News, advertisements, and entertainment

These are the types of programs we find in today’s mass media.  The stuff of which they are made is information. Because it is easy for one program to shade into another, and for readers and audiences to miss the differences, modern mass media has made their differentiation the heart of its ethical codes. Thus, an advertisement is not to be passed off as news. The delivery of the news may try to be entertaining, but entertainment is not its principal goal.

There are ways of marking these boundaries.  Assigning these programs their respective places in time and space is the most basic. Clearly labeling print advertisements as “paid advertisements” becomes necessary when promotional material takes the form of the news. Telling news readers to refrain from appearing in advertisements as product endorsers – or, in the case of news writers, from moonlighting as public relations consultants or lobbyists — is another rule.  Such differentiation is, however, never easy to enforce in transitional societies like ours, where even lawmakers engage in various roles that often clash with one another.

When such norms of differentiation in media are violated, dysfunctional consequences are unavoidable.  The public is illserved, and information becomes unreliable.

My reflections on the reality of media were triggered by a curious photograph that appeared the other day in the Inquirer  (07/17/2010, p. A-22), specifically in the foreign news section.  The banner story was on the US Senate’s historic vote on the bill reforming the entire American banking system.  At the center of the item was a photograph of President Obama.  Even before I could finish reading the report, my eyes drifted to the photo next to Obama’s, which was three times bigger. Instead of foreign faces, I was surprised to see the beaming figure of a local housing developer flanked by the top officers of the PAG-IBIG fund.  What particularly caught my eye was the private developer’s right hand resting lightly on the left shoulder of the public official.  I found this intriguing in a formal photo.

What’s this picture doing here, I asked myself.  It has no accompanying story, yet it doesn’t look like an advertisement.  It bears a caption that is neither here nor there: “Globe Asiatique and Pag-Ibig Committed to Working Together.”  Below the heading is an identification of the people in the photo: “Globe Asiatique President Delfin Lee and PAG-IBIG fund Chief Executive Jaime Fabiana (seen above) with Emma Linda Faria, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, are committed to working together as partners in giving better housing opportunities for the public who aspire in having their own homes.”

If I was the editor, and this was supposed to be a news item, the first thing I would probably do is fire the reporter who wrote it. It is not only ungrammatical, it is also patently promotional.  If, on the other hand, this was an advertisement, then it should have been so labeled, and not passed off as news.

But, who is Delfin Lee? That was the big question that lingered in my mind. He seems to know how to use the media.  More than this, he seems to have a special access to high government officials.  I wondered what Mr. Fabiana was thinking in that picture.  He had both hands in his pockets, seemingly oblivious to Delfin Lee’s misplaced informality.

I decided to Google Delfin Lee.  What I found amazed and disturbed me.  I have never met Mr. Lee.  But, looking at the postings about him, I must say he strikes me as someone with very impressive and extensive connections to media and showbiz.  More to the point, I found a slightly different copy of the Inquirer photo in the website of “Pag-Ibig Fund South Min.”  This picture must have been taken a split second before or after the Inquirer photo.  At first glance it looks like the same picture.  But a closer inspection reveals the difference.

Delfin Lee’s hand no longer rests on the public official’s shoulder.

More important, the photo carries a vastly different caption:

“APOLOGY TO Pag-Ibig. Jaime A. Fabiana (left), Chief Executive

Officer of Home Development Mutual Fund (Pag-Ibig Fund), receives

Delfin Lee (center), President of Globe Asiatique Realty Holdings

Corporation at his office.  Lee personally apologized to Fabiana over his reported statements that HDMF officials ‘have become lazy and have lost the vision to serve.’ Lee said that his remarks were taken out of context.  He reiterated his cooperation and commitment to work with Pag-Ibig Fund in providing shelter security for every Filipino worker’s family.  Emma Linda Faria, Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the support services cluster, joins Fabiana and Lee in the photo.” This caption clearly conveys the perspective of Pag-Ibig Fund.

But one doesn’t have to be a journalist to sense that there’s a bigger story buried here.  What prompted the apology?  What was the issue? What is the nature of Delfin Lee’s dealings with the Pag-Ibig Fund? Why did Lee wage a media campaign against these two career officials of the Pag-Ibig Fund? And why was he suddenly apologizing to them? I leave it to our reporters to complete the story.

But I hope we don’t lose the point.  Media people sometimes find themselves going after professional public servants who cannot defend themselves with the same slickness as media-savvy businessmen and politicians.  Wittingly or unwittingly, they become the tools of vested interests that are fully cognizant of media’s power to define reality.  It is this reality that is up for grabs when media loses its autonomy.