I was at the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas’ (KBP) Top Level Management Conference last Thursday, November 10, and heard and saw Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo urge those present to stop covering “kangaroo courts, lynch mobs and witch-hunts.”

Mrs. Arroyo described those involved in the “kangaroo courts,” etc., as “losers” and herself and her administration as “winners.” The public, 41 percent of whom are tired of negative news, wants winners, she said. Ergo, the media should be reporting on her latest triumphs, among them the boost in the peso’s value and her having saved P37 billion as a result of her supposedly skilful management of the country’s finances.

She was right only about the 41 percent of the public that’s tired of negative reports. The Social Weather Stations survey that said so only confirmed anecdotal evidence in letters to the editor, forums on the press, and “man in the street” interviews that in four cases out of ten lament “media negativism.”

Mrs. Arroyo mistakes journalism for press agentry, like the 41 percent of Filipinos who think the media should paint pretty pictures no matter how ugly the situation. They don’t want the truth; they want to be diverted from their problems, and they think it’s the press’ job to do so.

But never mind how mistaken are the assumptions of those who complain that the media are “too negative.” Mrs. Arroyo and her media crew saw an opportunity to pander to more or less popular belief, and they took it.

Mrs. Arroyo was far from being original, however. Every president from Manuel Quezon on has complained about the press. But it was Ferdinand Marcos who did something beyond complaining about it, while keeping a stable of media hacks in his payroll.

When Marcos declared martial law in 1972 he shut down the media organizations he didn’t like and had selected journalists arrested. He then imposed press censorship and put in place a number of laws to assure media docility.

As a result, the country learned only in 1986 about the growth of the national debt from less than a billion dollars in the 1960s to about 30 billion dollars by the time Marcos was overthrown. From 1972 to 1986 there were no “negative” reports on the overpricing and 3,000 defects of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, and none on the disappearances, the rapes, the torture and the “salvaging” of suspected political offenders except in the underground and alternative press.

Only perfunctorily did the regulated media mention the rice shortages, the energy crisis, the suppression of strikes, the inflation and the runaway poverty that made the export of labor a key Marcos government policy. Instead, the news media regaled us with such “good news” as the growth of the economy based on statistics no one dared check, and government “victories” in Mindanao, the reports on which were based on AFP press releases.

To this day there are people living in this country then who might as well have been on Mars because they thought martial law was a time of economic prosperity, peace and stability. These are the people dear to the hearts of tyrants, and you can create as many of them as you need by making the press report only on the “positive”–or at least find a positive spin on distressing developments.

Following Mrs. Arroyo’s suggestion, journalists should have ignored and not reported on the formation and subsequent hearings of the Citizens’ Congress on Truth and Accountability, the street protests including their violent dispersal by Mrs. Arroyo’s police, and those hearings in Congress on the Hello Garci tapes and jueteng, no matter what their public interest value.

The media, after initially reporting on them, should not have mentioned either what happened next in the following:

Mrs. Arroyo’s announcing that she wanted a legislated wage increase. Her frantic backtracking later in the face of business’ objections the media should not have reported. Or should it have been her announcement in the first place the media should have ignored? But then, would that have meant that the media was ignoring how well Mrs. Arroyo was managing the economy?

Mrs. Arroyo’s announcing the arrest of the number two man of the Abu Sayyaf. The fact that the police and military, acting on bad intelligence, had arrested the wrong man, had roughed him up and pointed guns at his children should not have been reported later, again following Mrs. Arroyo’s suggestion, because that made her and the police look bad.

And what about that alleged gunfight at Ortigas, in which a video shows the police riddling the bodies of alleged carjackers with bullets the better to assure that they were dead? Shouldn’t the media have kept silent on that, and instead congratulated the country’s incorruptible, professional and well-trained policemen instead?

There’s also the gang-rape of a Filipina by US Marines. Shouldn’t reports on that have been suppressed, since it eventually focused attention on the lop-sided provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement?

As far as the VFA goes, shouldn’t the media stop providing the public such details as then Senator Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s voting for it? Even more important, shouldn’t the media stop reminding people that it was Mrs. Arroyo who invited US troops back into the country in the first place?

Finally, shouldn’t the media stop talking about the Hello Garci tapes and the flawed process that proclaimed Mrs. Arroyo president, and instead nod its collective heads together to say yes, indeed, she was “elected fair and square”?

If journalists had acted as Mrs. Arroyo wants, they would be getting accolades from the government now rather than brickbats. But that would have meant looking for a name other than “journalists” for themselves and a term other than “journalism” for what they do.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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