Strongmen and the mass media

There’s a theory in sociology that sees society as a network of self-creating function systems, and human beings as entities lying outside these systems. Examples of these are law, politics, the economy, science, religion, art, the mass media, etc.

Evolving as embodiments of specific rationalities and each operating by a distinctive medium, these communication systems serve society’s ends, while resisting attempts to turn them into anyone’s personal tools. That, in essence, is what modern society is about.

Its opposite would be traditional society, where everything tends to be personal. Here, institutions have yet to develop the kind of autonomy that allows them to override the power of strongmen over public affairs.

Philippine society is at the crossroad of modernity and tradition.  Though not yet quite as independent as those in more mature societies, our institutions are no longer just the playthings of the rich and powerful.  Our legal system may be hobbled by dysfunction, but the rule of law is not just a figment of our collective imagination.  For all the ubiquity of political dynasties, our political system—at least at the national level—can no longer be characterized as the monopoly of a political aristocracy.  And, indeed, the Philippine economy today actively responds to multiple cues from a complex and global ecosystem; it is not at the mercy of whoever wields political power at home.

Our mass media are not any different. Though they are privately owned, it is a gross simplification to imagine them as no more than weapons in the service of their owners’ economic and political objectives. They may have “sacred cows”—private concerns shielded from critical comment—but it would be a misrepresentation of the way modern media operate to view them as merely enacting the biases of their proprietors.

As inconceivable as it may be to President Duterte, who has been smarting from critical reports about the conduct of his war on drugs by the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the ABS-CBN, the operations of these two media firms cannot be reduced to the economic and political interests of the Prieto and the Lopez families that respectively own them. To argue otherwise would be not only to mock the professionalism of the countless journalists who have built these two reputable media companies into what they are today; it is also to be blind to the complexities of today’s mass communication systems.

No serious observer of Philippine society would buy the paranoid claim that there is a media conspiracy to put down Mr. Duterte. The President would be well advised to separate his personal resentment over the bad press he believes he is unfairly getting from the Inquirer and the ABS-CBN from the legal issues that he seeks to bring against their owners.

If he thinks the Prieto/Rufino family paid a measly sum for the long-term lease of the government-owned Mile Long and Creekside properties in Makati, he must let the courts pass judgment on this claim. And, if he believes that the ABS-CBN does not deserve to have its franchise renewed when it expires in 2020, let Congress, which holds the power, decide that on the basis of fair criteria rather than on the President’s complaint that the firm “swindled” him when it failed to air his campaign ads after taking payment.

If running a media organization were as simple as giving marching orders to a pliant army of unthinking trolls, the Inquirer and ABS-CBN owners might not be facing the kind of trouble they are facing today.  Like the rest of the Filipino business elite, they would be wary of stepping on the toes of the new President. If it were solely up to them, they might be prompted to advise their reporters and editors to avoid any negative reference to this deeply personalistic leader who does not hesitate to publicly vent his anger on anyone who displeases him.  But they would not, knowing that to do so would be an inexcusable breach of a sacred norm in journalism.  No self-respecting journalists would silently abide by unwarranted directives from media owners.

I speak from experience—and from a conscious effort to treat this issue without bias.  I have been writing for the Inquirer for the last 22 years, and I have worked in all the major broadcast networks as writer and host, and, lately, as a member of the ABS-CBN’s board of advisers.  In no instance have I been told by the owners or their representatives what to write or what not to write, what topic to discuss or avoid, or who I can invite or not invite to my program.

This is not to say there are no mercenaries in the media.  I’m sure there are, but they would be the exception.  The mass media community is a small one.  Its members know who are for sale and who are not, who hide their corruption behind a veil of cynicism, and who have integrity.

It was sad and alarming to watch the President the other day coax reporters to say something that might validate his view that media outfits owned by “cronies” have no right to wage any crusade for human rights or good government since their owners have themselves benefited from a corrupt system. He misunderstands the nature and social function of the media. To their credit, the reporters politely declined to engage him.

What is at issue here is more than just a president’s pique at being criticized by the mass media. The media have always had an adversarial relationship with political power. The more crucial issue is whether a nation can withstand the abuse of its institutions to settle the personal scores of strongmen. In other societies, whenever this has happened, the result has invariably been the descent to violence and the retreat to autocratic rule.