Time, the mass media, and the presidency

In retrospect, President Benigno S. Aquino III needed to make that trip to the United States if only to give himself time to study the report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) on the hostage-taking incident.  Time, as he is finding out for himself, is the first casualty of mass communication.

The speed and the scale in which today’s mass media relay information to the public has radically shrunk the time-horizon for decision-making. Government finds itself being rushed to produce decisions as fast as the media can produce new information.  A public that presumes to know what happened expects instant action.  It cannot appreciate the complex internal environment in which public officials must make decisions.

Whereas the mass media thrive in the ceaseless production of information, the other institutions of society take time to weigh the meaning and implication of every piece of information. Domains like government and the courts, for instance, are much slower to make decisions or take action because they are required by their own codes to be more circumspect.  To speed up their rhythms in order to keep up with the dizzying pace of the mass media is to court danger.  Yet, this is exactly what they now find themselves compelled to do.

This is not the fault of the mass media.  It is just a byproduct of the rapid development in media technology.  The revolution in mass communications has made possible not only the instant delivery of the news, but also mass media’s unprecedented global reach.  The remarkable thing about the Aug. 23 hostage-taking incident was not just that the events were reported live, but that the reportage was simultaneously beamed beyond Philippine territory — to almost every corner of the world.  The effect of this is the formation of a global public that makes its own judgments about events and expects government to act according to these instant judgments.

It is immaterial whether this public opinion is well-informed or not, or whether in fact there exists a consensus in public opinion.  Modern governments that are sensitive to public opinion have little choice but to operate on the basis of imputed public knowledge – that is, what is presumed to be already known.  The inclination of decision-makers is to defer to imputed public opinion, to set aside reservations, to act precipitately.

One could sense this was the dilemma that President Noynoy was addressing when he had to explain why, after giving the Chinese embassy a copy of the IIRC report, he refused to release the same report to the public.  His answers were candid. He said that he felt the Filipino nation owed it to the Chinese government, as the aggrieved party, to get a copy of the committee report as soon as it was finished.  But, in the same breath, he added that he did not want the report to be publicly discussed ahead of a serious study of its implications for action.  He also wanted, he said, to avoid the kind of public discussion that could aggravate the already strained relations between China and thePhilippines.

This plea seemed reasonable.  But, instead of conceding presidential prerogative, a critical segment of the public accused him of bowing to the Chinese government, and of wanting to sanitize the report, or rewrite it, in such a way as to exculpate the government while heaping the blame on the overzealous media.  It is not easy to dispel such suspicions given that the government had allowed live coverage of the IIRC proceedings.

My view is that the president was asking for time – not so much to review the content of the report or to assess the validity of its findings as to ponder carefully what he must do, as the nation’s chief executive. Why should this be taken as a sign that he doesn’t trust the report or the committee tat prepared it?  The IIRC was a special committee he himself created to investigate the incident and to propose recommendations.  It has done its job; now it is the president’s turn to study its findings and conclusions.

The media, of course, have their own imperatives. They are not bound by the president’s personal schedule. And, as so often happens, withholding an avidly anticipated report only serves as a powerful inducement to produce a copy by other means, and to publish or broadcast it ahead of everyone.  This is not something a democratic government can explicitly legislate against, except maybe in the name of national security.  Let me put it another way: Just as it is the function of government to be circumspect in promulgating collectively-binding decisions, so it is the function of the mass media to “outrun” themselves in the effort to supersede yesterday’s news.

In the modern world, the media will outrun every other sub-system of society, forcing them to adjust to its killing pace.  There is no way around this.  As societies become more modern, their institutions become more autonomous of one another. Their interdependence, says the theorist Niklas Luhmann, become evident only with the passage of time. But time, ironically, is what modern man has less of.  “As a consequence, we observe increasing time pressures…in everyday life.  And ‘appointments’ (or deadlines – RSD) are given priority over ‘values’.”

P-Noy’s 100th day in office is just around the corner. He is under great pressure to make a difference in the nation’s life.  He is right not to sacrifice value just to meet deadlines.  But he must know that time is running out, and six years is not a long time.