IF there is one institution that is most demonized at the moment, it would be mainstream media. They have been called “presstitutes,” bearers of fake news, and agents of demolition targeting President Duterte.
There is debate on the proper role of mainstream media in a democratic society. What is at issue is that there is a perception that local and foreign media are basically adversarial to the President, painting him as an enemy of democracy, a violator of human rights, and a ruthless ruler with tyrannical tendencies.
At issue here is the question of to whom or what should media’s loyalty be.
This would be an easier question to answer had there been a confluence between truth and political interests, that is, political interests would have been served by promoting the truth. However, in modern times, as political institutions became more complex, the chasm between truth and political interest has grown wider to a point that in order to pursue political interests one has to suppress the truth.
Edmund Burke, in 1787, coined the term the fourth estate to refer to all journalists who report the news. The term is deployed to celebrate the freedom of the press and mass media. The main role of mass media is to be the harbinger of truths and facts. And in the performance of its duty, mass media must necessarily be autonomous and separate from political institutions and the interests that they bear.
American usage of the term, however, has somewhat shifted the logic away from the freedom from state power, and into a more responsible use of such freedom. Conscious of the fact that such freedom can be used as license to exploit the democratic system, the American discourse on media has been more inclined to call it as the fourth branch of government, emphasizing its responsibility to foster the political order, instead of undermining it.
Thus, whereas Burke who was British celebrated media freedom, the Americans focused on media responsibility.
But regardless of such debate, the unifying logic is that media must always be committed to the propagation of truth and facts.
There is so much toxicity in the air at the moment, brought about by the widespread perception by the supporters of President Duterte that mainstream media is out to destroy him, and that what is being peddled are falsities, lies and inaccuracies.
However, what is lost in the cacophony of accusations against mainstream media is the appreciation of its inherent logic as a liberal institution, and whose existence is precisely to check the power of the state.
Thus, media has a natural adversarial role. It focuses on the rights of individuals, and acts as a natural watchdog guarding the citizens against state excesses. The media is not an appendage to the state, even as it must ensure that only the truth and the facts inform its work. Thus, part of its terms of reference is to criticize and expose.
It is not the duty of media to be nice to the state, even as it is also not its duty to be blindly critical of it. Hence, in fact, there is no debate between its being free, and its being responsible.
It would not have been problematic if media became faithful to its commitment to uphold the truth in the performance of its duty to be a check to the excesses of state power. Media is at its finest when it reports the truth about corruption, human rights violations and government failures in a non-partisan way. It is perfectly acceptable for it to remain as an institution that pursues liberal ideas associated with democracy, freedom, social justice and human rights.
Unfortunately, and in particular in the case of the Philippines, the liberal nature of mass media has been corrupted by what was perceived to be its shameless servitude to the Liberal Party. Its adherence to a critical view against any form of authoritarianism was cannibalized by the more partisan view that such can be achieved only by aligning itself with the interests of the Aquinos. Many in the media were not able to shake off the trauma of being silenced during Martial Law that they suffered a collective post-trauma stress disorder. They became allergic to anything Marcosian, and anything that to their mind approximates any semblance to Marcos, either discursively or structurally, was targeted for adversely biased reporting.
What was sacrificed in the process was the commitment of the media to report about truth. Its freedom was compromised because many of them became an appendage of the Aquino mythology. During the second Aquino presidency, prominent media outlets such as the Inquirer, ABS-CBN and Rappler effectively undermined and reversed the natural role of media as watchdogs of the state, and became its attack dogs, targeting the perceived enemies of the Aquinos and the Liberal Party.
Having said this, however, it would not be prudent to totally abandon mainstream media, and condemn it as an inconvenient noise. The proper way to recuperate it from its fall into partisanship is to first recognize the fact that it is not a monolith, and that there are journalists who are still committed and ethical.
It is not good if Duterte supporters demand from media that it cease performing its adversarial role. In fact, it should be encouraged to return to its natural role of being adversarial to check the power of the President, and of government.
What should be at the forefront of the critical conversation with the mainstream media is to pressure them to keep reporting about the truth and to get rid of their personal biases against the President, and just stick to what they are supposed to do, which is to report the facts.
An adversarial, liberal press is not the problem. Mediapersons should be adversarial and liberal. This is their natural state. It is when they become partisan that is problematic.