“... Are (media) not also critical against me?... Media should not be onion-skinned if the government criticizes media for their reporting.”
-- President Duterte, on the Rappler controversy, Jan. 16, 2018
THE PRESIDENT is right. He, or anyone else in government or private sector, may rightfully criticize media. In Duterte’s case, not just as source and subject of news but as consumer of news.
Often it’s media that reminds public officials not to be onion-skinned, torturing the cliche from the Supreme Court ruling (U.S. vs. Bustos, 1918, GR#L-12592) that comforts public officials afflicted by the press: the “wound from an unjust accusation” shall be “assuaged with the balm of clear conscience.” The SC used the term “thin-skinned” but gives the clear message: suffer the pain, it’s part of the cost of occupying public office.
Not everyone in government though heeds the SC side comment and most journalists don’t expect them to do so. As the late Wilfredo Veloso of Republic News and Sun.Star (the early version of today’s “hard-hitting” columnist) would say, “You can take it if you dish it.” With the power in their hands, how can public officials resist the “delicious feeling” of hitting back?
There’s the right of reply, which is not legislated but most mainstream media uphold because they’re guided by canons and because they need their public’s trust.
Returning fire is not just in the news outlet where the public official is criticized but all the media platforms now available. In Duterte’s case, the president commands a vast media apparatus and controls “a bully pulpit” (remember his diatribe at the news website Rappler, hurled during his 2017 Sona?) Whatever he says is reported: almost everything, cuss words, profound thought or inanity, by all news organizations.
So whatever he complains about -- inaccuracy, unfairness, anything -- he can correct and throw back and more. He can shift focus on issues and rev up or lower public interest.
Falsehood, innuendo, suspicion, and whichever “fake-news” that Duterte says Rappler peddles? Rappler published the side of the president’s right-hand man, Bong Go, and Duterte’s blast over the story of Go’s alleged meddling in Philippine Navy contract. Including the attack against the digital media’s “foreign ownership” and “fraudulent acts.”
What media may complain about is that the hit-back is not limited to the issue of false or wrong reporting.
■ Malacañang struck at the Inquirer by assailing a land lease that owners of the Inquirer contracted with the government.
■ The Palace warned ABS-CBN that the broadcast network’s franchise might not be renewed.
■ On Rappler, the Securities & Exchange Commission, on complaint of a high Malacañang official, revoked the news outlet’s corporate papers and the NBI is investigating the news outfit’s CEO, Maria Ressa, and other persons.
Rappler may engage with Palace communicators in a debate, which Duterte suggested. But that won’t tie their hands in using government resources to take the news outfit down.
Also media’s fault
Not entirely the fault of the aggrieved news source and consumer such as Duterte. Fault or omission on Rappler’s part provided, in mixed metaphors, the weak belly of the fort, the chink in the armor, the Achilles heel.
If Rappler’s papers were air-tight and had no questionable documents. If Inquirer owners didn’t have a vulnerable land lease. Those are the “ifs.” The assault on the two media groups would’ve been confined to errors and lapses in reporting.
Or maybe not, because public officials can use whatever they can in responding to critical coverage. In Cebu, a mayor sent inspection teams from the health department to check on a newspaper’s cafeteria and from the fire protection bureau the inspectors to examine a broadcast station’s building. It wasn’t coincidental that they ran critical stories or comments. In the U.S., a repeated item on late-night shows, based on actual incidents, is about expecting a tax audit to follow a biting joke on a powerful official.
When it complains
What may instruct journalists: if they must hit hard, they better brace for reprisal from the public official. And they need to expect that the scorn and wrath won’t be confined to journalism standards. Some public officials may sound and appear civil but still use the firepower within reach.
And no, media doesn’t complain when it is criticized about its reporting. It complains only when a public official uses government force and method to intimidate, suppress, or get even.