The information revolution has made the media even more powerful than government. There is virtually no space, no crevice on the rock-surface where you may hide in order to escape their reach. In a globalized, unipolar world, world public opinion provides the only possible check to the might of the United States. Media is the other name for it.
In much of our planet, access to media defines one’s actual existence. The rich and the powerful exist because they have media access; the jobless don’t. As the unemployed in T. S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock puts it, “Our life is unwelcome, our death unmentioned in The Times.” In our own city, you are not officially dead until your obituary appears with the classified ads. At least, outside of the poorer classes.
Lest we be misled, the media are but mere instruments. Whether they are to serve truth or falsehood, good or evil, love or hate, peace or violence, prayer or pornography, grace or sleaze ---this all depends on the men and women who decide their structures, policies, and content. Thus, it is indispensable that those men and women have a clear view of what they, and the media, are there for, what grave responsibility they owe to the common good.
Unlike government, the media are not elected. They have no term of office, nor are their duties and responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution or statute. They are not obliged by civil law to be morally upright, responsible or intelligent, although these ought to be indispensable qualities. The possibility, therefore, of having an irresponsible, incompetent and corrupt media is not at all to be discounted, even when we believe we have a free press.
In recent months, international attention has been drawn to the growing number of Flipino “journalists” killed. This is truly tragic. The killing of any innocent victim is a scandal that cries to heaven for justice; but the killing of a journalist is not just a crime against a man or woman but a crime against the pursuit of truth and the free expression of ideas. It must always be denounced in the strongest possible terms. Yet for this reason, it is also absolutely necessary that the press report the killing of a journalist only when the victim was indeed a journalist, killed in the pursuit of truth and justice.
The position of the press is a privileged one. Its freedom may not be abridged; our Constitution forbids it. But while the state may not suppress that freedom, the owners, publishers, station managers, editors, news directors, producers, writers, reporters and correspondents themselves may yet succeed in doing so of their own accord. This happens every time they fabricate, falsify, or suppress facts to support their own agenda or bias, every time they allow their personal prejudices to rule the reporting or interpretation of the news.
I was at the 7th Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade last April when the first balloting in the French presidential election was being reported on Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN. No one had a majority on the first round; Nicolas Zarosky led Sigolene Royal by some five points. He eventually won the presidency by a decisive majority in the second round in May. But in April all the commentators were uniformly saying that Sigolene Royal, who was trailing behind Zarosky, was on her way to becoming the first woman President of France. Without the least scruples, they were pushing a propaganda line not borne by the facts available to all the televiewers.
This is neither an isolated incident nor a monopoly of global television. It happens in our media all the time. It is not necessarily caused by malice, but usually by ignorance. Far too many novices are thrust into the most sensitive media assignments; and they soon get so focused on trying to teach their public they never find the time to study and learn. Some get inebriated too early with the smell of “power of the press;” they end up misusing their freedom, and turning it into what Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once called, “freedom without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
A few years ago, the head of a prominent accounting and auditing firm wished he could “buy all the newspapers in the country so he could close down them.” I am not sure this is something he would like to repeat today. But the last senatorial election provides an occasion for sober reflection.
The senatorial campaign opened with an editorial headline in one of the leading morning papers---“Circus begins!” or words to that effect. Then for the next ninety days the same newspaper led the rest of the pack in selling tickets to the same circus it had previously scoffed at. The media first denounced the exclusive inept focus on artificial personalities, and the utter lack of discussion on political programs. Then they proceeded to do their silly and saccharine personality build-ups of their favorite candidates. Not a single newspaper cared to point out that for the first time in the nation’s history, three political parties were each running two sets of senatorial candidates on the two opposing tickets, and that not a single candidate on either side was saying anything about it.
Today they report, without comment, that Manny Villar will be reelected as a pro-administration Senate President, after having won his second senatorial term as an opposition candidate. They also quote, without judging, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s statements that his agenda is to seek the ouster of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom the 2003 aborted Oakwood Mutiny, in connection with which he had been charged and detained, had failed to oust.
In both instances, the media have failed to point out the obvious. In Villar’s case, the least the media could have done, or do, is to point out that one dark depth should not necessarily lead to another, and so soon, too. In the case of Trillanes, they could have reminded him, or remind him still that a neophyte senator will have a lot to learn before he could take on the world. Someone should recount to him the story of the young MP who sat beside Benjamin Disraeli. After listening to all the others for sometime, the young MP asked Disraeli, “Don’t you think sir I should now be heard on the floor?” To which Disraeli answered, “Maybe not, better that they should wonder why you are not speaking than they should wonder why you are speaking at all.”
These are some of the things the media can do in confused times. The media cannot assume that their failure to inform and to educate, where they could and should, will be more easily forgiven than the government’s failure to govern.