Media, politics, and foreign relations

A friend of mine, who observes and comments on political happenings, regularly sends me information straight from the “grapevine.” A lot of it does not make it to the news. But a few items are soon enough picked up by various media platforms, and later become the object of congressional investigations. Without grapevine sources, news media people would be perennially scooped by their enterprising colleagues. Still, they must be discerning in what they report, not necessarily because some information may be unsuitable, but primarily to avoid falling victim to disinformation. This is why reporters tend to form a bond that obliges them to share what they have, a way of confirming the reliability of their sources.

To begin to understand why some pieces of information become the stuff of news, it is important to appreciate the code that the news media uses in making its selections. This code differentiates “information” from “non-information.” By this reckoning, old news ceases to be informative. To keep it from becoming stale, previously reported information must carry a different spin every time it appears again as news. News, of course, does not spring from a vacuum. Much of it is supplied by society’s other function systems—notably by the political system, where it is a vital resource in the ceaseless struggle for power and dominance. We would have a better appreciation of the news if we remained conscious of the various functional contexts from which information originates, and in which it bears real consequences. Two examples from the current news cycle might illustrate the points I’m making here. The first is the ongoing investigation being conducted by the Senate committee on public order and illegal drugs headed by Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa on a supposed cocaine session in 2012 allegedly involving President Marcos. This is clearly old stuff, retrieved from the archives and given a new life by Dela Rosa. The second example has to do with a new episode in the continuing word war between the Philippines and China regarding their maritime dispute in the South China Sea. The Philippines accuses China of resorting to coercive means to intimidate and prevent its resupply boats from reaching the Filipino troops stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre in the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, which is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone. China justifies its intimidating maneuvers in the area by claiming they are a response to Philippine violations of a supposed tacit agreement between the leaders of the two countries on how to manage the Ayungin situation. This issue has not only exceeded the usual lifespan of the news. It has also lately assumed a disquieting urgency following the Chinese Embassy’s release to a local newspaper of a secret audio recording purportedly proving the existence of such an agreement.

The rumor that Mr. Marcos had been a cocaine user is stale news. It was suddenly resurrected in the 2022 presidential electoral campaign by—of all people—former president Rodrigo Duterte who was not pleased that his daughter Sara had agreed to forgo her own presidential ambition to become Mr. Marcos’ vice presidential candidate. That item quickly dissipated, only to be picked up once again by Duterte at a recent rally in Davao. Duterte’s diatribe was largely a reaction to what he thought were efforts by Mr. Marcos and his allies to diminish the powers of VP Sara and dislodge her as Mr. Marcos’ likely successor in the 2028 elections.

It must have taken no small amount of pressure by the former president to get Dela Rosa, his erstwhile police chief, to initiate an investigation into an alleged cocaine session involving Mr. Marcos that supposedly happened 12 years ago. Well, the senator is seeking re-election, and he may have been inveigled into thinking the Senate investigation could give him media exposure. But how to make something musty newsworthy again—that was the challenge. The new spin had to come from something previously unreported. That is where movie actress Maricel Soriano, in whose condo the 2012 cocaine session was supposed to have taken place, came in. Soriano’s appearance at the hearing—and whatever else her supposed link to Mr. Marcos might suggest—was more than enough to land Dela Rosa’s investigation in the news. Soriano responded to Dela Rosa’s awkward questions with dignity. Mr. Marcos, who has kept silent all this time, came out to debunk former PDEA agent Jonathan Morales’ allegations. The investigation’s newsworthiness will likely end there—with no benefit to Dela Rosa’s bid for re-election. It is the conflict with China that could spiral out of control if the two governments do not find a way to de-escalate the open word war that has broken out between Chinese embassy officials and members of the Marcos Cabinet. In publicly releasing an audio recording that purports to prove the existence of an agreement on a “new model” for managing the Ayungin resupply mission, Chinese diplomats effectively admitted illegally wiretapping conversations with Philippine officials. Whether such an agreement exists or not, wiretapping by a foreign embassy is far more serious than simply spreading disinformation. What will the government do about it? For sure, this is one piece of information that won’t go stale, not for a while.