Divide into two

Trump and Duterte (PCOO)
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His attacks on the press are “repulsive,” and “he should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” when it comes to “fake news.” A president who “constantly deflects and distorts and distracts — who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path.”

Although he mentioned Rodrigo Duterte later in his privilege speech last January, the speaker wasn’t a Filipino human rights defender or press freedom advocate. Neither was he referring to Mr. Duterte, but to United States President Donald Trump.

Senator Jeff Flake, a member of Trump’s Republican Party, also said Trump’s description of the news media whose reporting he doesn’t like as “enemies of the people” was “chilling” and that despotism is “the real enemy of the people,” and a free press “a guardian of democracy.”

He wasn’t talking about Mr. Duterte. But Flake also said that Trump’s use of the term “fake news” as synonymous with news media reports unfavorable to him and his administration has encouraged authoritarian leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte, whose minions often describe news media organizations whose reports aren’t favorable to him and his regime as purveyors of “fake news.”

Trump has even expressed approval of his brutal campaign against the poor that’s disguised as a “war” on drugs, and has even proposed adoption of the same approach to the US drug problem. Like Trump, Mr. Duterte has also been undermining news media credibility not only through claims that journalists are inaccurate and corrupt, but unlike Trump, he has also barred journalists who’re in the regime hate-list from coverage of public events, threatened the cancellation of the franchises of some media organizations, and revoked online news site Rappler’s registration.

The tactical differences and similarities in Trump and Duterte’s shared determination to undermine news media credibility are an interesting study in the workings of the authoritarian mind. But what is more fundamental is whether their antipathy to the press is a significant indicator of the two news media systems’ success in discharging the duty of monitoring and holding government to account. Are Trump’s and Mr. Duterte’s tirades actually seals of approval for the conduct of the news media in both the US and the Philippines?

The US media have been described, among others by Ben Bagdikian, the late Dean of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, as “a privately-owned ministry of information” in that they echo and support government acts and policies. As commercial entities privately owned by corporations with political and economic interests to protect, they can’t risk antagonizing governments. The Philippine media are mostly similarly owned, and it has been argued that for the most part, they too approve of government policies.

The key phrase is “for the most part.” Only the liberal sector of the US media, not all of them, have been so critical of the Trump administration as to earn his frequent rants in his speeches and tweets. A significant and more influential part of the US press, the extreme rightwing of it represented by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, has in fact been loudly and aggressively supportive of Trump administration policies on immigration, gun control, and foreign policy, among others. Trump has been all praises for this part of the US news media, while being virulently critical of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Both newspapers represent the US “liberal establishment” and the government policies associated with it. Those failed policies contributed to the widening perception that the US is in economic decline. Trump pledged to reverse those policies during the 2016 campaign for the US presidency, and won the votes of the mostly white and male segments of the population that felt that they had suffered the most from the economic downturn, and who were at the same time haunted by the sense that US power and prestige are waning across the globe.

The paradox is that Trump’s ultra-conservative triumph was driven by legitimate demands for change. The rightwing press helped him win the presidency by demonizing his rival, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, and by depicting him as the US white working class’ long-awaited messiah.

It was during the campaign that Trump first used the term “fake news” to denigrate the reporting of the liberal press — that part of the US media whose reporting he could not abide for being “negative.”

Both the US and Philippine media are politically divisible into two wings. The division is reflective of the worsening rift within the ruling political and economic elite of both countries. In the Philippines, the split is between the relatively “enlightened” defenders of the present state of things, and the most regressive part of the ruling clique which, by taking advantage of the legitimate demand for change and even revolution, is in the process of restoring authoritarian rule under the pretense of addressing that demand.

There are other similarities. Like Trump and his communication crew, Mr. Duterte and company choose their media targets. Those targets are the critical and independent practitioners in the news media. They are “critical” in the sense that they’re able and willing to subject the policies, declarations and acts of the regime in power to analysis and evaluation, and “independent” in that they have the capacity to report accurately because they claim to owe allegiance only to the ethical imperative of truth-telling.

In contrast is the Duterte regime and its spokespersons’ silent approval of those sectors of the Philippine press and media which focus only on the “good news” and keep protests, rising prices, human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and other “bad news” out of their pages or news programs. In furtherance of their active and even virulent support for any regime in power, their news and opinion pages cheer every regime act and policy, whether it’s on drugs, China and the West Philippine Sea, martial law in Mindanao, or the “rehabilitation” of the resort island of Boracay. Among the scoundrels involved are reporters, editors, and columnists in some newspapers in English, in the tabloids, in free TV news programs, and in much of AM radio.

It is this wing of the privately-owned Philippine press that has largely escaped public scrutiny. It is the media’s most acquiescent and most corrupt component. Through various regimes including the Marcos dictatorship, it has misinformed and even disinformed the Filipino people through “fake news” and even worse “analysis.” It is this part of the media that bears watching, exposure, and criticism precisely because of the damage it has done and is still doing to the democratic imperative of enabling a free people to understand Philippine society and to change it.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, these mercenaries made the possibility and actual declaration of martial law acceptable to the middle class, business, and professionals. And it was they who kept the terrors of dictatorship a secret from much of the populace during the years that followed. The wonder of it is that they and their younger and equally unprincipled ilk are still at it, committing with impunity the same crimes against the making of the informed citizenry needed to combat incompetence, barbarism, corruption, and tyranny.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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