Newspapers as a public trust

The Manila Times is one of the few newspapers I buy.  I genuinely appreciate the sobriety of its editorials and the reliability of its reports. I also have a tremendous respect for the young men and women who used to run it — professional journalists who try very hard to resist the tide of “envelopmental” and sensationalistic reporting.

Most of these young professional journalists have just resigned from the newspaper, following the decision of its publisher-owner to issue a public apology to President Estrada for a news item that became the basis of a libel suit against the Times.  The President has accepted the apology and has withdrawn the libel suit.  But the staff continue to insist there was nothing to apologize for because the item complained about was not libelous.  In their view, the publisher’s public apology had destroyed the credibility of the newspaper and made it pointless to continue working for it.

Since the case has been withdrawn, we will never know how the courts would have viewed the matter.  Even when it injures personal reputations, libel is usually very difficult to prove in cases involving public interest.  The allegedly libelous item had called the President an “unwitting ninong” to a possibly defective contract that was signed in his presence.  There are competing interpretations of what this news item had meant to suggest.  The President and his lawyers read it as a baseless and malicious attack on the personal integrity of the President.  The Times claimed that it had no such intention, referring to the item’s description of the president’s role in this event as precisely “unwitting”.  Judges would have seen it either way, and the case would have dragged on at every stage of the judicial process.

If the Times’ owners were a little less vulnerable, they could have stood their ground and defended their writers and editors.  It is the business of the media in a democratic society to stand by the news and commentaries they put out.  That obligation compels them always to strive for judiciousness and accuracy in their reports.  Lapses occur, of course, and that is the time to make amends and face the consequences.  But the recognition of these lapses has to be a collective act of the publisher, the editors, and the writers.  A newspaper is not diminished when it acknowledges its errors, but if it yields easily when its reports are challenged, it will be the laughing stock of the industry.

There are very few newspapers in this country that make money.  The Manila Times is not one of them.  Its comparatively low readership also means it will not attract the big advertisers that can help defray the costs of publishing the paper.  The bulk of its operational expenses must, therefore, be shouldered by its owners, for whom the paper’s continuing existence has to be a source of fulfillment or advantage.  Otherwise, they would not be subsidizing it.

The Manila Times is quite typical in this sense.  Like most of the other broadsheets, it is not making money.  Its value for its owners resides elsewhere.  A newspaper is a source of political influence, a defense and necessity for business conglomerates that aspire to survive changes in political regimes.  The owners may use this power directly to advance their multiple business interests, or they may wield it like an accumulation of reserve power that is more feared and respected when it is not used.

As a general rule, the more legitimacy and credibility a newspaper or a television network acquires, the greater is its political influence.  The more it refrains from openly using this influence or power, the more its credibility and legitimacy grow.  It is an interesting paradox: business groups often acquire newspapers to protect or support their business interests, but they cannot be blatant in using these as mouthpieces of the owners.  Owners that transform their newspapers into their mouthpieces risk destroying not only the credibility of their papers but also their own influence.

The point has been made before by other commentators that what made the Times vulnerable was not so much its use of careless language in describing the president, but rather the manner in which it called attention to and criticized a government transaction in which its owners had had a direct material interest.  The Gokongweis, the Times’ owners, were part of a business consortium that participated and lost in a bidding for the contract that later became the subject of the Times’ expose.

Newspapers are a public trust.  This quality confers upon them a set of normative constraints that insulate them from narrow vested interests.  It is what makes it possible for journalists to become autonomous professionals in settings that otherwise would make them nothing more than whores of power.

When media owners ignore these constraints, or when writers try to please their employers by championing their interests, they strip journalism of its last defenses.  Malacanang pounced on the Times because it had made itself vulnerable by openly mixing journalism with business interests.  Public interest justified the criticism of the Impsa contract, but it is arguable whether, given the situation of its owners, the Times would have been its most credible advocate.

Today, hardly anyone recalls what was wrong with that contract.  What the public remembers is that, over the objections of its editors and writers, a newspaper has taken back what it said and apologized.  It is a sad day for journalism.


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