Pivotal Concern

by Juan L. Mercado

Is  media  today  wedged  into  the outer  side  of  the  “Gutenberg Parenthesis”?  “The what?”, blurted Cebu’s  Press Freedom Week  pooled editorial Monday.

Every   third week of September, media in  Cebu tamps down fierce competition.  Together,  they mark how  martial law shackled  liberty of expression in 1972.  In Cagayan de Oro and  Dumaguete,  the press holds, on first week of May,    similar though  shorter remembrance rites.

“Remembering with undiminished intensity, over time, need not make us curators of our ancestors’ grievances”,  Columnist Ellen Goodman insisted. “We  can honor  the past, without being trapped in it. “

Surveys  tell us that  most  of  today’s youngsters have hazy notions of the Marcos dictatorship. These kids will weild  power  tomorrow.  Yet, their  insight into what People Power wrested back is tenuous. So is the sense of stewardship.

Cebu’s  2011 program, thus, includes  conferences for mass communication students, films  to  roundtables on  professional issues  J.V. Rufino of Inquirer Mobile led  a session on  “Where is Journalism in a Digital World?”

Memory is both  treasury and guardian.  “It is right  that media recall how Proclamation 1081 suspended human rights, padlocked Congress, censored the press, and  co-opted many,” Cebu’s new archbishop Jose Palma told  journalists, after their  traditional Press Freedom Walk.

““Some of you were in kindergarten  in February 13,1986”,  Palma  recalled. . “The Catholic Bishops Conference ( then ) issued a pastoral, declaring  the snap elections as fraudulent.  Speaking  the truth helped to  spark People Power I…  Filipinos  were the first to wage non-violent revolution, with cell  phones for People Power 2 in 2001″.  

“There “are two freedoms”,  Palma added. The false, where a man is free to do what he likes. And the true where  man is at liberty to do what he ought. The cyberspace revolution made that task  more complex.  In Filipino homes today, average time weekly spent trawling  Internet  has doubled.

Is this  the other  side of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”?  Over two millenia  of press history are compressed, by scientists, into this bracket.

On the “Parenthesis” earlier  side is the  world’s first-ever  “newspaper: the 35-meter “Trajan’s  Column” in Rome.  Completed in 113 C.E., the tower depicts, in bas relief, Emperor Trajan’s victory  in the Dacian wars. This was  “an  incredibly expensive way  to publish a story”  News was also  passed on orally  for centuries. Scribes  handwrit  letters and books..

.Until the year 1436. Using an 800 guilder loan, Johannes Gutenberg  in Germany, invented  a machine that  used moveable wooden letters.  Books and newspapers proliferated over  the next six centuries. This launched  the  “Print   Revolution” .  It is  at  the “Gutenberg  Parenthesis”  core.

Ferdinand  Marcos padlocked newspaper offices and broadcast stations. “Slavery was the price tag for democratic survival, Marcos told us that fateful night,”  the first pooled Press Week editorial recalled. “Salvage victims and  corruption…exacted an  awesome penalty exacted propagandists masqueraded as journalists…Never Again ( Indeed ) revisiting  enforced ‘unanimity of the graveyard’ is essential….”

Yet, even as Marcos gagged  the  mainline press, the “Digital  Revolution” uncoiled. The first inter-person communication,  on Internet, occurred  in 1971. Fax  and  thereafter  cell  phones followed.   Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” and Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolt”  harnessed  new technology.   In London’s 2011 riots, looters deployed  Blackberrys to dodge   police.

No government  today  can confiscate 78 million cell  phones that  Filipinos heft. There are. 168.2 million Indonesian cell phone owners.  About 29.7 million Filipinos are wired into the Net.  Chinese censors “firewall”   it’s 477.8 million Internet clients.

“(Decades) ago, there was no Internet, no cable tv, no online newspapers, no blogs,” recalls Richard Posner in his book “Bad News”. “The public’s consumption of the news used to be like sucking on a straw. Now it’s being sprayed like a firehose.” Today,  7/24 news is the rule.

Twitter, Facebook, Ipods, etc. stoke the  uncertain  “Arab Spring”.  All can  have their say on the cyberspace expressway.  Many do so with little  cross-checking, or ethical concern. . “Everyone is  entitled to his opinion,” the late Senator Pat Moynihan groused.  ” But not everyone can have his set of  facts.”  

The new technology, radically recasts journalism’s tools. Electronics whittled away, to cite one example,  the  traditional face-to-face oversight that editors exercised over reporters. There are few gate keepers left.

This is the “Global Village”  that  Marshall McLuhan foresaw. It unfolds  in a country  where the needy — over 27 million at last count —  are peddled for a pair of sandals. “The greatest threat are journalists who act as megaphones for the powerful.”

The  new media today  can move truth—or falsehood— with the click of a mouse. “News organizations are abandoning the race to be the first to break the news,” the Economist notes. “[They’re] focusing instead on being the best at verifying”.

Beyond the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”,  confirming truth  emerges as  the pivotal  concern in tomorrow’s  journalism.  Then and now, the  journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. That is also the bottom line for Press Freedom Week 2011.

“Babel is the ancient  image of conflicting views with scant regard for truth,”  Palma said. “But the Truth shall make you free. Truth  spelt  with a  Capital T.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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