[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] The news media and the virus

Vergel O. Santos
[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] The news media and the virus
A mere hour of free broadcasting taken away and one solitary person prevented speaking his mind may not seem much of a loss by quantitative reckoning, but democratic freedoms are not reckoned in those terms

On March 7, I gave a talk to an audience of professional and aspirant journalists and college teachers in various disciplines on the role of the press as watchdog on government. The talk had been scheduled months before, when no signs were yet sensible of the pandemic that we and the rest of the world are now fighting with, and for, our lives. And, although around the time of my talk the virus had begun to spread and inspired grave portents for us, it did not seem relevant to my assignment still.

The talk was basic and general and short – I got by with mental notes. But I have reconstructed and expounded it for the record, and I’m reprinting parts of it here in light precisely of cases – two in particular – arising from the pandemic and involving the press.

One is the commandeering of private broadcast networks by the government. Every day  the press secretary anchors an hour-long simulcast across the networks, presiding from one of the studios of the government’s own network and taking reports from its propaganda troops, now operating as pseudo-journalists.

The other is the harassment of a college editor for reports and opinion he posted online about flaws in the government’s relief drive. Teachers in his hometown high school and grade school who read his posts betrayed him to the police, who picked him up and forced him to apologize and take down his posts. They also threatened him with arrest if he persisted in exercising his rights and freedoms, not necessarily in violation of any legal limitations, but simply in ways that did not agree with them – even as he has been freed under threat, he is branded a leftist, itself enough characterization to get one into the worst trouble, especially under this regime.

A mere hour of free broadcasting taken away and one solitary person prevented speaking his mind may not seem much of a loss by quantitative reckoning, but democratic freedoms are not reckoned in those terms. It is in the nature of freedom that it has to be fought for, as it is in the nature of power to suppress it. It is a conflict that from the very beginning proceeds lopsidedly in favor of power and finds stark illustrations in the relationship between government and the press.

My hope is that the following excerpts from my pre-pandemic talk be a help somehow to the public in understanding its own stake in a free press, so that it may be inspired to support the press more actively and that the press in turn may not be so overmatched as it is.

Meet the press

Everyone must have some idea, if purely instinctive for many, of what news is – an occurrence just now becoming known in which they would be interested for all sorts of reason, from mere curiosity to a sense of some potential impact on their lives. What is scarcely known is why it is the press they should rely on to get the news for them.

The plain answer is that it is all part of the democracy deal. The Constitution not only assigns the press a singular freedom but guarantees it protection in the exercise of that freedom, to wit: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of the press.” Those eleven words pack the unequivocal warning that the press is to be left alone.

But why the special mention? Because press freedom, for all the romantic notions of great potentiality woven around it, is no match to the official power it is meant to watch and check. The potential for collusion and conspiracy among people holding official power is so richly evident they need no further help, and especially not in the law. On the other hand, not even a vaguely comparable potential exists for the press. Its very nature precludes it: news organizations are in competition with one another both professionally and business-wise.

As for power – real power – the news person has only words for resource, which he also shares with everyone else. Where freedom of expression is intended as an individual freedom, the government seizes it collectively – for concentrated power and for itself. In our own case, it has the biggest radio and television network and tends to deploy it more for its own political advantage than for the people’s benefit. Moreover, apart from the internal revenue and other hugely persuasive agencies, it has the military and the police to do its ultimate bidding. Indeed, for the press to have any chance at all against officialdom, an active and vigorous backing is required of the people, for whom, after all, it exists.

For its own part of that deal, the press has instituted an editorial system of multilayered checks to ensure that it gets its facts right and offers unbiased and well-founded and well-studied opinion. (It is called editorial to distinguish it from the purely mechanical process of printing.) That system operates in two phases: first, hounding the news; second, editing it. How it works is naturally best illustrated where it originated – in the newspapers.

In the first phase, an editor runs his reporters as a commander runs his troops. He sends them out on a news hunt, but stays constantly connected to each of them, giving them guidance and instructions as they require. At the end of the phase he has his harvest of news for the day, each piece written as a story and checked for errors and crosschecked for verification before it is turned over to another editor, who presides in the next phase.

He farms the news stories to his crew of copyeditors for a more minute review or, if necessary, for reworking. A copyeditor brings to his job his own broad experience as a reporter and certain disciplinary specializations. The editor himself takes a last look before sending it to the printer. The process is more or less duplicated for broadcast news and online news.

News being a business of snap judgments, still mistakes are bound to slip through. A prompt correction of any mistake is expected; if a news organization ignores it collegial pressure comes down on it as a matter of course. A news organization rises and fall on its credibility, and owning to shortcomings – so long as not too many of them are committed – can only enhance it.

At any rate, no more suitable watchdog than the press has been found for democracy. – Rappler.com