By Luis V. Teodoro
THE WESTERN media, according to one view, are the benchmarks of accuracy, fairness and impartiality. They are the watchdogs of government, the actions and policies of which they monitor in behalf of the citizenry so that the power delegated to the politicians by a sovereign people are neither abused nor used for oppression. They are also the vanguards of human rights compliance and use the power to influence millions to make this world a better place for all men and women regardless of race, creed, or political belief. Because they are privately- rather than government- or socially-owned, many believe they offer the multiplicity of views and perspectives citizens need in developing informed opinions on public issues.
Others disagree. Rather than acting in behalf of the human need for truth, the Western media are in a conspiracy with their home governments to conceal it in furtherance of the interests of the corporations that control them. Far from being impartial, their practitioners are biased for or against various groups, individuals and countries, and like the governments of the countries in which they are based, they use human rights as a convenient and credible excuse to help bring down unfriendly regimes.
The reactions in social media sites to the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography awarded to Australian freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak for his “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals,” a photo essay published in The New York Times on the killing of alleged drug users and dealers in the Philippines, are either based on the first set of assumptions among those who approve of the award to Berehulak, or on the second for those opposed to it. Either the Western press is totally impartial or totally biased–with one Facebook post even claiming that the Pulitzer Board was bribed to further demonize the Duterte regime and destabilize it.
The reality is somewhere in between. There are professional and ethical standards Western media practitioners do acknowledge, standards that demand that they be truthful, fair, independent, and–to the extent to which it is momentarily difficult to determine which of those involved in a dispute or conflict is on the side of truth–impartial.
Despite that acknowledgement, however, the Western media do take the side of Western governments more often than not. As the late Ben Bagdikian, who was dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism observed in his pioneering book The Media Monopoly, the US media system is “a privately-owned Ministry of Information”– that is, the corporate media echo and support the views of the US government, whether it’s on US policies and actions in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, or on Russia, Latin America, China and Asia. As if to prove Bagdikian right, even the most liberal US publications supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example.
It is not the result of some evil conspiracy, but of an accustomed way of looking at things, a world view and a culture journalists share with the political and economic elite of the Western world. Logistical difficulties such as the inaccessibility of alternative sources can also affect reporting to such an extent that the result is likely to be biased, for, of course, the side whose views are both handily available and consistent with one’s own.
But only in the rarest of cases have there been agreements, whether implied or open, to cover events in a certain way. The “embedding” of journalists in US military units during the 2003 invasion of Iraq qualifies. A military initiative meant to assure coverage from its point of view by controlling the movement of journalists as well as by providing them filtered information, embedding led to journalist complicity in the US military’s determination to control information to prevent citizen opposition to the invasion.
It doesn’t mean that Western-sourced reports, analyses and commentaries are uniformly biased or even inaccurate, although the political and ideological convictions of the media organizations and of individual practitioners do intrude often in what is aired or printed. There are enough professionals in the Western press and media who are able to transcend the self-serving demands of owners and editors to provide reports critical of State policies and to access alternative sources for the sake of accuracy, fairness, and impartiality.
Impartiality, however can be carried to extremes, and can undermine the journalistic imperative of interpreting complex events and issues. Reporting on climate change, for example, no longer needs to be so ” impartial” as to reiterate arguments that it’s a hoax, or that it’s self correcting, or that its impact is minimal. Journalists also have a responsibility to expose and oppose injustice, oppression, inhumanity and anything else that does violence to the right of men and women everywhere to lives of freedom and dignity and to life itself.
What really matter are the facts, to which journalists owe first allegiance. The primary question is whether the Berehulak photos and text are accurate mediations of reality, which in fact they are, as anyone in these isles of fear familiar with what has been going on in the so-called “war on drugs” since July last year will attest to. Berehulak’s work also meets journalistic standards in terms of multi-sourcing, while his numbers are validated by the Philippine National Police’s own statistics. Even more critically, the photo essay comes close to being literary as well as journalistic by chronicling the human cost in both the dead and the survivors, the damage to their communities, and the impact on the human condition in this time and place of a dehumanizing and dehumanized State policy.
Whether his work will or can be used for an agenda for destabilization is a separate, though relevant issue. Theoretically, however, in a global order dominated by powerful political forces, any report critical of any government can serve that function, which makes discussions and debates about Berehulak’s and even the Pulitzer Board’s motives– the Board makes the final decisions on Prize recipients each year– hardly fruitful enterprises.
No one sufficiently media literate will exaggerate the impartiality, fairness, autonomy, or even accuracy of the Western media. But neither should anyone dismiss the whole of that system, as flawed as it is in many ways, as of no value. Berehulak’s work, as the Pulitzer citation describes it, is an outstanding and timely example of the “powerful story telling” that the times require, whether in this country ruled by death dealers, or in the rest of an equally troubled and troubling world.
One wishes that a Filipino journalist had done, or will be doing, something as compelling for a country and people in the throes of the confusion, anger and disillusionment sown by the “callous disregard for human life” of a war that’s not so much against illegal drugs as it is against the poor, the powerless, and much of what’s human.