third this means that the press is dependent on the public, which in a sense, also depends on the press to inform it on what’s going on.

 

Just this weekend a gathering took place, called Media Nation 4.1. It’s the fourth time members from media set aside considerations of competition, and talked among themselves about they’re doing their job. If you’d like to know more about it, do take the time to visit http://khanterbury.blogspot.com/2007/02/media-nation-41.html

 

Rachel Khan’s blog

http://unholyhours.blogspot.com/2007/02/reports-from-dollhouse-part-1.html

Or Frank Cimatu,

http://www.inquirerbloggers.net/atplay/

Or see the coverage of Inquirer.net through Joey Alarilla, 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRZWkDPJupU

not to mention one of the keynote addresses on Youtube!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtqHLGrXyhY

 

Including that of our guest a little later in the program.

 

But back to the Fourth Estate –if, as Lord Acton said power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then skepticism about media is inevitable. You will always hear journalists say they are out to serve the public good. But politicians say the same thing, so why should you believe a journalist when you don’t believe the politicians?

The problem becomes even thornier when politics and the media become closely intertwined. And that’s because of the big “O” word –Objectivity.

But just how essential is objectivity? Think of how we refer to our first generation of journalists –they proclaimed themselves the “Propaganda Movement.” Back when it was in its infancy, when what was daring was simply a demand for autonomy and not even independence, this is what Graciano Lopez Jaena said their journalism was about:

We want a free press in order that the truth may shine in all its splendor. We want free trade to develop our resources. We want, finally, voting rights and representation in the Cortes, and we don’t want friars.

 

Nothing particularly objective in that, even in the demand for truth, For to publish the truth involves pointing out lies.

We can, I think, safely say that objectivity –if you define being objective as being non-partisan- has been an alien concept to Filipino journalists and their audience. And rightly so, I think. A developing country like ours has only had two defining issues: first it was independence; since 1946 it has been graft and corruption.

If the central question is power and who should have it, then media must necessarily either be for those who have the power, or those who want it. Always asking of course, what should be done with it?

The papers have it best, because they’ve had the chance to refine things.

What is the media supposed to do? Answer the following questions, of course: Who What When Where and Why. Of all these, the Whys are what often fall by the wayside, particularly on radio and TV. The papers put the Who What When and Where more often than not, in the news part; the whys are debated in the Why part, the Opinion section.

The British read papers knowing full well each represents a political view; American expect liberal views in the Washington Post and New York Times, and right-wing politics to be represented by the Wall Street Journal. All American papers declare support for candidates from the local to the national –but they don’t let their stands affect the way they report the news.

But  journalism is also a business, and business often ends up in bed with the politicians. The  media as business and tool of businessmen, is what we’ll cover when we return.

 

II.

That was another scene from “Citizen Kane,” where the idealistic publisher becomes the power-hungry political aspirant. The road to hell is paved with the bylines of journalists turned politicians. If money is power, so too can moneymakers seek power through the press.

Filipino journalism began in support of one thing –reform- and grew to espousing independence: Solidaridad had news, to be sure, both the political and intellectual kind, but it achieved fame because of the satire and analysis in its pages by people like Rizal. Our revolution prematurely began, because its printing press, publishing a political movement, the Katipunan’s, newspaper, was exposed; and our First Republic had its own newspaper, which served as official gazette and propaganda organ for our fledgling republic.

When journalism was revived after the defeat of the First Republic, the media hinged on a single issue: independence. And since the executive power, at least, was thoroughly in the hands of the Americans, papers rose and fell depending on how they took up the independence issue.

We don’t really know, or much care, about the news that came out in the prewar papers, but the editorial positions –the partisan support for independence- they took up remains an indelible part of our history. El Renacimiento, for example, achieved eternal fame for publishing an editorial that compared an American official to birds of prey. The result was a libel suit.

But not only that –Joseph Estrada’s attempt to crush the Manila Times and Philippine Daily Inquirer by instigating an advertising boycott was a strategy adopted by American governors-general. Here’s an editorial from the then American-owned Philippines Free Press, which often sniped at El Renacimiento but in this case, supported the Filipino paper:

[T]he government is placed in the position of admitting that the money of the people spent in the form of advertising appropriations is nothing more than a bribe to the newspapers here to keep hands off the government…. The presumption is that the government has its notices published for the benefit of the people, and, as there is no Filipino paper with one half the circulation of El Renacimiento, the government stultifies itself and by its action confirms the belief that the money is not spent for publicity purposes or as a business proposition but solely as a bribe to silence criticism and promote sycophantic adulation.

 

That was from September 25, 1909. In the end, government and those in it only have five ways to influence the media, none of it particularly wholesome.

They can bribe or charm reporters. They can befriend or intimidate media owners. They can sue, they can murder, or they can flood media allies with advertising while withholding it from media enemies.

If American colonial officials found the press a pain the rear, Filipino politicians too, discovered that to ignore the press was to court disaster. And so, the lobbying of journalists entered the picture. Nick Joaquin recounted how Quezon entertained the press with beer and sandwiches. Sergio Osmena countered by serving media men light wines and biscuits. Guess who got the better press?

The 20s and 30s saw too, the influence of big business on the media. For example, the involvement of the Prietos, owners of the paper I write for, the Inquirer, began when they and other wealthy families supported the independence effort and financed the purchase of The Manila Times from its American owners.

Industrialists soon discovered it was useful to have a paper in your pocket. Vicente Madrigal established and owned the Philippines Herald for decades, selling it to the Sorianos who in turn at one point, after Edsa, owned the Manila Standard, now the Manila Standard-Today which is owned by another politically-active businessman, Enrique Razon.

The Elizaldes, too, bankrollers of presidential campaigns from the 30s to the 60s, were once in the newspaper business and remain a player in the radio industry today. And as business was once heavily Spanish, and is, today, heavily Chinese, we’ve seen the Taipans enter media, such as the one time ownership of the Manila Times by the Gokongweis.

The most famous example, of course, of the intertwining of business, politics, and journalism is the family that owns the biggest stake in the network you’re watching. The Lopezes were once in newspapers, with the Manila Chronicle, and they remain a key player in radio and TV. When the Marcos-Lopez alliance turned sour, the opening salvo in their fight to the death was a daily series of editorial cartoons.

Each day, the same cartoon ran, but with a different, and pointed question from the teacher. No small wonder, then, that whether owned by families purely in the media trade, like the Roceses and the Locsins, or owned by industrialists like the Lopezes, martial law was inaugurated by the shutting down of media.

And for a time, the public welcomed the end of a free press. Then, they embraced its return. How do you feel about the media today? Is it your enemy, or your friend? In this coming election, is broadcast media raking it in by way of political ads, but giving the voters little in return? And is the press too partisan? Most of all, is what radio, TV and the papers covering what you want to know?

 

When we return –how media elsewhere handles elections.

 

My view

 

Marshal Macluhan famously said, the medium is the massage, and that’s how we used to like it: the news, whether in the papers, the radio, or TV, was sober, solid, a sure guide to seeing the world. That era’s long gone. We distrust authority so thoroughly, that we dislike anyone who tries to be authoritative. We want things more spontaneous, more relaxed; and with informality has come, some claim, a disturbing lack of depth.

But with informality has come immediacy. Media elders remind us just a generation ago, you had to sit there and take whatever media dished out. Today, if you don’t like, you not only have more choices, you have many more ways to react. 13 years ago, when I began writing, feedback was a letter that took a month to reach me; today, whether on this show, on my blog, or in the newspapers I write for, reactions are almost instantaneous.

So the question is, is media helping or hindering your ability to make up your mind, on whom to vote for, according to the things that matter to you? If so, do give media people a pat on the back; if not, give them a piece of your mind. And if you think media can be too political, think of this: unlike the politicians, the media immediately feels, through circulation or audience share, how you feel. How’s that for accountability?

 

 

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