Having recently launched my book, Confusions of a Communications Man (recounting my experiences in over half a century as a communications practitioner), I was invited to speak before students of Mass Communications at St. Scholastica College in Manila. Before my talk, the students shared their perceptions of the media and communications profession. Their comments were liberally sprinkled with allusions to fake news. On the other hand, they all exuded idealism and missionary zeal in the way they plan to pursue their prospective careers.
Rather than romanticize my life-long profession, I decided to discuss the harsh realities that communications men must face, including the challenges to our integrity and credibility:
I would like to share excerpts of my talk and invite frank comments, like those made by the students during the open forum:
I once had a neighbor who carried a press pass. No, he was not a journalist, and he couldn’t write a news story if it meant his life. He could well have been working for a laundromat — you know, wash, dry, and press. But for some reason, he had a press pass. And that identified him as a media man.
The press pass gave him access to important social events, watch boxing matches and basketball games for free, hobnob with important people, even have selfies with movie stars. He also had a big sticker on his car that identified him as a member of media. That always persuaded cops to forgive traffic violations.
Those are some of the relatively harmless examples of the power, privileges, and prestige that come with being a media person. But some media folks have been known to do worse, brandishing their press passes in corrupt and illegal ways. Of course, some have been killed for doing that. But others have made money — lots of money.
Those of you who are taking Mass Comm are surely aware of the so-called “Power of the Press.” Unfortunately, it is sometimes referred to as the “Power to Repress, Depress, and Oppress… or Suppress…”
All these have, unfortunately, given media and media practitioners — and communications men in general — a bad reputation… and that has affected even the honorable ones. These have also tended to lend credence to the mantra of US President Donald Trump about mainstream media being purveyors of fake news — ironically, an accusation made by Mr. Fake News himself.
In fact, the Communications Profession is an honorable one. And many media practitioners are honorable individuals who work hard to do a good job. But it is true that it imbues the practitioner with power, prestige, and privileges. And sometimes, these are misused and abused…
At his best, a communications man is a bearer of good tidings, like the angels singing the first noel and like John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Lord. At his best, the communications man is a scribe, a well-spring of information, a fountain of knowledge. A teacher, a counselor and a valuable resource person…
He unravels and untangles a confusion of information and makes sense of them for even the simple-minded to understand. He clarifies, enlightens and shines a beam of light on the truth amidst a plethora of misinformation and even outright disinformation.
That is a communications man at his best.
At his worst, he creates confusion, distorts facts, feeds lies, and purveys fake news. At his worst, the communications specialist is Goebbels Incarnate, the epitome of Hitler’s propaganda czar, Joseph Goebbels, who theorized that a lie repeated often enough would be taken for the truth…
A chapter in my book is titled, “Communications Counsel or Media Mercenary?”:
“Defining my role in the scheme of things — particularly in business, marketing and politics — has often created some confusion in me, causing me to ask if I should be conscience-stricken over giving advice, writing speeches or creating media messages for clients whom others may think are of dubious integrity.
“In most cases, I have simply done my job to the best of my ability, like a lawyer, doctor, or accountant, with little or no emotional attachment. But in some cases, as my involvements with the affairs of my client have become more intimate, I may have begun to act like a consigliere, a term associated with the Mafia mainly because of the movie, The Godfather.
“In such a case, somewhere along the way, I have had to draw a line and have allowed my conscience to guide me. Looking back, I can say without any hesitation that I have done my best to walk a straight path and have not taken advantage of my positions of influence. I can also say with conviction that every cent I have fed my family with has been earned with honest sweat.”
But it is not easy walking a straight path. There are so many temptations confronting the media person. He is no different from a politician who holds the reins of power and is constantly being tempted to abuse that power…
The culture of corruption is as old as Adam and Eve. Imee Marcos, daughter of Ferdinand and Imelda, once described Malacañang as a “snake pit.” She could have applied that description to the rest of society. There are snakes all over. And not just in government.
Media and the Advertising industry are snake pits as well. Indeed, where there are folks who wield the power of approval over millions of pesos in contracts, there will always be “entrepreneurs” who will pay thousands to land those contracts… And, in the case of Media, where there are people who can build up political careers and business careers with praise releases or ruin them with exposes, there will always be individuals willing to pay the price of being praised or of the truth being suppressed. In the industry, they call it “AC-DC…” “Attack and Collect, Defend and Collect.”
According to an acquaintance who is familiar with the dynamics of kickbacks, if you were in the shoes of the potential bribe-taker, you can only resist the temptation of hundreds or even thousands but you will invariably succumb to the siren song of millions or billions.
To spare myself from being tempted, as an ad agency president, I delegated the choice of media and the approval of media plans to the account service groups and the media department. As a TV director and producer, I delegated casting to my assistant director. As a columnist, I took pride in writing for BusinessWorld because of the impeccable reputation of its editorial staff, led by the couple, Raul Locsin and Letty Martillo Locsin.
I also had the advantage of residing in the United States where the virus of envelopmental journalism had not yet — and still hasn’t — infected Filipino-American media.
My family and I have lived in America for 33 years. We are not poor. But neither are we rich. We live a comfortable middle class existence. However, I could have become very rich if I had abused the power, the prestige, and the privileges of my multiple positions in media.
A friend once told me that the reason I had not become rich was because I refused to be corrupted. “At least I’m able to sleep soundly,” I said. And his riposte almost floored me: “Well, the bribe-takers and extortionists sleep soundly, too — in airconditioned comfort.”
I had the last word, however. “At least my kids can speak proudly of their father and I can write about my life in a book… without any sense of shame.”
In the final analysis, an untarnished reputation has been my best reward. And, at age 80, it’s worth all the money in the world.
Many years ago, I created an anti-drug abuse campaign. I think that two of the ads I created can apply to the issue of corruption, ethics, principles and accountability.
The first talks about setting an example for your children: “One dope deserves another. If you want your kid to stop doing his thing, you can begin by stopping yours.” Similarly — If you want your children to remain honest, be honest yourself.
The other ad warns against the temporary joy of drugs… like the fleeting joy of dishonest wealth and the burden of a stricken conscience: “Para sa kaunting sarap, saksakan ng hirap.”
Believe me, money is not everything.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.