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 14 August 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 latevisionary, 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 this hallowed grounds Thailand’s thought 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 “P’s” 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 that “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 that, “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, former 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 late 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 fees, 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 pitch or sales talk 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.

To be continued.

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1 Comment

  1. Samuel Santos on

    At that point when you’re so engrossed reading this speech, you come across the words, “To be continued.” It’s a bit unfair, ‘di ba?