The heart of the debate

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Towards the media in this country there are at least three attitudes.

There is total acceptance of what the media, specifically TV, dish out every day. This is the attitude of most people–the men, women and children in their millions who watch TV news and entertainment without a single critical thought. They clap at the antics of their favorite comic. They gasp at the beauty and fashion sense of their favored women hosts. They accept wholeheartedly the logic of the six o’clock news, which lately has seen more and more emphasis on stories about actors and actresses and less and less about such things as VAT.

There is skepticism and even contempt, mostly on the part of the educated classes. They watch the TV news programs, but are so horrified by the preponderance of crime reports they now habitually turn to CNN and Star News. Their pet peeves are the tabloids, in whose emphasis on sex and violence they see the sure signs of social decay.

And then there is repugnance by those who have suffered some form of media abuse. The abuse can consist of being called insulting names, or can take the form of not being asked to present one’s side after he or she has been accused of some wrong-doing, or of the details of his or her personal life’s being exposed for no justifiable reason.

The response of those in the last category, those abused by the media, depends mostly on the victim’s social status. If he’s poor he lets it go. If he has the means he sues for libel.

A libel suit takes time, effort and money to pursue. Even then, convictions for libel are relatively rare in this country, primarily because the courts don’t want to be perceived as anti-media.

Few people know that the media have self-regulatory mechanisms to which an aggrieved victim of media abuse can also complain. Even if he or she does know about these means, however, he’s bound to find out that most of them don’t work very well.

Redress is thus not likely for anyone abused by the media, at least not in the present circumstances. And, as in most other areas of living in this country, when abused by the media it is the poor who’re least likely to ever see any form of redress. Philippine libel law looks at libel as a criminal offense. But you won’t find journalists in the company of the murderers, kidnappers, smugglers and similar characters in the country’s jails.

But add to the third category of infuriated media targets the sub-category of those who go neither to the courts nor to the media’s equally flawed complaint mechanisms, and who’re mostly in the provinces.

These may be local officials, policemen and military officers, or members of criminal syndicates. Whether rightly or wrongly, they’ve been at the receiving end of unfavorable media reports. They’ve been insulted over radio, where the first rule is there are no rules; or they’ve been accused of this offense or that, whether correctly or unjustly.

Among these are, it turns out, more people than we once thought–those who hire assassins to silence the loudmouth who’s been screaming their names over radio for two weeks, or the hack whose column is paid for by their rival politico.

Their hiring assassins instead of going to court only confirms their contempt for the law. They have even less faith in the very government some of them serve than a cellphone snatcher in Quiapo. They’ve seen how it works. They are their own best evidence of how ineffective and insincere government can be, and usually is. They are also the worst of media critics in that they think bad reporting or unjust commentary to be capital offenses.

It’s not surprising that the PNP director of Camarines Norte, Senior Police Superintendent Efren Yebre, should have twice made a jest of killing journalists. The country’s “law enforcers” have not been the most respectful of the rule of law, some of them having been identified by witnesses as either the killers of journalists, their protectors, or their co-conspirators.

Superintendent Yebre in fact went further in response to reports about his tasteless joke about wanting to kill journalists when he sees them. He went on to say that journalists should police their ranks and weed out the corrupt among them.

In this he was merely echoing other police officials who have either implied that the journalists killed deserved it because they were corrupt, or that those who killed them were justified.

One can legitimately respond to police charges of media corruption by saying “Look who’s talking.” Killing journalists is also an absolutely unacceptable form of behavior in any country with any pretence at civilization including this one. But neither detracts from the fact that media corruption is a serious problem that needs to be addressed for its impact on how events are reported and interpreted.

A reporter in the pay of a town mayor, for example, ends up in a conflict- of- interest situation in which the public interest he’s supposed to protect conflicts with his personal interest. The results are misleading, distorted, incomplete or even inaccurate reports of no value to anyone except the reporter’s patron.

Corruption in the media has been widely reported, as have other problems, which may be summed up as professional (low skills levels, and even incompetence, for example) and ethical (of which bribe-taking and conflicts-of-interest are the most common, but not the only problems).

The causes are obvious enough: bad and inadequate training, or even no training at all, to the extent that accepting the usual “envelope” is regarded by too many media practitioners as part of the perks of media practice.

But more fundamental than the training issue is the commercial character of the media, which in television is specially pronounced. It is their character as profit-driven enterprises which results in news programs that are first and last driven by the ratings rather than the public’s need for information, and which leads to sensationalism and even bribe-taking (some media organizations overwork and underpay their staff).

During the May 2004 elections, the focus of TV news was on the sensational rather than on the issues, and on celebrity candidates rather than those who had programs and platforms to offer the electorate.

The owners of media say that they aren’t in the business of media for their health, and that they have to keep one eye on the ratings in the performance of a service that, ironically, has the power to either keep the world as it is or to remake it.

That’s what’s at the heart of the recurring debate over exactly what changes should happen in the media–and how they may be achieved. It is the question of what the media in this country of lost hopes should be doing.

It is also at the heart of the killings: journalists, even those who’re corrupt and untrained, the killings are saying, have somehow touched a nerve among wrong-doers, whether in the government or out of it. In doing so, they have, at times unintentionally, affirmed that the task of journalism in this country is to be critical of the way things are–and therefore to imply the need to remake Philippine politics and society. Denounced as “negative,” to be critical is after all to measure what exists against such positive standards as honesty and competence among public officials.

There is some consensus among more thoughtful practitioners that the media should be providing the public the information it needs so it can make the informed decisions on critical issues that free men and women are supposed to make. But the question is how that can happen, given the constraints on the media. These include not only the threat of violence against grass-roots practitioners, but also the fact that, in the most far-reaching medium of all, television, what the public needs is too often shunted aside in favor of what the public seems to want.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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