Wednesday ∗ 15 Feb 2006

Getting Away With It

Since the ULTRA stampede there seems to be no end to insults added to the injury that is the senseless death of 74 Filipinos and the battery of over 600 others, who remain nameless and faceless, only identifiable by the label masa.

The first insult is the most obvious. Although it took ABS-CBN most of Saturday to take responsibility for the tragedy, when they finally did it also decided to work overtime – and not just in assisting the victims as Tina Monzon-Palma would like to make us believe. In fact, it was pretty obvious that from the beginning, ABS-CBN’s machinery was also working towards damage control, with rhetoric that ranged from “no one wanted this to happen, we are shouldering all expenses, we are doing everything we can to assist the victims of this tragedy, we are taking responsibility” which has of course evolved into “this tragedy is a wake-up call for all of us, to the whole nation, because we are now dealing with the issue of the economy and poverty” as well as “we never treated our audience as animals, we are here for only one reason and that is to entertain”.

This spin of course began with Charo Santos-Concio in pale (peaceful) blue, close to tears, obviously in awe of what had happened; Tina Monzon-Palma in (serene) white, composed and ready to take on the challenge that was the tragedy; and close-ups of the casually-clad ABS-CBN CEO (in a T-shirt and a baseball cap) Gabby Lopez and environmentalist-sister Gina Lopez – both obviously distraught. And then there was Willie Revillame, in tears, and just all over the place. By the afternoon of the tragedy, soundbites from Sharon Cuneta and Joey Reyes via the station’s ETK (showbiz) talkshow were heard, and right there the spin that would be central to damage control began: the real reason for this tragedy is poverty.

A day after the tragedy, ABS-CBN’s biggest and brightest stars, come together in prayer – in public. Televised for their benefit, we are treated to cameras panning the length of pews and across aisles showing ABS-CBN bigwigs with Dolphy and Maricel Soriano, their teen stars and their comediennes, as well as Kris Aquino serving at the altar, all obviously sincere in their grief. And then, the gist of one of their prayers: we are broken and suffering, please heal our ABS-CBN family and guide us in recovering from this trial. And then the CBB (closing billboard) of the mass with the title “Isang Pamamaalam” and one wonders, goodbye to whom? This is perfectly followed by Gary V. opening the variety show ASAP with the song “The Warrior is a Child” – as if speaking of themselves as the child who “lately has been winning battles left and right, but even winners get wounded in the fight”. And a soundbite: people are willing to die for them at ABS-CBN.

Revillame has since been hailed hero by this station; Boy Abunda and Kris Aquino have reiterated that ABS-CBN is helping out in many and various ways, and that they started doing so without being asked; it has been said that they are adopting the families of those who had died for the whole year. As ABS-CBN went back to normal broadcast, its news and current affairs programs as well as their cable news channel ANC continued the spin: Revillame going to each of the wakes of all 74 victims; Gabby Lopez angered by the assertion that the audience had been “treated like animals”; the ABS-CBN Foundation (tax-shield as it is) putting out all the money in order to assist the victims. ANC and shows like The Correspondents have gone on to interview various “experts” on the topic – at least Gigi Grande of the latter had the sense to go for sociologist Randy David who reiterated ABS-CBN’s responsibilities. ANC, on the other hand, has gone into tangential issues: Pinky Webb talking about poverty in this country, and interviewing the wrong resource person – the secretary of the Commission on the Eradication of Poverty who only had government propaganda numbers (only 27% are impoverished in this country!); Cito Beltran talking about debriefing and emotional recovery for victims, as well as looking into the liability of places such as ULTRA and pointing a finger at the city government’s having allowing such a dangerous entrance to the venue; Ces Drilon talking to Michael Tan about the latter’s conclusions on the cultural implications of a tragedy such as this – we are a people that collectively ignores rules and cannot fall in line, we are a people in search of idols.

And therefore, the tragedy?

The biggest and most unforgivable insult of all is the fact that a week after the stampede that killed 74 Filipinos, we continue to prove ourselves incompetent of dealing critically with this tragedy.

Opinion columnists and TV personalities have helped along, if not parroted, the rhetoric of ABS-CBN. Yes, many assert that ABS-CBN, as the organizers, must take responsibility. But practically everyone has zeroed in on various causes of the tragedy – that is, other than the host of a party sending out more invitations than the venue allowed. People have been wont to look at what they call the final analysis, the bigger picture, the bottomline, with many, like Cuneta, asserting that poverty is the reason for this tragedy. Some, like Belinda Olivares-Cunanan and Neal H. Cruz, bring it as high as GMA – she whose responsibility it is to alleviate poverty. And then there are those like Tan, reading the tragedy and saying it is first about idolatry, and then later about a culture of anarchy. This is no different from the many who insist on looking at that crowd and reading them as savages: that stampede, they say, was a mob, this crowd of people were uncivilized creatures who couldn’t, wouldn’t follow simple rules; blame must rest on that person who pushed first. This, even Winnie Monsod accedes to, as she says in her Debate spiel: this is not about poverty, this is about people’s greed, and how they will step on other people just to get what they want.

That day of the incident, when everyone including the Vice President kept mouthing the words “puno’t dulo” I was forgiving; we were all stunned by the incident after all and weren’t ready to point a finger. But now, a week into the tragedy, with ABS-CBN soundbites and images in our heads, with a failed DILG report, and the NBI entering the picture, it just seems like were being way too kind to not point fingers. Or maybe, just plain stupid?

Poverty is the answer to many things, but what is the important question here and now? If we are looking for who could’ve prevented this tragedy, if we are looking for the reason behind this tragedy, if we are looking (as we should) for someone to blame for such senseless deaths, the answer is obvious. The bottomline of this tragedy is ABS-CBN’s lack of preparation, and their underestimation of a hungry, tired, and impoverished crowd’s capability to be rowdy and unruly when lured with the possibility of getting P1 million, and then are told that it would be impossible for them to have that chance. The bottomline is ABS-CBN, proved itself undeserving of the adulation of the masa it says it serves and wants to help, as they did not make sure that this masa would be treated with an organized humane system while waiting for ULTRA gates to open, days before it was suppose to. The bottomline is ABS-CBN chose the ULTRA as venue – bad roads, steep declines, narrow passageways – included, and Wowowee’s producers had command responsibility the moment the people they had invited started to arrive. The bottomline is that Willie Revillame, through ABS-CBN, invited his viewers to come and join their anniversary celebration, dangling money, the house, the jeepney and taxi, and pandering to these masa’s needs and most ardent desires.

The bottomline is really quite simple: ABS-CBN is a capitalist media organization, out to make a profit, on precisely the poverty that many say is the root of all this evil. They may be entertaining this audience along the way, and helping those who are lucky enough to be picked, I will not argue with that. But intention and benevolence is irrelevant to the fact that 74 Filipinos have died and hundreds more were injured on their invitation. This is blood on their hands, no ifs and buts about it.

Poverty is only the context of this tragedy, it is not the bottomline. I do not doubt that it brought the masa there. But it was upon the invitation of Revillame, it was upon the media hype of ABS-CBN, that they flocked to ULTRA oblivious to the lack of a safe, secure and organized system that underlies the “first-come-first-served” invitation. Poverty should not be espoused in the same breath as ABS-CBN’s command responsibility. The more we use the idea of poverty in relation to this tragedy, the higher the probability that ABS-CBN will be able to successfully turn this around and make themselves the victims, if not the heroes, in this all. The more we muddle discussions on the tragedy with big words like poverty, eradication, culture, the more the ABS-CBN machinery will be allowed to abuse the dead, the grieving, and the tragic in the name of profit and ratings. And the greater the possibility that they will get away with it. If they haven’t yet.

Let’s keep an eye on that ball and demand that ABS-CBN pay dearly and equally for the lives lost in that Saturday stampede.

And then let’s talk about poverty, since, as it turns out we all care so much for the masses we say are victimized by this system that has impoverished them. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the farmers of Hacienda Luisita, the workers of Nestle, as we do the urban poor who flocked to ULTRA. Let’s make the past and present governments pay for their irresponsibility. Let’s deal with the fact that many of us only want to speak of poverty now, that 74 people have died for nothing and no one, in ULTRA. Then let’s prove that we can keep our collective eye on that bigger ball. And involve ourselves in solving that bigger problem.

As for Mareng Winnie, I tell you this: try living off of one meal a day, or minimum wage, and let’s see if you don’t start making a distinction between greed and desperation.

Posted in: bayan, kapitalista, komentaryo, TV

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