PCIJ contributor Joseph Israel Laban shares this personal essay in the wake of the historic election victory the other day of Democrat Barack Obama, making the freshman senator of Illinois, Chicago the first African American president of the United States. In his article, Laban reflects not so much on the significance of a black man’s rise to the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world, but more on how the U.S. mainstream media have covered the elections.

A former senior producer for a public affairs program at GMA-7, Laban is currently in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar at New York University taking up a masteral degree in journalism.

Of Barack and ‘media bias’
by Joseph Israel Laban

IT was a couple of minutes past 11 p.m. last Tuesday. I was walking down the Cooper Street in Lower Manhattan when I came across an elderly African American woman. She was visibly weeping. Once she was close enough, she told me simply, “Barack won.”

It was not really happiness I saw on her face. It was more of relief. It was as if she was waiting to exhale for a long time, and finally allowing herself to breathe again.

That is how I learned Barack Hussein Obama, the Democrat freshman senator from Illinois, just became the 44th president of the United States. It’s an historic win in an historic election. He became the first African-American to be elected U.S. president, and at age 47, one of the youngest ever to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.

For some reason this election provoked a lot of emotions, even among the journalists. A professor who used to work for a media network here called the elections “the most important event he has witnessed in his life” even “more important than the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

That opinion of course provoked a lively discussion and a passionate argument from our diverse graduate class of journalists from Iran, Iraq, India, Chile, among other places. The Iraqi journalist strongly felt that the 9/11 attacks “could never ever compare” to the current presidential elections.

I agreed with the Iraqi journalist on this one, stating the effect of 9/11 on the radicalization of Islamic groups not just in the Middle East but also in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. Everyone in the class had an opinion — a strong opinion. Some were even visibly angry and most points articulated were heartfelt.

Admittedly, Filipinos may never fully appreciate exactly the personal relevance of a black man elected as president in a country that once enslaved them. But as a Filipino journalist temporarily staying here, I found the way the U.S. media acted and reacted during the campaign and the elections itself quite thought-provoking.

Read also the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)‘s report on the accusations of media bias favoring certain candidates in the coverage of the U.S. elections.

For instance, while there were still a number of journalists here who said they were consciously trying to remain neutral during the election season, most U.S. media institutions wore their politics on their sleeves.

The New York Times endorsed Obama. Fox News is unabashedly “friendly” to John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate. In the Philippines, outright endorsement of a candidate by a mainstream media organization would invite only scorn upon the latter’s head.

Filipinos, however, may be more familiar with what former CBS news anchor Dan Rather calls the phenomenon “viewscast,” as opposed to “newscast.” Networks broadcast opinions and views instead of hard news.

But there are also journalists here who have wound up on the other side of the spectrum. One of them is ABC news anchor Charles Gibson, who has not voted since 1976. For a news anchor who has moderated a high-profile presidential debate and secured a controversial first interview with Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, this revelation might come as a surprise.

“My children think that is absolute heresy,” Gibson said of his no-vote stance, in a meeting with our class at his ABC office, days before the vote.

He said it all started when he was covering an election almost three decades ago. “I covered an election in 1976, and I came to care about whether that candidate won or loss, and I just thought that’s wrong,” he recalled.

He said his decision to no longer vote stemmed from his belief that objectivity is impossible. “(Former ABC news anchor) David Brinkley said there is no such thing as objectivity,” Gibson said. ” There are just lesser degrees of subjectivity, and that it is really what you have to strive towards.”

Indeed, despite his self-proclaimed commitment to objectivity, many seem to think that Gibson has to strive some more. He has been heavily criticized for his coverage of the recent presidential campaign, with the Washington Post calling his work “shoddy” and “despicable.” McCain himself labeled Gibson’s methods as “gotcha journalism.”

I may never really appreciate the way the U.S. media do political coverage. But then journalists here may also never fully understand how it is to live in a country where cheating is almost expected in every election, where election-related assassinations are barely newsworthy, and where a routine coverage of a precinct could sometimes mean endangering one’s life.

2 Responses to Of Barack and ‘media bias’

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LeoCastillo

November 6th, 2008 at 2:47 pm

One local analogy that comes to mind would be the election of Cory Aquino.

Though one can argue that there are so much more recent events in the Philippines that are historic (the first quarter storm, Ninoy’s assasination), you can certainly say that the Philippines is a different place when Cory was elected and Marcos fled.

If you can see it in this context, then you can see how historic Obama’s election really means.

Leo

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November 7th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

[…] Compiled by our friends from Black & White Movemnet and Young Public Servants (YPS) Of Barack and ‘media bias’ PCIJ¬† | November 6, 2008 at 10:40 am PCIJ contributor Joseph Israel Laban shares this personal […]

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