“I DID the big things and did them reasonably well but screwed up on the little things.” Thus said Richard Nixon in one of his memorable TV interviews with David Frost after he was forced out of the White House because of Watergate. It’s one of the most incisive quotes from that period.
I recall this quote not because I want to write about Nixon or Watergate, but only because I want to caution incoming President Duterte about “screwing up on the little things.” I want to talk to him about the presidency and the press.
The press is not such a tiny, mini, “little thing.” But if he thinks, as he seems to think, it is so, then we have to ask him, in all sincerity and seriousness, for the sake of his presidency, not to please screw up on it.
A correct step
So far he has done well to reassign his bejeweled spokesman to a place where he is not likely to disturb the aesthetic sense of the press, and to name a sober pastor in his place. But at press time, DU30’s alleged order concerning certain press-related prohibitions appeared to still stand. This contains the following:
1) No more press conferences;
2) No more private media coverage of his activities in Davao or in Malacañang;
3) People’s Television Network (GTV-4) will replace all private TV networks; and
4) An official tabloid will replace all national dailies.
This order took everyone by surprise. Until it came down, the media were having a ball in Davao, the new de facto capital of the Philippines. They were recording and reporting with impunity every word from DU30’s lips, including the hitherto unprintable word, which in non-pornographic literature is written only in asterisks (f***!).
No place for amateurs
The speaker had little restraint in using obscenities and profanities, to the applause of his immediate audience, and the media had none either in broadcasting them. No press officer stood by to say that certain expletives were “off-the-record,” “not for attribution,” or “for background purposes” only. They all behaved like complete amateurs, total strangers to the canons of responsible journalism and the grizzled rules of the institution called “news conference.”
DU30 spoke more uninhibitedly than necessary. Although it is now too late to put the genie back inside the bottle, his camp must have thought the above order would be one way of doing damage control. But it is entirely wishful—the order will not change the message, only shoot down the messenger. The President needs the press more than the press needs the President; the order will hurt the President more than it will hurt the press.
What the other Presidents did
As a working newspaperman, and information minister and senator later, I came to know all our Presidents from Diosdado Macapagal up to the incumbent. Except for Cory Aquino and her son B.S. Aquino 3rd, they all tried to cultivate the best possible relations with the press. The next few anecdotes will show this; they are partly autobiographical.
In Macapagal’s time, while covering Indonesian President Sukarno’s state visit for the Agence France-Presse (AFP), I managed discreetly to join the presidential entourage on the grounds of the Pangarap guesthouse across the Pasig river, and position myself next to the dining table of the two Presidents, where I could almost overhear their conversation. It was an exclusive function to which the press was not invited. In other words, I was a “gatecrasher.”
Those were the golden days of Philippine journalism, when a reporter would risk anything just to get a good exclusive story. So there I was. For about an hour, nobody paid attention to my presence, and I was enjoying the “scoop” of my life.
It appeared that the Indonesian side thought I was part of Philippine security, while the Philippine side thought I was part of the Indonesian delegation. When they finally realized I was neither, they asked for my security clearance.
When I told them who I was, the Malacañang security guy said, “But the press is not supposed to be here.” I said, “I know, and if I could get a boat ride back to the other side, I’ll be very happy to take my leave right now.”
But the President noticed the subdued murmurs on our table, and asked the security officer what was going on. Told about the uninvited AFP correspondent who had slipped through the security cordon, Macapagal was heard to have said, “That’s all right, the AFP is our friend, the press is our friend. Make sure he gets a good dinner.”
So I got not only a good exclusive story on the two Presidents, but also a good dinner and personal assurances of friendship for my news agency from the President of the Philippines.
That was Macapagal.
In the case of Marcos, the story gets more personal.
After three years with the AFP, I moved to the Manila Daily Bulletin as columnist and diplomatic reporter. In one column, I wrote about Marcos’s decision to build a Philippine Cultural Center and Ninoy Aquino’s criticisms of what he considered to be “frivolous and extravagant.” The (old) Manila Times was having its own field day running headlines like, “Ninoy hits Imelda’s center.”
In my column, I said that no one had ever before tried to do what Imelda Marcos was trying to do for culture and the arts. But Ninoy was raising legitimate legal questions, which Malacañang should not ignore but answer. That same day, I got a long telegram from Ninoy who was in Davao, thanking me for my column. At the same time, my publisher Gen. Hans Menzi, who was the senior military aide to Marcos, asked me to see the President for breakfast the next morning.
At breakfast (which was really just coffee), Marcos spoke of his personal relationship with Ninoy. “It’s not really as the newspapers put it. He calls me and says, ‘Brod, I hope the First Lady is not offended, but the story is just too good to miss,’ ” Marcos said. “So if you want to clarify anything, just pick up the telephone, call me and ask,” he added.
Then turning to Gen. Menzi, who stood erect behind him, he said, “General, give him our telephone number.”
“With all due respect, Mr. President, this is not done,” I said.
“What do you mean it’s not done?” he said.
“No mere reporter should be calling you on the telephone,” I said.
“In that case, I’ll be the one to call you,” he said.
“Again, sir, with all due respect, that too is not done. You shouldn’t be calling just any reporter on the phone,” I said.
“What then should we do?” he asked.
“Well, Mr. President,” I said, “whenever I have any question to ask, I call your Press Secretary (Joe Aspiras), and he answers my questions. But if you wish to have greater rapport with the press, you could probably hold more press conferences, and we’d be able to ask you more questions.”
He nodded with approval as his eyes looked at me with a penetrating gaze.
This was my first and last meeting with Marcos before he offered me the post of press secretary six months later. Some of Marcos’s closest advisers opposed my appointment for the most valid of reasons—Not being an Ilocano, and not having spoken to Marcos more than once, he knew nothing about me, and I knew next to nothing about him.
But apparently, Marcos was struck by my youthful audacity and my strong views about the correct relationship between the presidency and the press.
Openness to all
In the 10 years that followed, Marcos made himself available to almost every interviewer from the international press. Marcos did not suffer fools gladly, and no criticism, no matter how harsh, went unanswered. But no critic was unwelcome at the Palace. The more severe the critics, the more eager Marcos was to spar with them.
Regrettably, this policy changed in 1980 after I resigned from the Cabinet for political reasons. The Department of Public Information, with its fairly large complement of employees in the country and abroad, was also abolished.
And yet in 1987, in my only meeting with Marcos after his 1986 ouster and exile to Makiki, Hawaii, he paid me the first compliment I had ever received from him in my 10 years of Cabinet service. It was also the highest I had ever received from anybody else.
Upon entering his temporary residence, I was announced by his aide as “the reason for our being in Hawaii.” I protested this outrage, but then Marcos explained: “The reason they say that, Kits, is that they say I would not have fallen if you had not resigned.”
I was overwhelmed.
Under Cory Aquino
Under Cory Aquino, the President’s relationship with the press underwent a radical change. A succession of brilliant young professionals, among them Alice Colet Villadolid, Teddy Boy Locsin, Rene Saguisag, and the late Teddy Benigno, who had been my bureau chief at AFP, tried to help the President. But Cory refused to personally engage the media.
Where the media used to send their most senior reporters to ask the President or the Press Secretary questions at news conferences or briefings, the reporters were now required to submit written questions. The answers to these were then read by the press secretary or the spokesperson without comment or elaboration.
Under these circumstances, the newspapers started sending their written questions through rookies (if not mere messengers) instead of their most senior reporters. This led to a marked decline in the relationship between the presidency and the press, and in the quality of reporting on the presidency.
Under other Presidents
The Ramos, Estrada and Arroyo presidencies tried to recover from this malaise, but with limited success. Enterprise reporting and in-depth analyses were gone, and press-release journalism had taken over. At the same time, some organs of the media saw themselves as part of the power structure that had emerged after the EDSA revolt and pursued their own political agendas.
The B.S. Aquino 3rd regime saw the dramatic expansion of the presidential communications office, with three presidential press secretaries and spokesmen assisted by the leading organs of the so-called “yellow media,” to push the propaganda about “daang matuwid” (the so-called straight path), the near-deification of the Aquino family and the demonization of its perceived enemies. Little attention, if any, was given to improving the relationship between the presidency and the non-yellow press.
Unlike Marcos, Ramos, Estrada and Arroyo, who were not afraid to meet with their press critics and adversaries, Aquino the son, like his late mother, never had the grace nor the courage to face his critics.
What DU30 can do
DU30 has much to learn from all this.
With the kind of popular support that catapulted him into office, far beyond the reach of the forces that had been mobilized to steal the presidency, he can afford to build a new kind of relationship with the media that would ultimately be the glory of the Philippine presidency and the Philippine press. This opportunity does not come too often in one’s lifetime. DU30 must not let it pass.