The role of the press in nation-building

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(Speech delivered before the faculty and students of Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 14, 2014 on the occasion of its 80th Founding Anniversary.)

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I have accepted your invitation to speak before you today with great trepidation. And as I walk the halls of this revered and proud institution, I was humbled by the thought that it was on these very grounds where the seeds of educational democratization in your country were sown.

Thammasat University is the fruition of the dreams and aspirations of the Thai people. On June 27, 1934 the late visionary, Patriot and Statesman Pridi Banomyong dared to go against the established norm that education was a divine right reserved only for the rich and the powerful. He went against the odds to establish your great institution, which was originally named The University of Moral and Political Sciences. Its principles and ideals are those that I hold dear in my heart and mind.

The father of Thai democracy toiled to tear down the great divide that excluded the poor from getting a formal education.

He fleshed out the ideals of the Khana Ratsadon principle of democratizing education. The Khana Ratsadon principle empowers the people, more particularly the poor and the underprivileged by providing them knowledge through education. It assigns a task to government that is vital to full national development, saying, “The government shall provide education to all.” Education is a “great equalizer.” It opens doors and gives the youth confidence to achieve; to dream dreams.

And so, it came to pass. The former University of Moral and Political Sciences, now Thammasat University has become Thailand’s premiere university. Historically, it has produced Thailand’s crème de la crème. Its alumni include a roster of who’s who in business and government. It has helped shape people’s lives for the better and helped chart your country’s destiny as a democracy. It stands head and shoulders with the region’s, if not the world’s, best learning institutions. In my book, Thammasat University is another word for, “Excellence in Education.”

I am also in awe of your history of Patriotism. It was on these hallowed grounds Thailand’s leaders and members of the resistance movement during the Second World War would converge and meet clandestinely. It quickly became the headquarters for Thailand’s guerrilla forces against the invading Japanese army.

But by a strange twist of fate, this same guerrilla headquarters was converted by the invading forces into a sprawling prison camp where innocent civilians and members of the Thai resistance movement were incarcerated, tortured, maimed or killed. They would gladly offer their lives rather than cooperate with the enemy.

Thammasat University, therefore, is a symbol of independence, courage and love of country.

But I didn’t come here to talk about the history of your great institution. I am to speak before you about the role of the Media or the Press in Nation Building. But in doing so, I cannot talk about it without having to discuss Politics or government and governance, Public Opinion and, if I may add, Public Relations and how each one of them feeds on one another and how they influence each other and how, together, they move public discourse and shape a country’s road to either progress or perdition.

I will, therefore, delve on the Press or Media, Politics or Government, Public Relations and Public Opinion or the four “Ps” and how their combined forces, for good or ill, help define a nation’s character and a people’s destiny.

In the Philippines, the press is clothed with a constitutional guarantee: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of the press.” This constitutional shield, however, may be muted in times of martial law, national calamity, rebellion, war or when national security so dictates.

There is a cyclical relationship between the Press, Politics and Public Opinion. One affects the other; and one reacts to the other. Their relationship can also be categorized as “Push and Pull.” It is simply that, as in science, “For every action, there is a corresponding reaction.”

But first, let us talk about the Press. The Press is synonymous with free speech. Free speech, in my country, is guaranteed by our Constitution. However, free speech is not a license to libel a person including public officials. There’s a limit to free speech. The Press has the power to make specific issues of the day the subject for public discourse. It can focus on topics that it thinks the public should really care about. It has the power to make or unmake leaders or captains of industries. It has the power to change the course of history.

Politics or government, on the other hand, can dictate the stories of the day through official statements and announcements that in its opinion the public should focus on. Politics communicates to the public through the media. It is generally expected that government issuances are aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people. It is the duty of the Press to be critical by putting the official narratives under a test for accuracy.

In 1902, Henry Adams, a progressive economist wrote, “Progressive journalism, at its core, was committed to breaking the willful secrecy of power by providing fact-filled exposes of institutional corruption and greed.”

News should be informative and instructive. In writing the news, the writer must exercise balance, objectivity and accuracy. As much as possible, both sides – the accuser and the accused – must be presented to better inform the reader. The reporter or writer must avoid substituting his biases and prejudices for facts. Facts, as they say, are sacred.

“The instrument of the fact was tantamount to discovering light. There is something majestic about a fact,” waxes Mary Simkovitch of the Greenwich House Settlement in New York.

The last thing the writer should do is to be judgmental or purposely influence his reader by presenting half-truths or half-lies or worse, outright lies.

A German sociologist, Ferdinand Tonnies, stated his own rendition of the Press, and I quote, “The newspaper had become an unprecedented machinery for the manufacture and marketing of public opinion, a channel through which a particular faction could present its own will as the rational general will.”

Tonnies also contended,“The press could shape and control public discourse in ways that surpass even the coercive powers of the State.” He wrote, “(T)he press is the real instrument (organ) of public opinion, weapon and tool in the hands of those who know how to use it and have to use it…It is comparable and, in some respects, superior to the material power the States possesses through their armies, their treasuries, and their bureaucratic civil service. Unlike those, the press is not confined within natural borders, but, in its tendencies and potentialities, it is definitely international, thus comparable to the power of a permanent or temporary alliance of States.”

The function of the news, on the other hand, is to provide the readers the cold facts so that they may be informed of the issues at hand while at the same time giving them enough space to contemplate all by their lonesome shorn of the biases and prejudices of the reporter. Tailoring the story to fit the interests of one or the other party, or put the other in bad light is not news; it is Public Relations or Propaganda or worse, demolition job.

Gabriel Tarde, a sociologist, argued, “Newspapers have transformed…unified in space and diversified in time…” adding that, “even those who do not read papers but who, talking to those who do, are forced to follow the groove of their borrowed thoughts. One pen suffices to set off a million tongues.”

By and large, news articles that are published or aired are not news in the strictest sense of the word. The writer simply echoes what the principals or the sources say without challenging their statements for accuracy. As a result, what comes out is neither news nor information; it is PR or propaganda in the guise of news.

News is proximity and relevance. The closer you are to the incident, the more “newsy” it gets. And to the degree the incident or statement affects you and the people at large, it becomes a national concern and, therefore, relevant and deserving of space or coverage.

If news is relevance, why do media give too much time and space to stories about movie stars? What is their relevance? Well, their worth lies in entertainment. People love to be entertained.

Listening, viewing, reading about movie stars feed on the individual’s fantasy, indulging in escapism. The entertainment stories provide the public feel-good moments that make them briefly forget their woes. In a way, they are transported into a world of fantasy, into a world of make-believe so different from the true state of their lives.

In Biblical times, the Romans were provided regular entertainment by their Caesars. Gladiators would perform for the crowd by fighting to the death. The fallen warrior either lives or dies depending on the mood of the mob. Taking a cue from the crowd, the emperor would then put his thumb up or down. Thumbs-up spares the life of the loser; thumbs-down kills him. It pleased the Romans that their otherwise dictatorial emperor would respond to their wishes, albeit only for show at the gladiatorial arena. These carnivals would last for days on end.

And so the Romans would disperse after each and every circus. Went back home happy and their hunger and other crippling problems of the day banished from their consciousness for a while. The emperor, in the meantime, retires in the comfort of his chambers ecstatic and satisfied as well that he had been able to manipulate the mob and did not have to face the people’s wrath for his incompetence and self-indulgence.

Providing entertainment to the Romans by their emperor must have been the early beginnings of what today is called Public Relations. To solve pesky problems and to cover up one’s incompetence, divert the issue, provide entertainment to the people. And that’s exactly what some of our leaders in the Philippines once did. Instead of confronting and solving the challenges that lay ahead of us, they resorted to non-sequiturs and entertainment – world class entertainment.

In 1975, then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos staged the “Thrilla in Manila,” a heavyweight boxing event between boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Several international gatherings were also held in Manila under the auspices of the former First Lady Imelda Marcos. Hollywood stars like George Hamilton, Brooke Shields, to mention just two, graced the opening of our Cultural Center of the Philippines, where the world renowned pianist, the Van Cliburn, performed. The Filipinos were regaled by a series of world-class entertainment that outshone those in the highly industrialized countries.

For a while there, the Filipinos were gloating in pride. Imagine world-famous celebrities coming to the Philippines to perform right before their own eyes, singing hosannas to the Marcoses and the Filipinos. And also for a moment, the real problems of the country were edged out from the people’s minds. Hunger, deprivation, high prices, killings and disappearances, squatter problems, lack of school buildings, high tuition, joblessness and dearth of opportunities, among other national concerns, seemed to have been completely erased from the people’s consciousness.

But dedicated journalists persisted in prying open the proverbial can of worms. The true state of the Philippines found its way onto the pages of the opposition papers and in the international press. And soon what followed was a flurry of narratives that depicted the real gloomy state of the Philippines with the attendant discourse on graft and corruption in high places of government, unabated killings and disappearances and the excesses and caprices of the Marcoses and their cronies.

Public relations or PR stories are not news; neither are they opinion pieces. They are sales pitches or sales talks in the form of news. PR stories can be categorized as an element of Marketing where you advance and promote a product or a person or a cause. PR stories may look innocuous but make no mistake about it, they are very effective in influencing the unsuspecting public. They could even be sinister.

Edward Bernays, one of the most influential pioneers of PR in America and double nephew of Sigmund Freud, said PR deals with reality, not images. In his definition, “Public Relations was about fashioning and projecting credible rendition of reality.”PR stories advance and promote special interests both in positive and negative fashion. In the positive, the subject is projected in the best light possible. Every conceivable virtue, no matter how insignificant, is highlighted, oftentimes to the extent of portraying the client or subject individual as God’s gift to mankind.

In much the same way, negative PR highlights the sins of the target individual – real or imagined. The author also resorts to a black propaganda campaign. He launches demolition jobs against his target employing half-truths or half-lies. Oftentimes too, the author of the black propaganda stories resorts to outright lies; big lies. The black prop operator obviously subscribes to what Paul Joseph Goebbel, Hitler’s chief propagandist during the Second World War, once said and I quote, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” End of quote.

It was Goebbel who fine-tuned the art of black propaganda. During the period 1939 until the end of the Second World War, he launched a public relations campaign to rally the Germans behind Hitler and his neurotic campaign to banish the Jews from Germany, project a myth of superiority of the Germans as the Aryan race and to invade Europe.

Gustave Le Bon, author of the book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” wrote, “That groups have never thirsted after truth, that they demand illusions.” Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, wrote: “We have pointed that this predominance of life of phantasy and of the illusion born of an unfulfilled wish is the ruling factor in the psychology of neurosis…Neuroses are guided not by ordinary objective reality but by psychological reality.”

What then is PR? Surely, there is a wide variety of what PR is all about. Edward Bernays writes, “PR deals with reality, not images.” “Public Relations,” he said, “was about fashioning and projecting credible renditions of reality.”

In his book, “PR, A Social History of Spin,” Stuart Ewen said, “Public Relations is a positive rendition of the truth.” Unfortunately, in the context of contemporary events, PR has been bastardized and is used commonly by the Philippine government and business leaders to conceal the ugly truth by passing off the complete narrative only those aspects of an event that will make them look good in the eyes of their publics. They resort to half-truths or half-lies or even outright lies.

Failure to distinguish between legitimate news and PR could be fatal for politicians, public figures or business leaders or even for those in the academe.

Now, what about politics? How does politics affect the press? And how does the press affect politics?

Politics or government and the press have a causal relationship. One dines on the other. Government reacts to the press and the press reacts as well to government. Such is the relationship between the two institutions.

In his book, “None of the Above; Why Presidents Fail and What Can Be Done About It,” Robert Shogan described politics as, and I quote, “The purpose of politics is often to express conflicting concerns of the voters. The role of the government is to resolve these concerns equitably. To put it in simplest terms, politics defines what people want; government decides what they get. For democracy to work, government must respond to politics.”

Unfortunately, our government does not respond to the ills that plague our country. So, in the absence of positive actions to address the challenges that confront our country, what does our government do? It resorts to Public Relations in the guise of news. It conceals the truth and releases instead official statements or comments highlighting its achievements without providing the answers to the questions: “How did the so-called achievements benefit the people or how did the so-called achievements change people’s lives?”

The media, on the other hand, dutifully “reports” and quotes what the government’s mouthpiece says in press briefings and formal press conferences. Instead of challenging the claims of the Spokesperson, media publish or air the statements en toto, thus giving it an air of accuracy and authority. By failing to be critical, the press, in effect fails in its duty to check the facts and therefore could be guilty of disseminating false information.

In the world of politics, as we know it, and perhaps to some of us, truth is relative. The eminent American philosopher and foremost advocate of pragmatism, William James, held to the conviction, “There are no absolute truths; there is no consummate gospel by which people – regardless of their circumstances – may live.” He also said, that, “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”

In his book, “Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking,” James wrote, “Truth lives…for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs “pass,” so long as nothing challenges them. Just as bank notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.”

And that’s exactly what happens when statements and stories from the authorities are published and aired without being challenged by the press for accuracy. People accept bogus statements or outright lies as gospel truths when in fact, the truth lies somewhere in between, or worse, at the other end of the spectrum.

In less-mature democracies like the Philippines, the government and for that matter, elections, are characterized by politics of personality. Candidates are voted into office not for their platform of government or their proven competence and probity but rather, for being popular.

And once into office, officials occupy themselves with attaining high popularity ratings and indulging in endless propaganda campaigns. The worse part of it is that our leaders engage in double speak. To quote Geronimo, the Indian Chief whose name is the title of a movie, “White Chief speaks with forked tongues.”

Hardly any moment passes without the public being bombarded by gobbledygooks. Almost every story that emanates from our government, for instance, does not inform, much less enlighten the public on relevant issues.

On the contrary, what passes off as news is actually Propaganda or PR. Instead of informing the public, what it does is to condition the minds of the unsuspecting audience to support what could be illegal acts.

In 1881, Henry Demarest Lloyd, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, “The Story of the Great Monopoly” and I quote, “In a corrupt world, publicity is the great moral disinfectant.”

The press has been largely remiss in its job of being critical. Reporters fail or do not dare challenge statements made by the authorities and their spokespersons and allies. Very little effort, if at all, goes into checking the facts and squeezing more information from government sources. In effect, the reporters simply echo the narrative offered by the spokespersons. This is not news gathering. This is journalistic mediocrity at its best. In this instance, the press cannot escape responsibility for writing or airing official press releases aimed at sanitizing or worse, covering up what could be a commission of a crime by the powers-that-be.

In his doctoral dissertation in 1904, “The Crowd and the Public,” Robert Ezra Park wrote: “That so-called public opinion is generally nothing more than a naïve collective impulse which can be manipulated by catchwords.”

Our political leaders often confuse performance with press briefings, issuing press releases and public relations initiatives. They are so preoccupied with maintaining their popularity and high acceptance ratings rather than providing the people what they really need – jobs, food, shelter, quality education, affordable health care, among other basic needs of the family.

They issue daily news releases and appear on TV talk shows on issues that don’t really matter to the ordinary people. Instead of informing the public, they dish out convoluted propaganda. They confuse effective governance with high ratings and public relations.

I call that “Management by Press Release” or “Management by Symbolism.”

“To win attention,” Robert Shogan wrote, “they have made style a matter of state.” On US President John F. Kennedy, Shogan said, “His emphasis on symbolism and personality distracted attention from the difficult choices that faced the nation.”

Again, in the Philippines, what prevails is the so-called “Politics of Personality” where candidates are elected into office not for their platforms or programs of government but on emotions, popularity, family name and campaign gimmicks. During election campaign period, the candidates sing, dance and go to the extent of making themselves as ridiculous and laughable as professional comedians on stage.

The Press when it does its job should really be critical. The press exists not to trumpet the good deeds of government or to lie in bed with our public officials.

The role of the press is to check government abuses. As such, the press should be suspicious of the acts and pronouncements of elective and appointive officials. It should guard against disinformation or outright lies by public officials. Otherwise, the stories published or aired do nothing but serve and promote the propaganda goals of the powers-that-be and the Press, in effect, would have abandoned its sworn duty as the vanguard of truth and keeper of the faith.

And when the Press abandons its public duty, shenanigans and corruption in government would worsen, poverty would deepen, injustice and human rights violations would sharpen and our hopes and dreams for our children and our country would be dashed.

Upton Sinclair wrote in 1908: “See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged; our colleges have been bribed; our churches have been cowed. Our masses are sinking into degradation and misery; our ruling classes are becoming wanton and cynical.”

Thank you.

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