If only a few Filipinos seem surprised over claims that two people in media — calling them journalists doesn’t quite seem right — received payoffs from the diversion of congressional allocations from the pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund, it’s because anecdotal evidence, experience, and similar reports in the past have long established the reality of press and media corruption.
Research has also validated the widespread assumption that many people in the media accept and solicit bribes, or are in the payroll of the interests — whether political, economic, or foreign — that they cover.
Media people themselves are the first to acknowledge the existence of corruption, and will even regale each other and whoever else cares to listen with tales of their fellow practitioners’ diverse and creative ways of using the power the media invests them with for personal gain and advantage.
Many are not bothered by it at all, either because they themselves are not averse to accepting the usual envelope, or, what’s worse, think it only normal. Only rarely will any media practitioner acknowledge the harm media corruption inflicts on the media, on the press, on journalism and journalists, and on society as a whole.
Because corruption has an impact on individual practitioners’ and their organizations’ capacity to discharge that most fundamental duty of all, truth-telling — a practitioner in the pay of a politician, for example, will paint his sponsor in the brightest colors possible while depicting his rivals in the worst possible light — the end result of corruption-driven reportage is confusion among readers, viewers and listeners. How often have we heard the complaint that the media audiences can’t tell from reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching the six o’clock news what’s true and what’s false? Or that they can’t even understand what happened, let alone what it means to them?
Too often the media, among other reasons because of corruption in the ranks, not only contribute to keeping the citizenry in the dark about what’s really happening; they also subtract from the sum total of the latter’s knowledge of their social and political environment rather than add to it.
They suggest through biased, paid-for reports, for example, that a particular politician once known to have been corrupt and a lead participant in sustaining the Marcos dictatorship has suddenly been transformed into a statesman deserving of one’s vote, thus erasing from collective citizen memory the lessons of the past.
The offending media practitioner and organization may not think the threat imminent, but such offenses against the truth eventually do impact not only on their credibility but also on that of the entire media. The complaint that reading a newspaper, or watching a TV news program doesn’t help the reasonable reader or viewer understand what’s happening, or even what really happened, is among the more obvious danger signs that few, particularly in the media themselves, have even noticed, much less taken with an ounce of seriousness.
The consequence of all this is a crisis of information among a citizenry that desperately needs accurate and relevant information if it is to meaningfully discharge its duty in this supposed democracy. The crisis is evident on a daily basis, when, without the facts on hand, citizens argue for or against this or that public policy, debate the merits of a law, or take sides in political disputes. But it is even more glaringly obvious during elections, when they vote for this or that candidate on no other basis than name recall. In effect, citizens wage unarmed the war for honest and effective governance and against corruption, bad governance, mindless decisions — whatever — thanks to, among other institutions, the media.
Meanwhile, to media corruption have at least some of the killing of journalists been attributed. In the communities where the killings are already of near-epidemic proportions — with an average of seven journalists and media workers per year killed so far since Benigno Aquino III was elected in 2010 — media practitioners’ taking sides in local political rivalries is so widespread that aside from their work’s being regarded as no more than paid-for partisanship, retaliation for it is accepted as inevitable.
Distressing, and a self-fulfilling prophecy, is the assumption that the retaliation will probably consist of being threatened with physical harm, being actually beaten, or even killed.
Although it does not in any way justify the killing of journalists, media corruption in effect feeds into the culture of violence regnant in these isles of fear.
What is equally disturbing is the overall decline of media credibility in the places where information is needed most — in the communities where corruption, human rights violations, criminal depredations, and bad governance directly affect the lives of the citizenry.
Because cases of media corruption tend to be the stuff of media headlines themselves, they are what stay in the minds of the media audiences, to whom the efforts of authentic investigative journalists, impartial commentators and field reporters to get to the truth and to interpret the meaning of events are mainly lost.
Yes, Virginia — there are such journalists in the Philippines, whatever the doom-sayers may say. It is these journalists who somehow manage, despite the efforts of the media corruptors (usually forgotten in most discussions of media corruption is the fact that if there’s a corruptee there must be a corruptor) and the perils of information-gathering (looking for official documents and interviewing a whistle-blower can be tedious, expensive and dangerous), still manage to generate reports on corruption, human rights violations, and other wrongdoing in these 7,000 islands.
Ironic that many of these journalists — and yes, they do deserve the title — are in the very communities many members of the so-called national press used to dismiss as impossible to produce the kind of journalists and journalism that the country needs.
In one more demonstration of those contradictions that make life in these islands both puzzling and interesting, alongside some of the most corrupt and most clueless media practitioners in this country are also some of the most honest, most persevering practitioners of the craft and equally sullen art of truth-telling. Corruption in the media does exist — and so does dedication, competence, and honesty, although the sin of one or two is often thought to be the sin of all.
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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
March 20, 2014