LAST week when The Manila Times announced the appointment of Dr. Dante A. Ang, this paper’s chairman emeritus, as President Rodrigo Duterte’s special envoy for international public relations, some people thought it was a clever move, on Malacañang’s part, to balance the appointment of Senator Alan Peter Cayetano as foreign secretary after his disastrous performance at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and that of a sex dancer whose photos appear in some Internet porno site as the President’s social media specialist. Together with former Speaker Jose de Venecia’s appointment as special envoy for inter-cultural dialogue, which many welcomed without a clue on what the job is all about, Dr. Ang’s appointment was seen as a big plus in DU30’s effort to tame the hostile foreign press.
But it seemed to have an instant downside. Several friends asked me, “what happens to your column now? Will you continue writing for the Times?” Would my column, given the apparent readership it has built, be compatible with the paper’s chairman emeritus becoming the chief spin doctor of the DU30 government? It was a fair question and had to be asked. I had to ask it myself, even before my friends did. But they wanted an immediate answer, which I could not give. I thought I needed some time to consider the issue and listen more to the arguments and counter-arguments.
I have been running this column, per agreement with the Times publisher/editor Rene Q. Bas, long before DU30 became the President. I have tried to be fair on every issue, which I tried to explore at some depth, beyond the level of punditry of the barbershop. I am basically sympathetic to and supportive of the President, but I have been critical of the summary killings in his war on drugs and of his boorish manners and unstatesmanly conduct. Despite my criticisms, I have tried not to be trenchant, strident or offensive; I have tried to be constructive. I have tried to ignore all sorts of bullies, boors and trolls who have sought to insert their knavish selves into my discussion of any serious issues. But I suspect all this is now threatened by this Malacanang gambit.
Should I find myself agreeing with DU30 on any issue, could I still support him openly, without inviting the charge that I had been co-opted (maybe “bought”) by my paper’s chairman emeritus? I don’t believe Dr. Ang accepted his appointment purposely to neutralize me, Ben Kritz or any of my Times’ colleagues who have not been converted to the President’s cause. As the Times’ “chairman emeritus” (which means “former chairman”), Dr. Ang does not have an active role in running the paper’s editorial business. Though his name is the most prominent in the Times editorial box, and his byline appears from time to time in exclusive stories on the front page, it is his son, Mr. Dante F.M. Ang 2nd, executive editor, president and CEO, who’s running the business.
Readers are alarmed
For this reason, Dr. Ang’s appointment, strictly speaking, should not influence the political biases of the Times. But many who have come to regard the paper, rightly or wrongly, as one of the “more credible newspapers” in the country today seem convinced the appointment has affected public confidence in it. Earlier this year, the Times made DU30 “Man of the Year” before he could complete his first year in office. Many saw that as an ominous sign. To them, Dr. Ang’s appointment “finishes” the Times as a possible source of critical influence. I cannot agree with this, but I may be in the minority here.
Many say they follow my column because of the way it handles the issues. I criticize DU30 without sounding like anybody’s attack dog, and do not have to blast any of his critics with unprintable invectives just to show that DU30 is right. So my readers try not to miss the paper’s Monday, Wednesday and Friday editions to stay focused. One reader in Nairobi says he shares my columns with hundreds. This partly explains my difficulty in answering the question, “what happens to your column now?”
A previous incident
But this is not the first time I had to face anything like this. Something similar happened to me during the Cory Aquino years. At the time I was doing freelance writing for the international press (International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, etc.) while doing a regular column for Business Day (now Business World) and the Philippine Daily Globe. Business Day was run by the late Raul Locsin, while the Globe was published by a member of the Ramos family of National Bookstore and edited by Florentino (Yen) Makabenta, who used to work with me when I was Marcos’ Press Secretary, Spokesman and Minister of Information, and is now a fellow Times columnist.
Then, as now, I wrote critical but constructive pieces about the President.
One day I learned, to my utter dismay, that my paper had acquired a new publisher, whose day job was to write speeches for the President. This was Teddy Boy Locsin Jr, our present Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who was said to have collaborated with Lord Mark Malloch Brown, the current international chairman of Smartmatic, in writing Cory Aquino’s September 1986 speech before the US Congress.
Locsin’s appointment was not explained to us who wrote for the Globe, and not being on the paper’s regular payroll, I could not question it. But I expressed the view that although I would have been honored to see the President ask my publisher to write her speech, I found it hard to accept that the President’s speechwriter had been asked to become my publisher, without first vacating his official post.
For some reason, which I can no longer recall, I did not leave the paper nor make a big fuss of it. But this did not prevent me from having a running debate with my publisher, who also ran a column, on certain live issues. This made the Globe more interesting to read. I eventually left the Globe, which also eventually closed, and ended up publishing and editing my own newspaper, the Philippines’ Newsday, which the American author Lou Gleek once described as “the best newspaper in the country, bar none.” It did not prove a commercial success though, and it ceased publication after a couple of years when I won my first term in the Senate.
I never thought a similar situation would occur after 30 years.
A columnist’s lone currency
How Dr. Ang’s appointment will affect the Times as a newspaper is primarily its management’s concern. But since a newspaper is imbued with public interest, the public will have something to say about it too. How it will affect the credibility of its columnists is for the affected parties to decide, especially since the paper has acquired its current reputation in the industry on the basis of its opinion pages. This will depend on how each columnist values his or her integrity and independence. We are not all made of the same stuff, but we cannot be too different from each other.
A columnist’s credibility is his craft. That’s his or her only currency. When he loses his credibility, he loses his craft. I learned this on my first day as a newspaperman and tried not to forget it. In 1969, I was a young diplomatic reporter and columnist on the Manila Daily Bulletin (now Manila Bulletin), one of the four major dailies that included the Manila Times, the Manila Chronicle, and the Philippines Herald. Those were the days when newspapering demanded unsullied integrity and competence, when the best of friends tried to scoop each other while covering the same beat every day and talking to the same sources on the same subject. I pounded the diplomatic beat harder and longer than any of my colleagues, and managed to scoop the competition, almost at will. This was a matter of record and I never had any false modesty about it.
An unforgettable experience
Then one day President and Mrs. Marcos, whom I had met only once before, spoke to me and offered me a job in the Cabinet. I was honored to hear the offer, but said I would like to discuss the matter first with my publisher, Gen. Hans Menzi, who happened to be the President’s senior aide de camp. The President said he would discuss it with him himself, so I left it at that and went back to my beat, forgetting about my conversation with the President. After a week, the job offer leaked in Joe Guevara’s Art Buchwald-type column on the Times, and I was summoned by my publisher and editor, the legendary “Judge” Felix Gonzalez, to confirm or deny the report. I confirmed everything, but said I had not thought much about it, since the President was supposed to discuss it with my publisher first. It appeared that Marcos had completely forgotten to discuss it with his aide.
“Now that it’s out in the open, have you decided to accept it?” my editor asked.
“I don’t know, sir,” I said, “I need time to think about it.”
“All right, take your time and think about it,” said my editor, who had a reputation of being the toughest curmudgeon in the entire press establishment, “but as of now, you stop writing your column.”
“Why should I do that?” I asked.
“Because you have been compromised,” he said.
“In what way have I been compromised, sir?” I asked.
“Malacanang has offered you a job, and everyone is already talking about it,” he said.
“But I have not accepted, and I have not written a single line defending Malacanang or praising it.”
“That’s beside the point, you’ve been compromised. You can’t continue writing your column under the circumstances,” he said.
“This is unfair, sir. You can’t do it, please don’t do it,” I pleaded.
“It’s done, there’s nothing more to be said about it,” he said.
“Well, in that case, I’m sorrier for you than I am for me, sir. I would like to thank you for the opportunity of working here these last three years. But as of now, this very minute, I am irrevocably resigned, I quit. Thank you very much, sir, and goodbye.”
Putting the paper’s interest first
This was how I became the youngest Cabinet minister on record at the time.
I mention this not to dwell into my autobiography, but to show the reader what lengths newspaper executives of the old school would go to in order to protect the hard-earned reputation of their newspapers. The “judge” clearly exceeded his zeal and did me an injustice, but he erred on the side of prudence in trying to protect the reputation and credibility of his newspaper. He just could not allow any loose talk about one of his columnists having one foot inside Malacanang while presenting himself as a completely unbiased and neutral observer. The newspaper’s reputation commanded the highest allegiance.
In fact, the very idea of the Bulletin providing the President’s press secretary and spokesman, which became my job for the next 10 years, seemed completely repugnant to my former bosses that they banned my name from appearing in my former newspaper for the next three years.
Remembering all this, I wonder what would have happened if my chairman emeritus and my former editor had exchanged places? The appointment would never have taken place, and we would perhaps be talking more about the sex dancer’s porno poses, and Joe de Venecia being named foreign secretary instead of Cayetano, who is at least half-American, than the endangered credibility of the Times.