The Booth is a Marketplace:

Corruption in the Local Media

A media studies lecture delivered on the occasion of the Regional Convention on Decoding Politics: An Interdisciplinary Approach on 28 January 2010, at the Instructional Media Center, Ateneo de Naga University. the convention was held in line with the Philosophy Week Celebration, 25 to 30 January 2010,AdNU.

MY FATHER is a constant cynic when it comes to media personnel. It hurts me, because primarily, I work with and for media—although indirectly. I teach Media Studies in this university. My students—should they persevere in their respective disciplines—will be our journalists and/or broadcasters a few years hence. But I very well understand my father, his experiences with the media hollering around to get his views and to extract information from him in his capacity as one of the chiefs of our state railway agency were frequented with disappointments like interview answers edited to fit the taste of the person covering the beat (the term ideologies can never be applied, the use of it would be an insult to the word itself). The essential truth is that this is never new to us. The more alarming thing is that all through these recent years, this phenomenon has already desensitized, disillusioned, brainwashed, mis-educated us.

I have a daunting task in hauling broadcasting majors from believing that political figures need the media for publicity. As a pedagogue of Media Studies, I am deeply troubled by this; although never really surprised. Over the radio one evening, I heard a commentator arrogantly asked a field reporter to search for certain Camarines Sur board member so that they could ask him questions, subsequently telling the field reporter that in times like this, advent of the 2010 plebiscite, the politician in question should be in dire need of the media.

My lecture today is more experiential than theoretical or demographic. It is more of a tale, a narrative, than a presentation of figures and survey results. Perhaps, it is what we need these times; during this epoch of surveys that are self-serving, a period when demographic profiles and statistical data end up in just being figures and data themselves and nothing else, not even a tinge of action that research findings necessitate. Consider how the public ignores political surveys; consider how we disregard these supposedly social response indicators, simply because we believe either they are tampered or are done to favor one entity over the others. To the commoner, these demographics are never an authentic determinant of the public desire.

What I have today is a tale that embodies my own critique—or perhaps, censure—of, over, and about the state of our media industry today—particularly our local media here in Bicol. I am here in a two-fold persona: that of an advocate, and that of a pedagogue, a teacher. This fact, maybe, is the scope and limit of my lecture and public sharing. I believe that here in our midst, the booth is a marketplace. That supposed sacred space of media practitioners, especially, our broadcasters is more often than not, violated by their own kind and their cohorts. The booth, that small glass-lined, sound-proof cube consisted of a broadcast console, a swivel chair, and a condenser microphone, may also be a place of merchandise, where information are curbed in exchange of something, cash or kind.

All be it that this is a pressing concern, pun intended, there is nothing new in the issue of media corruption. Chay HofileƱa of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism a few years ago came out with the book, News for Sale that presented an extensive research on the corruption of media in the Philippines and how politicians—our supposed leaders—have managed and succeeded in debauching the press. Funny, though never we should actually be, that new terminologies and term definitions came out of this shameful phenomenon in our media. Unfortunately, I happened to have witnessed one here in Naga City, where cash payments to media personnel covering a particular beat were distributed from a u-box of a motorcycle. How nasty the process was. In my eyes, how money-hungry our press was during that time. But can we actually blame this on the poor field reporter assigned? The answer may just be another chicken-and-egg tale. One newspaperman, a senior one, told me he got ten thousand from that event. That was supposedly for a good news out of a really, really bad and shameful failure of an ambitious and not well-researched implementation of a state project. The next day, the newspaperman was by-lined in a news article on a failed project in a national daily. That evening he invited all the radiomen and they all had a drinking spree out of the ten thousand pesos issued to him by the manager of the state agency. Our broadcast industry has lots more tales to share.

Media and Corruption: A Brief Definitive Inquiry

In the discussion of media corruption, there are two words necessitating an etymological and contextual scrutinies—first, the term media, and the second, corruption. Such looking up of the origins of these two apellations may give us a deconstructed and definitive clarity of what the fusion of the two, media and corruption, or media corruption, is all about.

Etymologically, the term media, has never lost the original Latin form of the word, the plural form of medium. This word puts an entity embodying it in between two worlds, while media itelf is an independent world with her own systems and procedures. In the context of our subject today, and considering the most obsolete and most basic of all models of mass communication, the media is synonymous to the channel through which information are transmitted from an entity to another—which in the communication parlance, more often, we refer to as either sender or receiver.

In the world of mass communication, the media are classified into the print, broadcast, audio-visual, the internet, and other mode of channeling information—the term multimedia, despite it acquiring some age, never ceases to amaze me, much like how younger students are perpetually amazed by 3D graphics created on computers.

In the context of this lecture, and to streamline our focus, I contain my scope within the broadcast practices in Naga City, within which I was recently deeply involved due to my involvement in an advocacy against the Libmanan-Cabusao Dam Project which is feared to inundate my hometown Lupi in case the insistent proponents push through with it despite calls for local folks to stop its construction. Because of this project, I became a regular radio interviewee. There were days when it became routinely, eating my early mornings or late evenings, answering to attacks and even succumbing to attacking my so-called enemies-in-principles, either out of compulsion or utter anger and disgust. In this sense, large portion of my tale is confined within this extracting of an insight out of recollection of memories and experiences.

On the other hand, the other term, corruption, was taken from the Latin corrumpere, or to ‘mar, bribe, or destroy.’ The etymological attributes are blatant; they are too revealing if I may say, of the intervening and altering faculties that I wish to convey as the bastardizing agent in communication systems like the mass media. Simply, corruption is anything intentionally applied to the transfer of information such that the transfer could never be a perfect process, never a high-fidelity ferrying of data from one entity to another—from the sender to the receiver.

Contextually, again, corruption happens when information broadcasted over the radio never reaches the audience with optimum fidelity and clarity. This involves curbing of data, misinterpretations, dagdag-bawas, information black out, one entity favored over another entity, I’m sure you know them all. Corruption happens when the supposed fluidity in the process of mass communication—that is the process of communication from a source to a large audience via a channel, is marred by merchandizing, information buying or selling, loss of neutrality, et cetera. Alarmingly, this is very much present and evident among radio stations airing news and public affairs programs. I am not accusing anyone; I am speaking of a fact.

Media, the Fourth Estate

We all should remember that in the world of communication, mass media, the press, is considered as the fourth estate participating in the check and balance in our state affairs. Again, it is something that is nothing new to all of us. And this is exactly the reason why we are supposed to protect mass media from corruption; the very same reason too why in the first place it is very vulnerable to corruption—because mass media is power. That small device called the microphone through which the voices of radio commentators are heard by thousands of listeners is a device that in the mornings becomes a channel of our social and political thinking. The misinformed will eventually say, “iyo ano,” no matter how shallow the views aired over popular stations. This problem could have been solved with proper education. There’s the rub.

The power of the media is immense and vast, that is has also the capacity to take away from us proper sensibilities. This is the danger of public perception. When Joseph Estrada was ousted by the so-called second Edsa People Power, Joseph Spaeth of Time predicted that ousting a leader would be a vice in the Philippines. Now it is indeed a vice, and the media is greatly involved in its success. You don’t like the face of your principal, go to a radio station; you want to defend a parcel of land you don’t really own, go to a radio station; there’s a hostage-taking somewhere else, get a media celebrity. Of course, I may have exaggerated a bit, but that’s only for literary purposes.

Media, as the fourth estate, is a participant in the check and balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial powers. In the Philippines, however, media almost fiscalizes—it had gone almost to the jurisdiction of police powers. Pag nadukutan ka, dai ka magkonsulta sa pulis, magreport ka sa radyo. Of course, there’s validity to some extent of what others may retort that the government may have indeed reached a point when even the smallest units of it are no longer trusted by the people. But even this condition is partly created by public perceptions partly shaped by the media.

In my anti-dam advocacy works, I often work with media personnel for information dissemination as well as rebuttals of statements released by the dam proponents. I opt to go to them because we need to reach wider audience for our concerns. We need empathy and sympathy, not to mention various assistances, either tangible or intangible. Not a few times have I experienced having the anchor commentator place me in the awkward situation of having the other party maligned, insulted, challenged, to a point of violations of broadcast ethics, while the interview was still on air. In my advocacy, I believe a branch of the state failed to deliver a good project for, with, and by the people, and the media could have actually done a great part in evaluating it, in a manner that is ethical and scientific.

The Libmanan-Cabusao Dam Experience: A Discourse of Media in Advocacy

In my plight as an advocate, my relationship with the media began a few months ago when we needed a shoulder to rely on in terms of information dissemination. In the movement, we believe that there was an information blackout—my townsfolk in Lupi having been suffering from poverty, and many have received little education. Government engineers gave them jokes for answers, ridiculed their questions, and mocked them, in supposedly consultation meetings. We needed a stronger and more powerful means of sharing information. We turned to the radio stations. Two stations eventually—seemingly—adopted us. They provided us with ease in expressing our concerns, gave us enough time on air, gave us opportunities for interviews. Both were obviously favoring one political figure over another, this was a few months ago.

One station began mentioning my name in a bad light, apparently announcing that I was wanted by a particular commentator to call the station for an interview because I am accountable for many things—including alternative projects in case we succeed in fighting against that gargantuan project of the Libmanan-Cabusao Dam. I succumbed to the call, I got upset one evening I called the station. On my first call, the lady on the phone asked me to call again after fifteen minutes because the commentator was still delivering the evening news. After that all the lines gave me busy tones until the time the program ended. The day after, the same thing happened. On the third day, I called again, this time, I told the lady on the phone I was willing to wait until the commentator was finished with whatever he was doing. I got a pass.

I told the commentator, on the air, that he had maligned my name and wanted me answerable for things that were out of my responsibilities. He tried to clear himself. I told him to turn to the government agency responsible for it, because I’m not the one who were supposed to work on it. There is a government agency tasked for creating irrigation; do not ask me to look for alternative projects for the dam. I told him why, reiterating all our reasons, plus all the documents necessary to be annotated and alluded to for our advocacy. I told him about the Environmental Impact Statement, he didn’t know anything about it. Patay na. He wasn’t aware of the many documents appertaining to what we were fighting for. The media studies teacher in me suddenly sprung out. Perhaps it was in an arrogant manner, I didn’t care, but I told the commentator: next time when you malign an advocacy work, when you malign a person, please do so with tangible and pertinent documents for bases. Reading maketh a full man.

The many times we were with the media in our advocacy works were always tinted and hinted with political malice. There has always been that kind intimation for political leaning—and many times they were not intimations, they were blatant propaganda. One commentator would always make fun of the situation and would tell the reporter interviewing me, ‘pakisabi ngantig ki Dato, buwisit siya ha,’ obviously alluding to the tv ad of Dato Arroyo.

One station, which obviously acts as an evangelist for another politician always took the positive stance, instead of negatively attacking, to compare their sponsor with the adversary politician. Instead of saying the remark uttered by the commentator of the station earlier mentioned, they would say ‘kaya ngaya si gob baga kontrang maray talaga digdi sa dam ta makakaraot man talaga, maray pa ngaya si gob.’

Where can we go then, when our media is contaminated with this malady?

Desensitization and Public Perception: The Case of Ads Employing Children

My increasing rage over the Libmanan-Cabusao Dam Project and its insensitive and deceitful proponents was put to an almost overshoot when the first radio ad employing children was broadcasted on air. The ad employed children notwithstanding the fact that the very nature of the ad was no at all rate in congruence with the nature of the child. I am a creative writer, and in this capacity, as much as I desire to read texts are they are, the interpretation of text would always elicit intertextual perspective. In the case of the radio ad, it was obvious. Children were made to curse—muda—when the term peste was mentioned to refer to a group of people. It meant calling a group of people a sort of a menace, irritant, obnoxious being, toxic, whatsoever. The advertising agency, standing for the advertiser or the financing sponsor, must have missed the point, as much as it must have missed the fact that those who were opposing the project were a populace of a community, of a town, or towns in the case of Lupi and Sipocot. The very nature of the ad defies the very nature of the child. The ad itself, in form and content, was problematic, assessing it from the point of view of media studies.

The ad costs fifty thousand pesos a month, and in the contract, as related to me by an insider, would last for six months. Crude computation gave us three hundred thousand pesos, multiplied by the number of stations where the ad was aired. Millions.

It was all the more infuriating when a counter-ad from another party was aired.

One morning, a commentator in another station sent me a text message, ‘sir, igwa na po baga kitang simbag duman sa radio ad.’

The ad, likewise, employed children, but this time, it was in favor of us, those who oppose the dam project. I could have chosen to laugh at its entertaining value like what most people have done. I could have given it a rest, perhaps, because it was in favor of our cause. But, hell, no. Perhaps, it was the media studies in me who reacted. This time, I wrote Mr. Emmanuel Llagas, the president of KBP Naga. I wrote him my indignation over the ads that insensitively use children as talents. Questions were raging in my mind—labor issues, children’s rights, bad propaganda, truth in advertisement, et cetera.

In my trying to convince them that I was writing not in my capacity as an anti-dam advocate, I wrote: “Despite my involvement in campaigns against the Libmanan-Cabusao Dam Project and despite the fact that the anti-dam advertisement may actually favor our advocacies, I do not believe that the manner of presentation is in congruence with how we believe things should be done. Because we still believe in subtlety, in restraint, in human gentleness and compassion; not in rude and unreasonably adversarial procedure of airing concerns.

“Now, we should ask: where now lies our press ethics? Where now is our primordial sympathy as influencer and persuader of thoughts? Where now is our duty to further only what is the truth?”

After which followed my citations of declarations and Philippine laws apparently violated by the advertisements. I firmly believe that as partakers in this horrible phenomenon the media had the faculty to say NO in the first place. Only if they have included in their business considerations a bit of discernment over what is ethical and correct and what is not, this matter would have not gotten worse.

A few weeks later, more and more ads with children as talents came in. I saw no action despite my letter and the weight of people’s appreciation of it.

I paid visit to Mr. Llagas, there I knew that the problem was there was no one to turn to, no one to hold accountable for all the ads. My question for myself was, if there were no people accountable, how did all these ads make it to the airwaves?! There’s the rub.

I left Mr. Llagas office, the outcome of our conversation was to help each other look for names whom we can credit the ads to. Until now it remained unsolved. Media and the ways to impunity.

The exchanges of advertisements flourished, radio frequencies became like cockpit arena where one ad comes in response after another, and the process repeats itself, like eager roosters in a denouement of a cockfight. Most exchanges of attacks via advertisements were adorned with frequent comments from anchor commentators, who I associate to taunting public in cockpits. Perhaps, the cash flow is similar in terms of process.

The most alarming to me was that public got entertained. They laughed at the ads. Other children were made to imitate the singing. The elder sang them too, with gusto and frequent extemporizing. There was no anger, no abhorrence, no protests.

Now we ask, is this how mass media ideally should be? Where was the function to inform properly? Where was the function to educate? Where was the function to influence with ethical correctness?

Actions and Consequences

Two weeks ago, the media personnel were given the opportunity to have an audience in the MalacaƱan, the soon-to-be erstwhile residence of President Arroyo and her family. Upon coming back to Naga, I asked a friend as to how much he got from the sideline trip, he answered: four thousand. The amount depended on many things. What excited me more was the promise to share with me an information: he texted the clue: dato arroyo vic nierva.

Here’s the rub.

Two media personnel, a man I though was principled and an old lady broadcaster got into a conversation with the congressman. I was in the topic, as well as my letter about the ads and my advocacy against the dam.

The two broadcasters took turns in belittling my efforts against the ads that employed children, saying that the points I raised were somewhat weak and insignificant. Added to that was the assurance that our advocacy against the congressman’s dam project was, likewise, weak and proves nothing against the adamantine insistence of the proponents.

It hurt me as well as it challenged me to be more resolute.

No one can really blame it entirely on the media personnel. As it is in any other organization, not everyone is corrupt. Many are victims too. A few years ago, a research on the status of our media industry revealed that, on a nationwide scale, 80% of our journalists and broadcasters do not receive social security; 75% do not have health plans; 80% do not own their homes; 60% take out loans from family and friends to make ends meet; 60% have gone to news source to solicit funds. In Naga, a television reporter-cum-celebrity loaned thirty-nine thousand pesos from the office of a well-known elected official when his wife gave birth.

We all decry for all the media killings in our country. We protest against the violation of the dignity of the noble profession of journalists and broadcasters. But if we are going to ask ourselves, what are we doing to combat these monstrous acts? For if we in the media continue to attach ourselves to warring politicians, we will surely find ourselves caught in their senseless crossfires. Pity us, in the end.

In the last statements in my letter of protest against the ads employing children, I wrote: ‘During these times when we whine and rant so much about corruption, the best action perhaps is to start cleansing from within.”

Sadly, my last statement was perceived as arrogance. Who am I, according to them, a 30-year old dam fighter, teacher, and struggling poet, to instruct them who were in the business for such a long time.

In my body and spirit, and as I am telling you now in this lecture, that one afternoon upon learning of their response to my letter, upon questioning my capacity to question them, I told myself: “Precisely, who am I?”

Dios mabalos saindo gabos!

San Fernando, Camarines Sur
28 January 2010


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