Blaming the media

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THE occasion was the Forum on Media and the Elections last September 4, to which the Catholic Church-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) invited representatives from the media and the Comelec (Commission on Elections) as well as its partners in monitoring the conduct of last May’s 2007 mid-term elections. These partners included, in addition to such obvious ones as academics from Catholic schools, the Philippine military, which was represented at the forum by General Benjamin Dolorfino, chief of the National Capital Region Command.

The name should be familiar to many Filipinos, and it’s not just because Dolorfino commands the troops deployed in selected areas of metro Manila. His was also the brilliant idea of using the military to conduct voter education courses in the run-up to the May elections.

Some Filipinos may be forgiven for having been skeptical of the military’s involvement in assuring the honesty and fairness of the elections and for raising their collective eyebrows over troop capacity to provide “voter education.” After all, didn’t certain generals cast a long shadow over the 2004 elections? And weren’t some of them and their successors still around last May, directing operations in such places as Maguindanao?

No matter. These considerations apparently escaped the PPCRV’s leading lights, among them Imus, Cavite Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle. What didn’t escape His Excellency’s attention, however, were every politico’s favored suspects when things go wrong—and they do go wrong—in this country. Those suspects are the media.

Both the Arroyo administration and the opposition were blaming the media in the aftermath of the May elections: the former for the defeat of most of its candidates for senator, the latter for its disastrous performance in the local elections. None of them blamed themselves for the common bankruptcy of their candidates’ campaigns and the latter’s steadfast refusal to say much that was worth reporting.

In what could only be described as uncharitable glee over what he thought it proved, Bishop Tagle did almost the same thing— blame the media for their supposed failure to transform the electoral process into something approaching perfection. He did this by quoting several sources, whom he described as media practitioners, on their views about the media.

He did quote the Center for Media Freedom Study on the media coverage of the 2007 elections (see “Improvement noted in media coverage of 2007 elections,” www.cmfr.com.ph) , which found that the major TV networks and Manila broadsheets were basically fair in their reporting. But he tried to contradict these findings by quoting from Chay Hofilena Florentino’s book on media corruption, News For Sale, and from a piece by Malou Mangahas on the same problem.

Florentino and Mangahas are long-time journalists and know whereof they speak. Their focus on media corruption, however, is itself an indication of how seriously many media practitioners regard the problem, which no journalist will deny exists. Bishop Tagle, however, called attention to media corruption as if it were something no one, least of all the media themselves, were familiar with.

The bishop went on to quote from a Robert Anthony L. Ramos, whom the bishop said he didn’t know from Adam. Ramos did not in fact belong in the same company as the practitioners Bishop Tagle quoted, he being a probable member of the Kabataang Liberal ng Pilipinas (KALIPI), the youth arm of the Liberal Party.

The bishop quoted extensively from Ramos’ piece (“Philippine Media and the 2007 Midterm Elections”) which appeared last June 14 in the KALIPI website. This drivel was generally ignored, except by the usual clutch of semi-literate juveniles who infest the blogsphere, and for sound reasons.

It was ungrammatical to begin with (“a variety of phenomenon,” “Foremost among this,” etc., etc.), but the worse thing about it was that it pinned the blame for the loss of the Arroyo administration’s candidates for the Senate on the media’s “bias” for the opposition on no other evidence but supposition. It also seemed to have discovered only the other day that the media have an agenda-setting function, and what’s more, are supervised by gate-keepers.

Both of which, like corruption, are real enough, and which are (or should be) part of the stuff of basic journalism courses. But all three, singly or in combination, have not prevented media professionals (those who have both the skills as well as knowledge and ethics to know what media’s responsibilities are) from getting the news out.

The data, the CMFR study found, show that the most influential sectors of the media acquitted themselves well in the May elections. Television in fact provided even more air time for administration candidates. The TV networks also quoted those candidates—including Cesar Montano and Prospero Pichay– extensively. Print gave as much space to administration candidates as it did to opposition candidates. Overall, among TV networks ABS-CBN, GMA 7 and ABC 5, there was an effort to deepen the coverage by looking into the issues, presenting the candidates’ views, and even offering special programs to get those views aired. (The detailed findings that support these conclusions are in CMFR’s 300-page report, The CMFR Monitor: News Media Coverage of the 2007 Elections.)

Based on those findings, it could be argued that the media were instrumental in the growth of electorate discernment in the last elections. That the mainstream media were able to supply the information the public needed, but which the politicians were reluctant to provide (some politicians had none to impart—e.g., Cesar Montano and Richard Gomez, who were totally clueless as to why they were running for the Senate), was outstanding in the context of those realities, including corruption and the gate-keeping system, well-known to serious journalists and communication academics.

But leave it to the politicians and the bishops to either ignore or completely miss this fact in favor of their preferred pastime of blaming the media. They might otherwise end up blaming themselves as members of the same power elite– they don’t call them “excellencies” for nothing– that has made Philippine elections the frauds that they are.

(Luis V. Teodoro is deputy director of CMFR)

(BusinessWorld)

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