Unsettled “IOU”

by Juan L. Mercado

“Media Accountability and Public Engagement” is the theme 76 newspapers will discuss at Philippine Press Institute’s annual meeting Monday. Harsh facts underpin the antiseptic captions.

President Benigno Aquino will key note this two day meeting. He quit waffling and endorsed the Freedom of Information bill That should buff up his bona-fides. Discussions will then hopscotch from an “Asian Media Barometer” to “Reporting the Environment”.

These debates are possible because“journalists of a tougher mould” fought suppressors. Joaquin “Chino” Roces, Teodoro Locsin Sr., Jose Burgos, S. were imprisoned and their papers padlocked before People Power One smashed Marcos’ shackles.   Inquirer didn’t buckle when President Joseph Estrada tried to gut it’s advertising base.

The press “basks complacently in liberties that earlier generations fought for,”notes a Cebu Press Freedom Week   editorial.  “We drink from cisterns we never built.  And we reap from vineyards we never planted.”

Journalists still have to settle this IOU.  The only acceptable currency is unflagging dedication to daily truth seeking. There must be  “quiet recommitment, by all, to this fountainhead of other liberties”.  Nunca Mas. “Never Again”.

This is a gruelling task, given past betrayals. Under Proclamation 1081, journalists most vociferous in proclaiming liberty of expression morphed into the harshest martial law censors.

“Whenever freedom of the press has been permitted, Filipinos defended it with passion,” David Rosenberg writes in “Marcos and Martial Law” (Cornell University).  “Whenever it has been prohibited, they complied with government regulation with obsequiousness.”

We’re hobbled by truncated memories. Eight out of 10 students barely recall Sen. Benigno Aquino. Or why he was gunned down. This is also a society of embedded impunity.

Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York published it’s 2012 survey. A dysfunctional justice system  wedges the Philippines, third  among the four nations, that fail to nail journalist murderers. Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka are our fellow  “black sheep”.

Newspapers, broadcast stations and institutions, re-emerged into a post martial law world altered by Internet. First  conceptualized at the 1956 Dartmouth Artificial Intelligence conference, the Net span off into cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, Ipads,  etc.

An original 16 million signed up for the Net at the  start. By June 2011, over 2.16 billion were “wired.”  Cell phones debuted in the mid 1990s. Over 5.28 billion hefted a cell phone by late 2011. Of these, 86 million were Filipinos.

In 2001, Filipinos were the first to wage revolution with cell phones, Howard Rheingold wrote in “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution”. They “provided the first real test of text messaging” to oust Joseph Estrada.

Lebanese cloned Filipino tactics to whip up “Cedar Revolution” rallies that “resembled Edsa’s human waves,” wrote Christian Science Monitor. Today, cameras, in cell phones, document massacre of demonstrators in Syria , by Hafez al Assad’s Hafez troops despite a wobbly UN ceasefire.

“The public used to consume news like sucking on a straw”, recalls Richard Posner in his book: Bad News. “Now it’s being sprayed like a firehose”. The new  media’s vast reach and millisecond speed whets assertion. Paradoxically, it spurs demands for even more verification.

“Every new medium begins as a container for the old,” communications guru Marshall McLuhan wrote.  This resonates in a  sideline debate: Will print go the way of the dinosaur? For now, recall the ancient axiom: Verba volant. Scripta Manent. “Words vanish. The written word endures.”

Focus instead on the more festering issues. Internet, cell phone and Facebook  move truth—or falsehood—at “warp speed.” A scoop stood until the next edition. Today, it lasts  until the next click of a mouse.

“News organizations are abandoning the race to be the first to break the news,” Economist notes. “[They’re] focusing instead on being the best at verifying.”

Remember the bogus psychological profiles on then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino? Election campaigner Guido Delgado peddled them at a press conference. Pressed for evidence, he bristled. “It’s the job of the press to verify.”

“In practice, the lowest editorial standards tend to drive out the higher,” notes a Pew Foundation study. “It creates a kind of Gresham ’s Law of Journalism.” Assertion converts the press “into a conduit of politics as cultural civil war.” Reliance on polarized argument spreads.

“Verifying facts is the central function of journalism,” the late Bill Kovach drilled  into Nieman fellows at Harvard University . “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification. That holds for a network TV news division or a lone citizen blogging on Internet.”

“At work today is a new culture of impatient journalism. (It is)  not dedicated to establishing whether a story is true. Instead we’re moving towards a journalism of assertion. And the cost to society is high.”

“In  my 11 years in broadcasting, I”ve noticed  only a handful of  reporters take advantage of ‘deep background sessions’ , ABS-CBN Lynda Jumilla writes in  Philippine Journalism  Review. The need  is for more reporting of significance, adds Jumilla, who covers the Supreme Court chief justice’s impeachment,

“Evolution of the Web has raised the bar,” Googles Richard Gingras writes…” ”The future of journalism can  be better than its past. But this will only be the case to the extent that all of us work to make it so.”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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