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Let a hundred flowers bloom

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I’m not a bit surprised that a Malacanang spokesperson is blaming the media again for the slipping satisfaction rating of her boss, President Benigno S. Aquino III.

After all, Aquino has been picking a fight with the media since the start of the year. And let’s not forget that he was once a student of his infamous predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

In a speech in February, Aquino basically told advertising executives to refrain from placing their ads with publications that resort to what he described as “sensationalism” and “negative reporting.”

These were his exact words:

“Unfortunately in our country, sometimes sensationalism is a lot better than spreading the truth. Sometimes, the truth seems to have been a forgotten concept by some of our media practitioners.

“Instead of considering only cost efficiency in making advertising placements, advertisers should also use as criteria a media group’s values and integrity.

“I understand that advertising is commerce, but the decisions of where to advertise can also be used to encourage responsible corporate behavior and improve the level of discourse in our country.

“Instead of just cost per thousand, why not add other criteria? Does the program where you are placing your advertisement promote the values of good citizenship? Does the network or newspaper that receives your placements uphold truth and fairness.”

Since he has associated sensationalism to the reporting of negative stories in previous remarks, Aquino was obviously asking the advertising industry to stop advertising with publications that write negatively against him. The speech brings back memories of former President Joseph Estrada’s failed call to advertisers in 1999 to boycott the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which was putting out negative stories against him.

In a speech during the K4Phil Intercessors’ Convergence at the World Trade Center in Pasay City in January, Aquino again criticized media’s alleged “propensity to focus on the negative issues instead of the positive ones.” At that time, Aquino was being criticized for his purchase of a Porsche and the use of an armored Lexus, which he claimed was loaned to him by his brother-in-law.

Aquino said some media personnel might just be turning a blind eye on positive developments under his administration. “Mahirap ipakita sa nagbubulagbulagan, at ipadinig sa nagbibingibingihan. Basta kami magtatrabaho na lang.”

About two weeks ago, in a speech before the Filipino community in Jakarta, Aquino again took a swipe at media for “reporting negative news about the country instead of looking at its brighter side.”

So when the Social Weather Station reported that Aquino’s satisfaction rating had dipped 13 points, did you expect presidential deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte to say the poll result has only inspired the President to focus even more on the tasks at hand?

Blaming the negative reporting for the wrong perception by the people, Valte said there was a need for the government to be more aggressive in its propaganda work.
Still, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said there might also be a need for a “reorientation” of the way the mass media project the good news, adding that positive developments should be given bigger play.

Last week, Valte’s remarks were headlined in the Inquirer as follows: “Palace exec blames media for dip in Aquino’s rating”.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Inquirer had this headline: “Palace blames media for low satisfaction ratings”

Almost identical headline, but entirely different subject: last week’s headline was about presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte blaming media for Aquino’s dip in satisfaction rating, while last year’s headline was about then presidential spokesman Gary Olivar blaming media for Arroyo’s negative satisfaction rating.

Even in their response to their sagging ratings, Arroyo and Aquino do not differ much. After blaming media for her negative ratings, the Arroyo administration launched an aggressive campaign to promote its alleged achievements by placing full-page advertisements and TV commercials in selected media outfits. Apparently, the plan misfired because Arroyo’s candidates were rejected soundly by the people.

Not learning from such experience, Aquino’s Malacanang is now hinting that it would be more aggressive in publicizing the government’s achievements.

Coming from Arroyo and her aides, the blaming was expected. In fact, on October 8, 2009 when her rating continued heading south, the Inquirer had very similar headline: “Palace blames media for Arroyo’s sagging ratings”

But from Aquino, the son of the country’s most revered democratic icons, it is, to say the least, disappointing. The son the people and the media had expected too much has now resorted to blaming everybody else except himself for the poor ratings that he has been getting. The son everybody had expected to respect press freedom now wants media to temper its criticism, and now asks advertisers to cut the lifeline to media that chooses sensationalism over the truth.

But who will decide which is sensationalism and which is the truth? Should it be the advertising agency? Should it be the presidential spokesmen? Should it be Aquino? What is sensationalism to Aquino and his aides could actually be the truth. And that is not for Aquino, his aides, the advertising agency, or even the media to decide. The media merely reports the events that happen, and the columnists comment on such events. It is eventually the people who will decide what to believe and who to believe.

The media, as the term implies, merely offers a medium or a venue for a free exchange of information and ideas. From this multitude of information and opinion, it is up to the readers and the people to decide what to make of them. The media cannot, must not, favor the positive stories over the negative stories, or vice versa.
We cannot discount the fact that some media practitioners may have some biases or prejudices, but let the readers be the judge of that, not the politicians whose perception of what is wrong what is right, or what is true and what is not, is clouded by their own selfish interest. If the media outfit were downright biased, the readers would eventually see through it, and would refuse to watch the broadcast network or buy the newspaper. If the media outfit were not being watched or read by the people, the advertising agency would be crazy to advertise in it.

The government that won on a legacy of freedom should let freedom reign. The government that got its nod from the people on a platform of integrity and credibility should not lose its patience in proving it is abiding by its commitment to truth.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” Chairman Mao Tse-tung of the Communist Party of China said in a speech in Peking in February 1997 to encourage the people to express their thoughts, although westerners suspect it was a ploy to make the subversives come out in the open.

Be that as it may, the communist leader’s beautiful phrase is ironically what democracy is all about. It may serve Aquino, the heir of a revered name in democracy, well to remember that.

By Val G. Abelgas




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