Media and politics

If there is anything that the 12 hearings conducted by two powerful congressional committees on the ABS-CBN franchise clearly showed, it is the gross misunderstanding and simplification by our lawmakers of how the mass media system operates in a modern society.

They accused ABS-CBN of being so powerful as to be able to make and unmake political careers. They believe that if politicians do not kowtow to its owners, the latter could dictate the shape of the news in order to demolish them. They think that the news about what they do or don’t do as public servants cannot be aired or published unless their side has been heard.

They believe that the people think poorly of their elected leaders because of the negative way they are portrayed not just in the news but also in entertainment programs. They think that news about government or politics should be objective in the sense that it should be completely devoid of any hint of judgment.

I guess the quick answer to the first of these charges is that if ABS-CBN were truly as powerful as it is reputed to be — to the point that it can actually determine the fate of the nation’s top politicians — President Duterte would probably not be president today, or in any position to threaten the company with a total shutdown. If the company was bent on denying him any television exposure during the presidential election campaign, he should not have been invited to guest in one of its most popular programs. Many viewers would remember him gamely dancing onstage with the host.

It is true, however, that many of today’s politicians might not be where they are today if it were not for the extensive public exposure they gained from their stints in the mass media. Some of them might have deliberately joined media with a clear eye on using it as a stepping stone to a political career. But, once elected to office, there is really little that the broadcast network can do to influence their political behavior or decisions.

The coupling between mass media and politics arises from the fact that much of the information that the media reports is also of value to the political system. The sociologist Niklas Luhmann put it thus: “Politics benefits from ‘mentions’ in the media and is simultaneously irritated by them. News reports in the media usually demand a response within the political system, and this response generally reappears in the media as commentary.”

But that reciprocity is a strained one, largely because media and politics operate on a different tempo and setting. Media operates very fast, almost as if it were racing against time itself. Information turns stale as soon as it comes out as news. Reportage therefore cannot return to the same subject unless there is something new to report. The tempo of politics, in contrast, is slower because communication goes through “a quite different route in the political system.”

In one of the hearings, Rep. Rodante Marcoleta was grilling Ging Reyes of the ABS-CBN news and public affairs division about the ethical responsibilities of the network’s reporters. He used the occasion to complain about one of its reporters, who had gone ahead with the airing of a news item without waiting to hear his side. In fact, the reporter had asked to interview him. Marcoleta himself confirmed that he had agreed to be interviewed, but on condition that the ABS-CBN reporter would bring other reporters from other news organizations to the same Zoom interview. The interview did not materialize, because, as the reporter tried to explain to the irate congressman, news people are not allowed to organize press conferences. Marcoleta saw it in a different light; he felt disrespected.

It was a pattern that was visible throughout the hearings. Casting aside whatever positive contributions the media network has made to the country by way of providing news, entertainment, and various forms of public assistance, particularly in times of disasters, the hearings took on the character of a Grand Inquisition. As it turned out, the whole exercise was meant to compel the company to submit various documents that the inquisitors could then use to “expose” the supposed wrongdoings of the network, justify its disapproval of a franchise, and provide basis for the filing of future cases against the owners of the company.

No formal course on media and politics would have been as effective as these hearings in demonstrating the strained coupling of these two subsystems of modern society. No dissertation could have succeeded as well in documenting the structural origins of the adversarial relationship between the press and the political system. At one point, a congressman, addressing the network’s officials, asked in a pained tone: Why are politicians, especially congressmen, always depicted as villains in your sitcoms? I would have replied: If politicians learned to behave like statesmen, fiction would cease portraying them as society’s villains.

Here, in fact, lies media’s true power. It lies in the unique role it has carved for itself in modern society — to serve as a mirror of reality. That mirror cannot possibly show every event that is taking place in society or in the world. It is therefore unavoidably selective. But not arbitrary or whimsical.

If there is one thing media organizations jealously guard, it is “credibility.” The term stands as a synonym for reliability — or dependability as a source of trustworthy information that the public can confidently use to form judgments or to make decisions. By denying it a franchise to operate, Congress has killed one of the country’s most trusted media organizations.