The spectacle of President Donald Trump berating and insulting members of media at a press conference he held after the US mid-term elections was so reminiscent of a similar emasculation of a journalist by President Rodrigo Duterte several months ago.
More than any other leader of the “free” world, Trump has treated the press the way dictators and heads of authoritarian regimes regard it — as the enemy, to be roughed up, insulted and thrown in jail. Doubtless, Trump salivates at the thought, the way he must be obsessed with getting rid of Special Counsel Bob Mueller, if only he could get away with it.
Duterte must feel the same way about journalists, as do many Philippine politicians and public officials. On the other hand, they also regard the media as assets that can be harnessed for punitive or image-building purposes.
In this regard, the concept of a “free press” is turned upside down. Thus have been coined such terms as, envelopmental journalism, ATM journalism, AC-DC or attack-collect-defend-collect, and suppress relations. And, oh yes, a downright vulgar term but one that predates the others: masturbating the news.
But such are the dynamics of power. Those who wield it, use it or allow themselves to be used. And yet, as Melinda Quintos de Jesus wrote in an article entitled, “Philippines: How media corruption nourishes old systems of bias and control”:
“…journalism continues to yield some quality, retaining the power to expose corruption. Reports contributed to the firing of corrupt officials, forced government agencies to investigate cases, and even brought about the impeachment of a President (2000) and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (2011).”
In this regard, I take special pride in being associated with BusinessWorld, having written a column for the paper for 30 years — nearly as long as it has been in print. Its founders and editors, Raul Locsin and Letty Martillo Locsin, were paragons of journalistic integrity.
During the incumbency of President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, someone leaked a white paper listing members of the media who were in the payroll of Malacañang. Virtually every prominent editor, columnist, publisher and broadcast commentator in the country was in that list — but not one single individual associated with BusinessWorld.
This is not to say that the Malacañang list was accurate. It could have been intended to besmirch the reputation of the incorruptibles in media (by including them among the corruptibles). But the fact that such a roster existed says something about the vulnerability of those who are supposed to be pillars of press freedom, of balanced reporting, and of the truth.
In an online piece entitled, “The problems that Filipino journalists face,” Edson Tandoc, Jr. reported the findings in a survey that “journalists in the Philippines are most concerned about low pay, media violence, information access, and professionalism. Younger journalists tend to identify low pay as the most important problem, while the problem of violence against journalists was more salient for reporters than for editors and managers.”
Considering the high cost of living, the pressures of upward lifestyle strivings, and the temptations on every side, is it any surprise that so many otherwise idealistic young journalists succumb?
In the US, under the administration of Trump, the plague of media men on the take is not the main problem that has to be dealt with. It is the direct accusation being hurled by Trump at anyone who criticizes him as purveyors of “fake news” and as “enemies of the people.”
The irony is that Trump IS the main source of fake news in both mainstream and social media. According to pundits, Trump is the personification of The Lying King. But that doesn’t stop his ardent supporters from taking his accusations to heart and, in some cases, going out of their way to fight the perceived enemies.
The hate-mongering of Trump has been fanning the embers of racism and political divisiveness in the country. This is what appears to have motivated the mass mailing of pipe bombs to Trump critics and CNN by a Trump loyalist, a fellow named Cesar Sayoc (who turned out to be half Pinoy).
While the Philippines has been routinely described as the second most dangerous country for journalists (next only to Iran), the US may have become as perilous for members of media, such as those working for CNN, in Republican-dominated states.
Being a journalist is not easy. Even in such non-controversial countries as Singapore and Malaysia, journalists are not always free to write about the unflattering truth. My first cousin, Leah Makabenta, was ejected from Malaysia by the government after she wrote an expose about “the slave conditions” of migrant workers in the country.
Prominent members of the press were among the very first to be arrested and incarcerated following the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972. Many of those who managed to avoid arrest sought asylum in the United States. In order to make a living, they turned to what they could do best, thus initiating the resurgence of community journalism in Filipino enclaves like California and New York.
But the long arm of the Marcos regime easily reached across the ocean and made propaganda assets out of many who had reestablished themselves as editors or publishers. For them, it was so much easier to succumb to financial enticements than to risk life and limb in the practice of their profession. As one former Manila media man put it, “I had to survive in America and others were on the take…so, what the hell. I decided to join the crowd.”
But there were those who prized their integrity more than the money. The late Alex Esclamado was one of them.
Esclamado was editor and publisher of Philippine News, a weekly newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The paper was a thorn in the butt of the Marcos regime, relentlessly exposing human rights abuses to American readers. This was particularly irritating for Marcos who wanted to build up the image of his government with the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
When threats failed to stop Esclamado’s attacks, an offer of $12 million was made to buy him out. Esclamado rejected the fortune. To bring him down to his knees, the Marcos government threatened the advertisers of the publication. They pulled out.
Starved of his main source of revenues, Esclamado was forced to sell his building and to borrow from every available source, while sustaining his blistering criticism of the dictatorship.
Remarkably, Esclamado never missed a single issue of his newspaper. He also outlasted martial law and Marcos. For his efforts, he was conferred the Legion of Honor by President Corazon Aquino.
But Esclamado never recovered financially and was eventually forced to sell his beloved publication some years after the political hostilities had subsided.
Indeed, as some worldly-wise media folks will attest, it is so much safer and more profitable to be on the good side of the people in power.
But, both in America and in the Philippines, there are still many idealistic and dedicated media professionals who prefer to trudge on, despite low pay and threats of physical harm, reporting the news as they actually happen. And there are still many self-respecting columnists who express their opinions based on their principled perception of right and wrong.
For them, the prospect of violence and the economic disadvantages are just among the hazards of the trade, like covering a war zone or a super typhoon.
Contrary to what Trump says, they are not the enemy of the people. But they are the enemy, all right. They are the enemy of sleazy, barefaced lying presidents and vulgar, corrupt and murderous politicians.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.