Wednesday ∗ 02 Nov 2016

Sacred cows, criticism, and the media as enterprise*

When your teacher asked me to come in to speak with you, my first reaction was: are you sure? baka masira ang buhay ng mass com students mo.

See, I am not trained as a journalist, nor do I practice it as a discipline. I’m not part of mainstream media, and consciously so. In college, I was a comparative literature major. My MA degree was on philippines studies. Much of my early history as writer had to do with following the arts and culture beat and doing mostly reviews and pop culture criticism. All that time I was conscious of how there is a journalistic practice that would do the arts beat, too, and that they were mostly writing about press conference and going on junkets, attending premier nights and socializing, and with all due respect to the lifestyle journalists, it’s just not my cup of tea.

But criticism is. As a practice and as a discipline that allowed me to do art reviews with a degree of credibility. Long before I started doing that for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and GMA News Online, I had been maintaining a blog,, where I had the freedom to write what I wanted, regardless of readers and followers.

I would realize later on that the time when I was writing for nowhere else but my blog, would be a crucial part of the kind of writer I would become. For one thing, my mother, a writer who has an enviable body of work, had started blogging two years ahead of me, and was part of this really active and intelligent blogging community of that time. This was 2008, when Facebook and Twitter had yet to take over our lives, and what was the norm was to write threshed out essays in individual blog and group sites, where discussions were had, disagreements were welcome, and anonymity was put into question.

This meant that being the new kid (literally) on the block would mean no readers, until you build enough credibility and sustained discussions on issues that mattered to you. My brother, who built our blogs for us, had always said that it doesn’t matter if you have readers when you write what you do, because at least it will be there when someone does research on that topic, and goes to google for information. It will be there when the issue crops up again, as in inevitably does, given the state of nation and how issues are never really resolved.

It was on this blog that I first took on media biases and mishaps, probably the most (in)famous of which was the criticism of in its early years, when it revealed itself to have been willing to work with government, instead of taking a critical stance in relation to it. Maria Ressa threatened me with libel on Twitter, and as other bloggers called her out for what was clearly a threat – Ressa then dismissed it to be nothing.

It was enough to scare me into silence for a stretch of time. I do not earn from my blog, so being sued for something I write in it could only be scary. It didn’t matter that I knew none of what I said was libelous.

It was my first “public” experience with a sacred cow. The people in our midst who are beyond question and beyond criticism.

Public, because for sure I had experienced it as a student in UP, where too many teachers were considered to be beyond reproach. I experienced it as teacher in Ateneo, where I taught for five years, and I realized that many people were not to be questioned. And I experienced it as writer, with elder writers demanding they be respected, even when they don’t deserve it.

One realizes that sacred cows are everywhere. And you know they are sacred precisely because no matter what they do, or what they say, regardless of the mistakes they make, they are not made to take responsibility for it, and they do not feel the need to apologize for anything.

This is generally what mainstream media has become in this country. And you know it because apologies are hard to come by for media. Few take responsibility for their biases, hiding behind the cloak of reporting only facts – even when for sure those facts are chosen, too. The news media keeps saying they are the fourth estate, as important, if not even more so, than the three branches of government, influential as they are. They demand protection from libel suits, and are first to demand that freedom of speech be respected.

And yet if there’s anything that the current political climate has revealed, there is little by way of delivering information, of being responsible about their actions, of choosing stories well and intelligently, that this media can take pride in.

An important historical fact: post-EDSA 1986, media with its new-found freedom worked on news and public affairs talkshows that discussed issues instead of personalities, with commentators that dared ask the more difficult questions. There were docu-style programs, that did not just go to the provinces to find stories, but already worked with concepts and built stories around this. The effect was a more intelligent audience, who had a bigger sense of nation, but also who knew that there was always a way of going deeper into an issue, because look! someone on TV is actually trying to do that.

We don’t have that anymore. We lost it completely. We lost it as media became more and more about making money, a profit-oriented business, that sought to feed the public’s need for sensational, exciting news. And with social media, this became even more important: because every click means a hit, every hit some profit from advertising.

And you take that into consideration when you read or watch the news. Choices are made, and it’s important to see how and why those choices are such. Why are certain stories carried, and others aren’t? Why do certain angles to a story dominate the news, and others are silenced?

It’s in this sense that criticism is important – and if you become media practitioners yourselves, that self-criticism is key. Why do you choose the stories that you do? And towards what end?

Because in reality, if media is going to continue being relevant, then it needs to level-up its practice, given social media and the age of everyone’s a reporter, everyone’s a commentator. They need to reveal how they are the most transparent, most objective, most critical practitioners of delivering the news, and discussing issues. Otherwise, they – we – all become no better than trolls, shooting from the hip, hitting where it hurts, and making the most noise when it’s convenient and will get most hits.

Certainly we are all better than that.

* This is a revised and edited version of a short piece written to kick-off a conversation with DLSU Comm Arts students in mid-October 2016. Thank you to Jan Bernades for the invite. :) 

Posted in: bayan, conversations, komentaryo, media, pulitika, sarili

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