THE improvements observers have noted in the reporting of the Philippine elections in 2010 have since been exposed as momentary, and as the exceptions rather than the rule.

ABS-CBN may have mobilized citizen journalists to help assure free and honest elections; it may have placed in prime time both special and public affairs programs to provide the electorate the interpretation and analysis it needed to help it make informed decisions on election day; and two of the leading broadsheets may have been pro-active in their effort to elicit from the candidates their views on and intended solutions to the problems facing the nation.

But these positive changes were almost immediately overwhelmed by the reporting both ABS-CBN and its closest competitor GMA 7 demonstrated on, and in the days after, the August 23rd , 2010 hostage-taking at the Rizal Park grandstand, to describe which the word “irresponsible” was inadequate. And if TV5 did air investigative reports on such urgent issues as torture and human rights violations, it quickly offset that by undermining its rivals’ news programs through the airing of “Willing Willie” in the same time slot as the evening news.

Despite the relative restraint of certain broadsheets’ reporting on the August 23rd hostage -taking, they quickly reversed that by, among other examples of alleged reporting, labeling Angelo Reyes a hero when he killed himself, providing other would-be suicides detailed descriptions of how he did it, and heaping blame on the Senate for its supposed insensitivity when grilling Reyes and other former military officials accused of pocketing hundreds of millions in “welcome” and “going away” cash gifts.

But if the media’s exercise of their news function is often foul enough to drive people to suicide, much of their attempts at entertainment are even more horrendous. Not only do the popular entertainment programs pander to the worst instincts of the TV audience on the assumption that that’s what will rate and bring in ad revenues; by being the main contributors to mass idiotization and the making of the culture of meanness and venality, they’re also poisoning the well of public enlightenment the media are supposed to be.

Among the most offensive examples of the outrage much of broadcast entertainment has become is TV5’s “Willing Willie,” a program whose media presence is based on nothing more ennobling than its host’s throwing money at program participants.

“Willing Willie’s” Willie Revillame is a former TV and film actor of middling talent obviously untrained in the values, ethics and professional standards of broadcast media. Revillame is among the many creations of ABS-CBN TV, which made him host of “Wowowee”. Notorious for causing a 2006 stampede that killed 73 people, “Wowowee” pushed to the limit the common practice among noontime TV shows of insulting and subjecting to ridicule the poor who constitute much of their audiences, but whom they claim to be serving.

Revillame has actually argued without flinching that his program rates because it gives the poor “joy” (“saya”). Indeed it does, if only momentarily, and by first making them demean themselves for the amusement of the TV and live audience in exchange for money and at the greater cost of their inherent right to dignity. In some cases the “joy” Revillame provides has come close to the cash-for-favors men pay streetwalkers. In one episode, for example, a woman requested to embrace, and indeed embraced, Revillame, for which she was paid P3,000.

In the same episode, Revillame paid a six-year-old boy P10,000 for dancing in the manner of adult male strippers, to the vast delight of the desensitized studio audience. One of the program’s sponsors pulled out in response to the firestorm of protest that this blatant display of child abuse provoked, but elicited from Revillame only the response that it was the sponsor’s loss.

Indeed arrogance is the one constant Revillame has flaunted, whether in the face of public criticism or his contract spat with his former home studio, ABS-CBN. His attempt at validating what he does is based first of all on the high ratings of “Willing Willie,” and second, on the claim that the participants in his show willingly debase themselves for money. The six-year old who was aping adult male strip dancing didn’t seem happy about it, and was in fact crying almost throughout his forced performance. But apparently clueless about child rights, Revillame was referring solely to the boy’s parents’ approval and encouragement of their child’s humiliation, quite possibly with threats of physical punishment otherwise.

Parental approval and coercion—indeed even some parents’ willingness to exploit their own children– does not justify anyone’s being abused by the media. Parents who exploit their children for gain are in the first place subject to fines and prison terms under the provisions of the 1974 Child and Youth Welfare Code. But civilized society also expects program managers and editors to be armed with the compassion, respect for human rights and common decency that are among the basic responsibilities of both the news and entertainment media.

The greed for revenues drives network programming most of the time, but should give way to the demands of simple humanity. To exalt profit above all is to subject the media audience to the dumbing down, corruption and degradation much of broadcast entertainment is spreading in this unfortunate country by exploiting the poverty and desperation that afflict 60 percent of the population.

The idiocy that characterizes much of the audience of entertainment media is in fact a creation of the media themselves. Media do have the power to help educate and empower their audiences. Obviously, however, it is too much to expect the creatures from the black lagoon of corporate TV who put programs together and /or who actually perform in them to even imagine that possibility.

Outrage over the abuse of the six-year-old has moved the Department of Social Welfare and Development to write TV5 management. But what this country needs is not another, soon-to-be-forgotten apology from the station; it’s the removal of the atrocity that is “Willing Willie” from the airwaves. For this only pressure from both an outraged public and the program sponsors will do. The media are too powerful a means of affecting people’s lives as well as their values and capacity to help themselves to be left in the grubby hands of the monsters network greed keeps piecing together out of sheer gall and brutish mindlessness.


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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