THE LIGHTER SIDE
Making (Non)Sense of Politics Election Lexicon Quickie Quiz for the Politically Insane All these from i’s special election issue Order your copy now!
THE LIGHTER SIDE
Making (Non)Sense of Politics
Quickie Quiz for the Politically Insane
All these from i’s special election issue
Order your copy now!
T H E C A M P A I G N — S P I N N I N G T H E N E W S
TO BE sure, all these are hardly encouraging to journalists who just want to do their job well. After all, the vast majority still do journalism the old-fashioned way-interviewing sources, gathering documents, checking and rechecking data. But the rise of "packaged" political stories-and the apparent welcome these receive in some newsrooms-could soon see many of these reporters putting away their tape recorders and their notebooks.
As some reporters tell it, the situation is no better at the Senate. One political reporter who has been on the political beat for a quite a while says that several members of the Senate press corps now demand that the transcript of a press conference or an interview be available immediately, even if they had attended these. There are even those who do not go to the Senate anymore, he says, because the transcripts of events there and press releases are now being faxed straight to their residences by the senators' media relations officers (MROs).
In such a setup the operator is in perfect control, dictating the nature of the coverage. And by affixing their names to what are probably mere fabrications, the reporters legitimize lies.
To a certain extent, the situation is eerily reminiscent of that which existed during martial law. Only then, the public knew they were being fed falsehoods.
Journalists who had criticized Ferdinand Marcos were put behind bars, while the luckier ones were simply thrown out of work. Almost all media institutions were then placed under government control. . Indeed, the then Philippine News Agency (PNA) and Channel 4 were transformed into official government propaganda machines. When Gregorio Cendaña was appointed information minister, the government's dominion over the media was formalized and completed.
Cendaña had a pool of writers in Malacañang to churn out press releases for the Palace press corps. At the rubberstamp legislature that was the Batasang Pambansa, he had another batch writing the press releases of Marcos's Kilusang Bagong Lipunan for the journalists stationed there.
"From his office in Malacañang, Cendaña's control of information flow during martial law…extended to the press office of the then Batasang Pambansa," narrates a reporter who covered the legislature during that time. Cendaña's "kitchen Cabinet" also made sure that reporters toed the official government line, he says.
Another journalist recalls that at the height of martial law, Cendaña's staff regularly sent lechon to various news desks during weekends. That, he says, was one of the small ways the information minister had tried to smooth things out with the middle-level and senior editors as their reporters rewrote the numerous government press releases for publication.
AFTER the fall of Marcos in 1986, most of the media institutions that had been controlled by his government were sequestered by the new administration and eventually refashioned into its own publicity machine. But there was freedom of the press once more, and while there were problems that hindered coverage of the Aquino presidency and political news in general, the public trust in the media was back.
Journalists worked hard to regain and maintain that trust. When Congress reconvened in 1987, reporters ran after the legislators so they could write stories acceptable to their editors. The "ambush interview" was born as journalists jostled among themselves and pounced at the hapless public official who strayed near them. Somehow, the MROs who had ubiquitous during the Marcos era seemed to disappear from the press offices, and even the press releases slackened in number.
There were also enough officials to mine for juicy sound bites or snappy quotes, among them Jovito Salonga, Joker Arroyo, Rene Saguisag, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago. And even if the president herself had a languid way of speaking, her speeches were laden with elegant turns of phrase that reporters used with glee to spice up stories. Somehow, although the president was media-shy, there was little need for the invisible hands of spin doctors to define the parameters of political debates and national discourse.
When the media-savvy Fidel Ramos became the next occupant of Malacañang, however, the MROs and political PR practitioners came back with a vengeance. "From being mere legmen of the Cendaña era to 'shepherding' reporters during Cory's time, the MROs during the time of Ramos became figures of importance," says one reporter. "They were institutionalized."
Ramos availed himself of the services of publicist Ed Malay, as well as Ramy Diez, whom he plucked from a big advertising and public-relations firm. But the former armed forces chief also brought to the Palace a psy-war expert. The appointment of Honesto Isleta as an undersecretary at the Office of the Press Secretary would be another mark that Ramos had a full understanding of the complex dynamics of dealing with the media and of importance of putting psy-war experts to man the premier government propaganda machine.
It was also at the start of Ramos administration that small, independent public relations groups began handling "political accounts," says one editor. But no one can recall exactly when MROs and PR practitioners were transformed into "operators" -so called because, explains a journalist, "of their penetrating influence over middle-level and senior-level editors that make their work easier when dealing with reporters." No one can also explain why political PR political went underground, although the furious exchange of money under the table may have had something to do with that.
For sure, though, corruption in the media antedates the Ramos and even Marcos era. In her groundbreaking 1998 book, News for Sale, journalist Chay Florentino-Hofileña cites previous studies as saying that corruption of Filipino journalists started "as early 1950s, with newspapermen being bought off with cash by politicians and businessmen alike."
But she also says that "media corruption in the post-Marcos era is costlier, more pervasive, and even more systemic." And with the fusion of new and old corrupt practices, she predicts that corruption "will continue well into the next century."
One editor, meanwhile, thinks that while corruption may not have started with Marcos, he and his martial rule nevertheless made corruption a seeming part of ordinary life, a normal occurrence. "Our penchant for get-rich quickly schemes, the destruction of our work ethic, our seeming acceptance of graft and corruption are clear monuments of how Marcos and martial law had institutionalized corruption in the Philippine society," she says. Since the media are part of society, it was inevitable that these, too, would succumb to corruption.
And how. According to some media insiders, press and photo releases printed on page one can cost from as low as P3,000 to a high as P25,000 while those relegated to the inside pages are priced from P3,000 to P5,000. The innovative operator at the House, meanwhile, is said to be commanding a fee already in the millions, although it is unclear if that sum is divided among the many players of the scheme.
"Pera-pera lang 'yan! (It's all about money!)" says the editor, who has turned cynical. Because not so long ago, it was all about truth.