Seares: Toning down Tulfo ‘brand of journalism’ carries stiff price

AMID the furor in the past few days over broadcaster Erwin Tulfo’s rant against DSWD chief Rolando Bautista, a watcher of the media scene commented whether there’s such a thing as “Tulfo brand of journalism.” “As a media practitioner,” the comment ran, “I only know two kinds: good journalism and bad journalism. And Tulfo’s brand cannot be good.”

Last May 27, in TV5’s investigative news show “Tutok Tulfo,” Erwin blew his top when Social Welfare Secrerary Bautista refused or failed to heed a request for interview on the program. Erwin had wanted Bautista to explain how the newly enacted Magna Carta of the Poor would affect government programs to ease poverty.

Threat about toilet bowl

Erwin scolded and insulted Bautista, heaping vitriol on the public official, including a threat to dunk his head into a toilet bowl. The broadcaster erred. Here’s why:

* Tulfo had no right to insist that Bautista agree to a media interview. A journalist can ask but the news source can refuse or set conditions for release of information to a news reporter or outlet.

A public official, elective or appointive, is bound by government policy of transparency and accountability. But he has the option of talking or not talking. And that includes when, what and how he will do it. He may wish to talk by phone, submit to a video interview, or answer in writing, by himself or through a publicist.

* Tulfo’s outburst had no legal or moral basis, was not supported by journalism protocol, and grossly disproportionate to the public official’s response.

Bautista’s refusal or failure to appear in Tulfo’s news program was disappointing but as a veteran he must know that it happens often anywhere. His producer should’ve had Plan B and Erwin could’ve gone on with the show on something else. Whatever, the explosion was misplaced and damaged Bautista, Tulfo, and the broadcast industry. Media’s right of access to information, despite what Constitution and laws guarantee, is granted on the public official’s terms.

* But the Tulfo brand of journalism precisely needed that kind of a situation: an issue to be angry about, a misconduct -- real or perceived, small or blown up – to be dissed on air. Bombast feeds on a cause for rage. The mistake was on the choice of target: a retired general who has a lot of friends in the armed services.

Erwin, along with brothers Mon, Ben and Raffy, can put the family name to their brand of broadcasting. It has characterized their work and strategy and, in the current controversy, they own up the excesses in their style.

Other broadcasters

To be sure, there are other broadcasters in the country who have used similar technique and thrived on it as well.

The style requires anger or fury; harsh and biting language, including curses at times; and an over-all feisty or combative stance that says no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled.

Necessarily, it strips the broadcaster of the fear of being sued for libel or threatened with death or bodily harm.

The posture of courage or seeming fearlessness, purportedly to fight against oppression or injustice, draws devoted following. In an industry driven by the ratings race to spike profit, broadcasters and the broadcast stations where they operate often close eyes to the cost of keeping that style.

Sense of entitlement’

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines or NUJP calls it “exaggerated sense of entitlement,” which means Tulfo believes that public officials must treat him with respect and shouldn’t refuse the request for interview. That may also explain why Tulfo must think the government owed him and his siblings the fortune to pay for the armed protection their kind of journalism requires.

The PNP and Philippine Marines’ policy on providing journalists with escorts is an adjunct issue. Was the policy of the two armed services bent for the Tulfos? How has that affected the Tulfos’ media treatment of the police, the marines and the Comelec (which provided exemption to the ban during the campaign season)? They erred in maltreating Bautista. Could they even criticize him or any other official with similar clout in the future?

Whom not to offend

With the reaction of high officials in the police and military service who sympathized with Bautista, the Tulfos may need to know better whom not to offend, in sum to be more careful in picking targets for attack.

Before threatening to dunk anyone’s head into a toilet bowl, the Tulfos—and broadcasters with similar style—must first ascertain as to who’d react violently to their on-air verbal rough stuff.

Erwin apologized to Bautista and talked about “toning down” the Tulfo style. The apology apparently will get back the nine-person security detail for the Tulfo brood. As to changing their brand, that could have stiffer price: loss of audience and revenue.


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