President Aquino and the mass media

The relationship between the government and the media in modern society is almost always one of mutual irritation. These two systems need one another, yet each is rarely pleased about the way the other does its work. The government criticizes the media for harping on the negative, while the media easily bristle at any attempt to control their access to information or to shape the way they report it. The issue is structural, and there is no easy way around it.

President Aquino’s speech at the annual presidential forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) last Oct. 27 highlighted many aspects of this strained relationship. In that speech, Mr. Aquino chose to dwell on his observations of media reportage during his presidency. He was candid and critical—a refreshing trait he does not hide regardless of the audience.

Interestingly enough, the media ignored his main speech and focused instead on his answers to questions in the open forum. If I had not gone to the government’s official website to check out the text of the President’s speech, I would not have guessed its topic from the news reports.

The Inquirer carried two front-page stories on the Focap forum. One was on Mr. Aquino’s response to the suggestion that there seems to be a resurgence of political support for the Marcoses. He did not see such resurgence, he said. The other dealt with what he planned to do after he ends his term in 2016, asking specifically whether he planned to marry or settle down. The President said he wasn’t currently dating anyone. The Star, for its part, chose to headline the President’s reply to a question about the legislative proposal to lower taxes for fixed-income earners. He said he was against such a move at this time because the government was still operating on a budget deficit.

One would probably not find a better illustration of the divergent codes by which the government and the media operate than the striking contrast between the content of the President’s speech at the Focap forum and the reportage that followed it. The media reports were silent about the subject of the speech itself, as though the President had nothing important to say to the assembled journalists. Yet, it was a serious and balanced speech—a barbed reference to “negativism” in the media, aimed directly at media practitioners.

First, he defined what he thought was the primary mission of a journalist: “[T]o situate a story in its proper context, and to develop a long view that allows the audience to follow the development of a story with all its complexities.” He added: “Let me emphasize that I never asked that media refrain from reporting negative news. All I asked for was a reasonable balance.” He then proceeded to excoriate members of the media who, in the midst of the nation’s most difficult challenges, tended “to sensationalize, to highlight tragedy, to point out supposed failures, and to make accusations.”

It is difficult to disagree with the President’s assessment of the impact of relentless negativism in the media on the national consciousness. “When this happens, how far are you from losing hope? And when you lose hope, how do you generate any positive action?” He called for “more constructive criticism” from the media, urging them to expose corruption and injustice so that the government may address these wrongs.

Mindful that his presidency’s record is due for summing up any time soon, he was emphatic about one thing: “[I]t cannot be true that there are only negative things happening in the Philippines today—that nothing has changed; that we are still apathetic and cynical; and that one shortcoming becomes reason enough to discount the whole.” He gave examples of achievements he is particularly proud of: the expanded conditional cash transfer program, the PhilHealth program, the country’s much improved weather monitoring system, and the continued growth and resilience of the nation’s economy amidst the global crisis.

“Yes, there is always massive room for improvement. Yes, there are some mistakes and missteps—but that does not mean there is no room for hope or optimism. That does not mean there is no room to celebrate successes, even the smallest ones. That is all I ask: to make room for the whole, truthful picture.”

The President’s plea will strike any open-minded person as reasonable. Alas, the mass media system’s operational closure and distinct code make it very difficult to accommodate it. News reports about events that are important to the political system typically come in installments, rather than as comprehensive accounts sensitive to the need for balance and context. The media and the government simply operate on different bandwidths.

Most media do not set out to attack the government, or to praise it, or, least of all, to produce a consensual or a more “complete” view of reality. The code of the mass media is simply the distinction between information and noninformation, and it is on this basis that they make their selection of what to report. Here, “topics, not opinions, are decisive,” writes Niklas Luhmann in his path-breaking book, “The reality of the mass media.”

President Aquino’s complaint about “negativism” in the mass media merited no mention in the news not because it was directed against the media. The reason, I think, is simply that the topic was not new. What is new was his statement that the Marcoses should apologize for the atrocities and abuses committed under martial law. Given Bongbong Marcos’ vice presidential bid, that item will surely drive the news forward.

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