Blaming the media

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She said “media,” but apparently meant the newspapers.

“I have been victimized by black propaganda so much that recent media trends and therefore [the] survey results have not been favorable to my administration,” President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo told guests during the 50th anniversary of the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“I am saddened by how the front pages have portrayed gloom and drift,” she continued, implying that it’s the newspapers she’s concerned with and not radio or TV.

Radio and TV have the widest reach among the mass media, in that order. Nationally the print media including the newspapers are a poor third. Only one Manila-based newspaper reaches the remotest areas of the country, and it isn’t the Manila Bulletin. There are places where people have never even heard of the other nine broadsheets.

Although there are 300 or so community newspapers all over the country, most of these are focused on local affairs. Too many of them are also run by people who have neither training nor ethics. Their newspapers are “made to order”—for sale to the highest bidder.

Although 96 percent of Metro Manila residents as of 1999 said they have access to some form of print medium, that could very well be the comics and the tabloids. Broadsheets cost too much, and poverty-stricken Filipinos would rather spend on food the P12 or P15 a copy costs. Some will spend P5 for a tabloid, but mostly they look at the nude pictures. The broadsheets are themselves the victims of the country’s continuing economic decline, which has meant spiraling costs and dwindling readerships.

There’s also the language problem. Despite our supposedly being one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world, Filipinos aren’t comfortable with a language they don’t use in daily life. Blame that on public-school teachers of English, themselves victimized by poverty into selling underwear, and who were trained by colleges too poor to hire properly trained professors. But blame it too on English’s being a foreign language.

Both mean low circulations, although most of the broadsheets won’t admit it. Manila’s leading broadsheets claim no more than 300,000 readers on a good day. Combined circulations, plus pass-on readership estimated at five a copy, would put the number of broadsheet readers at no more than four to five million, and that’s to be extremely generous.

Five million is less than 10 percent of the population, which the National Statistics Office says is currently at 78.6 million. For Mrs. Arroyo’s decline in satisfaction ratings (44 percent satisfied versus 38 percent dissatisfied, or a net satisfaction rating of 6 percent) to be due to the media, specifically the “front pages,” circulation and pass-on readership will have to be much more than five million.

It will also require all the broadsheets to be critical of her administration, which is not the case. Of the Big Three (the Inquirer, the Bulletin and the Star), only one can be so described, though not all the time. One of the three is known for the blandness of its so-called reporting and the utter mediocrity of its opinion pages—due to its now widely known policy to support whoever and whatever’s in power. The other is more professional, but does have a political bottom line, which anyone can discern through the tried and tested process of content analysis.

There are those two broadsheets that will criticize whatever she does, but whose circulations are lower than some school newspapers.

The tabloids may have the circulation. But they have neither the reporting nor commentary that can influence anyone’s thought processes. On the other hand, focused on local affairs and in many cases (not all; some are run by exemplary professionals who can teach their Manila counterparts journalism lessons) managed by con artists, the community newspapers as a sector have hardly any impact on the ratings Mrs. Arroyo’s so concerned with.

Small as their circulations are, some of the broadsheets are read and probably influence political leaders, businessmen and professionals. But these constitute a thin layer of the population whose views seldom go beyond their own circles. They use a language different from that of the vast majority. Their culture is Westernized and politically sophisticated. This makes them critical of the government, but it is also a barrier to communication with their poor, unlettered brethren.

The bottom line: the broadsheets are of limited influence. They are visible to the political class, however, and are a convenient scapegoat every President in recent memory has blamed for his or her declining satisfaction ratings and/or popularity.

Mrs. Arroyo has less reason to blame the broadsheets for her six percent net satisfaction rating. Riding on the crest of high hopes in 2001, Mrs. Arroyo could do no wrong, and the mass media—as did much of academia, the business community and the professional class—gave her every benefit of the doubt.

She was seen to be intelligent, unlike her predecessor. A hard worker, unlike her predecessor. Honest and transparent, unlike her predecessor. Someone who listened to the best and the brightest rather than to gamblers and drunks—again unlike her predecessor.

Mrs. Arroyo’s case was one more demonstration of the triumph of hope over experience, in that despite all the demonstrated vices of the political elite, it was still widely hoped that she would be different.

As the months wore into a year and more, however, the suspicion began to grow that she wasn’t. One of the reasons was the transparency, not of her governance but of her focus on 2004, and her far too obvious attempts to get the media on her side. Which was strange because she didn’t, and still doesn’t, lack for lap dogs in the media’s vast community of con artists.

Among the signs of that focus, however, was the preeminence and growing power of her publicist, who at one point was said to count more in policymaking than the thin circle of PhD’s she has on her team.

There’s also the attempt, apparently successful, to woo the media through, for example, a donation of P1 million to the National Press Club—before whose members, who include a sizable cohort of nonjournalist public relations operators, she blamed the media for her woes. Add to this list the appointment of columnists to the boards of directors of government-run corporations.

Mrs. Arroyo actually has a stable of rah-rah journalists at her disposal, the bad publicity she’s getting from “the front pages” being mostly limited to the front pages and an occasional editorial of the Big Three. Can it be that it’s not the newspapers driving Mrs. Arroyo’s satisfaction rating down, but something else?

The “something else” makes for a list longer than the government’s payroll for media people. At the top of that list is not, as Mrs. Arroyo claimed, the embassies of Australia and Canada’s decision to shut down operations.

At the top of that list are far more mundane concerns, such as the cost of food, clothing and shelter; the loss of jobs as our Doctor of Economics President fails to arrest the economy’s decline; crime on the streets, and with it, increasing police inefficiency and brutality.

Of course there are the scandals that periodically rock her government, and in which the name of one Mike Arroyo keeps popping up like the refrain from a roadside videoke bar.

Mrs. Arroyo can take scant consolation from the majority’s approval of the return of US troops, their involvement in the anti-Abu Sayyaf campaign, and the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement.

The approval is based on a sense of her government’s failure, in the first place (for example: let the Americans deal with the Abu Sayyaf because the PNP and the AFP can’t do it). It is also based on lack of information.

Their disapproval of her government, on the other hand, cannot be more concretely based. It has to do with the wife’s not having enough to cook dinner with; the husband’s not knowing where to get the money to pay skyrocketing bills with; junior’s not having enough baon; and the entire family’s not being quite sure that no one will break into the house one night, or that its members won’t be murdered in the streets.

It’s not the media. It’s the decline of the economy, the decay of the quality of life, and the prospects of more of the same as the country hurtles toward 2004.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 21, 2002)

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