Judgment Call

Guarding our gates against Duterte’s ‘pabebe’

Paterno Esmaquel II
Guarding our gates against Duterte’s ‘pabebe’

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte presides over a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members prior to his talk to the people at the Malacañang Golf (Malago) Clubhouse in Malacañang Park, Manila on March 15, 2021. KING RODRIGUEZ/ PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

“No way,” I told myself, as soon as I saw the tweets of reporters from various outlets covering President Rodrigo Duterte on June 16. The Philippine leader, according to the tweets, wouldn’t run for vice president in 2022 if House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos, sought the same position. 

Two weeks before this, on May 31, Duterte’s party PDP-Laban formally urged him to run for vice president and choose a presidential running mate in the 2022 elections.Then, on June 8, in an interview with the self-proclaimed “appointed son of God,” Pastor Apollo Quiboloy of Davao, Duterte said he was “resisting” PDP-Laban’s call for him to seek the vice presidency. And now Duterte is open to it?

Uh-oh, haven’t we seen this before? A Davao City mayor refusing calls to run for president, but eventually giving in to “public clamor”? And worst of all, an unsuspecting media gobbling down this propaganda and helping shape – or manipulate – public opinion?

No way, and not again, Mr. President. Or at least not on Rappler. When I saw the tweets on June 16, I knew we had to guard our gates.

Hello, I’m Paterno Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler. Welcome again to Judgment Call, our weekly newsletter on behind-the-scenes decisions we make in the Rappler newsroom. The last time I wrote for Judgment Call was on February 25, about my dilemma on reporting the death of Brother Eli Soriano. At that time, I wrote about the media’s role as soldiers in battle, constantly weighing pros and cons but eventually making judgment calls.

Today I’d like to let you in on our role as gatekeepers.

Even within the news industry, many people focus too much on our role as chronicler of history. The image that comes to mind is a person standing and holding a steno pad, talking to another and jotting down notes. Well yes, our role is to document history as it happens, and to provide you, our audience, a faithful version of news events. But have you heard of the transcribing apps Trint or Otter? If society needed only transcribers, we already have apps for that.

But journalism is not stenography. Our role as journalists is not simply to report who said what, and then leave you to judge. News is not only the first rough draft of history. It is the hallowed space where the first attempts to jostle for power, manipulate minds, and shape the public agenda take place. 

We journalists are not transcribers. We are guardians of the gate.

I love how Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), one of the giants of American journalism, puts it: “The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day.” 

It was in this spirit – performing “one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy” – that we made a decision on Duterte’s propaganda about the vice presidency. On June 9, after Duterte first reacted to the PDP-Laban push for him to run for vice president, I consulted our Central Desk – the 10 editors who handle reporters’ stories on a day-to-day basis – about the proper approach to this story. I made a proposal, which the Central Desk then approved. 

I then relayed the decision to our reporters: I told them to guard against Duterte’s pabebe – a colloquial Filipino term that refers to babyish acts. You can see the screenshot of my Telegram message to our reporters below:

I have translated it into English here: “Friends, just a few coverage notes – let’s be sober, or guarded, against the pabebe statements of Duterte about running for VP, and of Sara about running for president. The tone and extent of our coverage now is still okay – PDP proposed, Duterte reacted (last night, in Pia’s story) – but that should be all for now. If there are other sexy or compelling reaction angles about their pabebe tactics, just check with the Desk before doing a story.”

“Because the Duterte pabebe modus of ‘Will he run or will he not?’ is starting again,” I added.

Rapper published no story on June 16 about Duterte floating his vice presidential bid again.  

It is worth noting, as our executive editor Glenda M. Gloria reminded us in the June 10 edition of Judgment Call, that our judgment calls on things like this can evolve. “There is no hard-and-fast rule in dropping or pursuing playoff stories; we rely on the facts before us and what they could mean or lead to, as well as our instincts and knowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes,” she wrote. 

How do you feel about our decision?

Less than 365 days from now, Rodrigo Duterte is stepping down as Philippine president, ending six years of blood, lies, and poverty that subverted the gains of the late former president Benigno Aquino III. (We have a Duterte Final Year series, by the way, check it out here.) But as early as now, we can see Duterte employing – for him and his anointed one, perhaps his daughter Sara or longtime aide Bong Go – the same tactics he used to win a come-from-behind victory in 2016. 

Will Duterte’s pabebe tactics succeed, again, in manufacturing “public clamor”? While social media has pushed the gates of the public agenda wide open, news remains a most credible space – and much of the work depends on us, the gatekeepers, and you, our readers, who keep us in check.

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.