THE row between President-elect Rodrigo Duterte and the media has transmogrified from a case of presidential defiling of murdered journalists to a surreal spectacle of boycott threats and the threatened substitution of state media for private media.
What started as a typical Duterte wisecrack and display of machismo, is now a full-blown crisis in government-media relations. It has enmeshed not only domestic players, but also international organizations, even the United Nations.
Who will blink first?
Both Duterte and the media have threatened a boycott against each other. When the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders urged journalists to boycott coverage of Duterte’s news conferences, he responded by banning all media coverage of his activities in Davao City and by canceling all press conferences. The result is a blackout on both ends of presidential-media relations.
The more experienced and mature media organizations have desisted from endorsing a media boycott of Duterte and his incoming administration.
Duterte has followed up by declaring that his activities will only be reported henceforth by the state-owned People’s Television Network and by a forthcoming government tabloid and media website.
Who will blink first in this quarrel? Will it be the tough-talking Duterte whose macho image would be dented if he changes his tune? Or will it be the media, which take pride in their reputation as a watchdog of government?
Intransigence and mutual dependence
Paradoxically, intransigence is a dead-end for both sides.
In fact, if the President-elect and the media can pause long enough to study their quarrel carefully, both sides could learn something that would enrich their service to the nation and make each more effective in their work.
The key is to regard the controversy as a “teachable moment”—an event from which to learn something constructive and useful.
With a little humility (leadership gurus like to use the term “strategic humility”), each side should decide not to let pride get in the way of thinking. By reflecting on where their interests truly lie, the incoming President and the media will both see that they need each other. They are both better off cooperating with each other than quarreling.
Despite the acrimony, there is a sound basis for cooperation between the President-elect and the media that can ultimately produce a mutually beneficial relationship. Quite simply, the two are mutually dependent on each other. Neither the President nor the media can perform their jobs effectively without the assistance of the other; cooperation is, therefore, beneficial to both.
The President must be able to communicate with the public through the media, and the media must have the administration’s cooperation if they are to cover the most important official of the government, and give the public an accurate assessment of the President’s activities and policies.
Probably because he is a rookie in national politics, and his press office is not yet organized and staffed, Mr. Duterte is unable to deal with the controversy with maturity and competence.
Obama handles similar controversy
I first came across the term “teachable moment” while reading an account of how Barack Obama dealt with a big controversy early in his presidency, and successfully surmounted it.
In July 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and handcuffed by the police. The incident garnered huge media attention in the US. Obama waded into the issue to take the side of the professor, who is black and whom he knew personally during his studies at Harvard. He called the arrest “stupid.”
` To defuse the volatile national debate that developed over the arrest of the professor, Obama sensibly acknowledged that his own comments had inflamed tensions.
He said: “My hope is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what’s called a ‘teachable moment’, where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.”
Obama placed calls to both Prof. Gates and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, two days after saying the police had “acted stupidly” in hauling the professor from his home in handcuffs.
By reversing course to quash a dispute that had set off strong public reactions, Obama showed strong leadership and secured wide public approval.
Obama’s use of the phrase “teachable moment” attracted considerable comment in the American media and blogosphere.
By definition, a teachable moment in education is the time at which learning a particular topic or idea becomes possible or easiest.
The concept was popularized by Robert Havighurst in his 1952 book, Human Development and Education. In the context of education theory, Havighurst explained, “A developmental task is a task which is learned at a specific point and which makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible. When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a ‘teachable moment.”
Ending the acrimony
Imagine if Mr. Duterte and the media can approach their quarrel with similar maturity and generosity of spirit, as a teachable moment for both sides.
The acrimony will dissipate overnight.
Our new President will rise in stature if he shows the strategic humility to walk back his intemperate remarks about murdered journalists, and his wolf-whistling at a female TV reporter.
Consider how the media would reinforce public trust in it as an institution, if our media organizations and we, individual journalists, acknowledge that we have work to do individually, and, together, to stop corruption in our ranks and raise standards in our industry and profession.