Or, for that matter, what is a journalist?
No, it wasn’t President Duterte who ignited these questions.
It was rather Ms. Mocha Uson, a sexy dancer turned self-styled journalist, who set off the existential questioning and soul-searching.
Ms. Uson first got tongues wagging when she boasted on her Facebook page a week or so ago that she had gotten a one-on-one interview with then President-elect Duterte. She posted on her FB page a video saying: “Kami ang media ni Duterte (We are the media of Duterte). This is my exclusive interview with the President.”
This prompted TV5 news anchor Ed Lingao to call Mocha out. He commented: “Fascinating. So now, a visit by an avid Duterte supporter is defined as journalism.”
When criticism and skepticism poured in over her scoop, Uson tweeted: “Hindi po natutunan ang authentic journalism sa eskwelahan (You don’t learn authentic journalism in school).”
This exacerbated the controversy because it forced all journalists (real and just pretending) to ask themselves whether they are doing authentic journalism.
Mocha was emboldened to issue her brash statements because of the noisy row between Mr. Duterte and the media, and his decision to bar interviews with private media, cancel news conferences permanently, and elevate government media as his preferred channel for communicating with the public.
Mocha’s statements are presumably authentic (they came out of her head); but they are on their face foolish and illiterate.
Knowing as I do the extremes of quality and fakery in Philippine journalism (having served by turns as editor, reporter, and columnist), I have given Mocha’s claim some thought.
I will answer her by saying that journalism is a much more serious and honorable calling and public service than she knows. There is ample reason why the press is the only business that the Constitution explicitly protects from government restraint.
Believing that Mocha’s attack was made in ignorance, I point her to the words and findings of scholars and jurists who have studied the profession of journalism at length and have come up with clear conclusions on what journalism does and the real service that it provides society.
I cite first an authoritative book titled The Law of Journalism and Mass Communication by Robert Trager, Joseph Russomanno and Susan Dente Ross (CQ Press, 2010). The book discusses the meaning of press freedom, the importance of a freedom of information act, and the privilege of the press as watchdog.
A conspiracy of intellect
This book opened my eyes to a classic defense of the press penned by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. The learned justice penned some of the court’s historic rulings on press freedom.
Justice Stewart believed the press had a particular, unique and special role under the Constitution. He said the framers of the Constitution intentionally singled out the press as the only business with a specific guarantee of freedom from government restraint because this protection was essential to the robust function of press criticism so vital to democracy.
He then offered a flattering tribute to the press and journalism as a profession. He said the press is “a conspiracy of intellect.”
He wrote that to America’s founding fathers: “A free press was not just a neutral vehicle for the balanced discussion of diverse ideas. Instead, the free press means organized, expert scrutiny of government. The press is a conspiracy of the intellect, with the courage of numbers. This formidable check on official power was what the British crown had feared—and what the American founders decided to risk.”
We are all journalists now
I take the trouble to examine Mocha’s view of journalism, because in truth she is staking a claim that many in other countries have also made.
We should look at Mocha as part of a global movement called “We are all journalists now,” a movement that has gathered steam in Europe and North America, and is now spreading to Asia.
There is a battle brewing in many countries between professional journalists (the backbone of traditional news media) and citizen journalists (the children of the internet and social media). Bloggers and other citizen journalists are today demanding the same rights and privileges enjoyed by professional journalists.
What is a journalist? What differentiates journalists from other people who seek to disseminate ideas and information to the public? Does being a journalist depend on where your words are published or broadcast?
It was not long ago that the lines between journalists and the rest of the public were clear. Those who worked for “news” organizations or news media were journalists; everyone else was not.
Those days are gone. Thanks to the internet and the growing “blogosphere,” the lines distinguishing journalists from other people who disseminate information, ideas and opinions to a wide audience have been blurred, perhaps beyond recognition.
The shattering of distinctions is forcefully discussed in a book by Scott Gant: We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age (Free Press, 2011).
In Gant’s view, journalism is an activity undertaken, and not a profession practiced. So he invites everyone to join the ranks of the press.
Surely, this is a good thing. The more information we have on events, surely the better. But then the question arises: if we are all journalists now, who should enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of the press? If citizens can write and attack behind false identities on social media and without the guarantee of prestigious media organizations, where is press responsibility now?
We have to ask the unavoidable question: “When everyone is a journalist, is anyone?”
Journalism with low standards
This brave new world of journalism is totally bizarre to me. I got my first job and learned my craft as a journalist by patient and sometimes even obsessive study.
During my apprenticeship, you really had to know English and how to write in order to make it. You had to call on your studies of politics, economics, history and the humanities. You could not get by by just being nice.
Today, you can make the grade by just self-identifying yourself as a journalist.
Many media organizations don’t care about the quality or professionalism of their staffs. Newspapers just blame their circulation and ad revenue decline on the internet, never on themselves. Broadcast networks blame cable news and other factors for their plummeting ratings. Advertisers are too lazy to find out why.
I am horrified by the thought that the standards for sexy dancing may be more exacting than those of journalism today.
But I say guardedly that the Manila Times reveals itself every day as a conspiracy of intellect.