Notes on the dominant press (Updated)

AN ETHICAL as well as professional duty, truth-telling and accuracy are fundamental to media and press practice. But in the dominant (wrongly referred to as the “mainstream”) press, it is also the principle most often observed in the breach rather than the compliance.

Practitioner corruption is the most commonly understood hindrance to accurate reporting, but corruption—in the Philippines manifest in such practices as bribe solicitation and acceptance, a journalist’s simultaneously serving as the publicist of political, business and other groups, and using the power of the media to defend and advance personal or familial interests, among others—also creates conflicts with the public service mandate of the press and media.

Often unremarked, however, is that private, corporate media ownership generates a fundamental conflict between the business and political interests that in this country and others are in control of the dominant press and media, and the right of the people to accurate and fair information relevant to their lives. Like corruption, these conflicts undermine the ethical imperative of practitioner independence by limiting reporting, analysis or opinion writing to approved parameters. The gate-keeping function resident in the news desks is the enforcer of compliance with those parameters, often masking the suppression of the non-compliant in technical and legal terms.

Every journalist in the dominant press who has been in the profession for some time eventually comes to face this reality. For many practitioners, the majority of whom accept what amounts to a form of integral, built-in censorship as part of what is after all “just a job,” it is hardly of any moment. But it can be a real dilemma for those who take the social responsibilities of media and press practice seriously.

Owner interests are not always, on a day to day basis, compromised by what is in the news. But when certain public events have the potential to do so, the responsible practitioner finds out that a story, although meeting most or even all of those standards of newsworthiness he or she learned in News-writing 101, won’t see print or broadcast if contrary to owner interest, on which it might have a direct economic impact or an indirect political significance.

It could also bear on the media organization’s revenues, such as advertising earnings, should the story involve an advertiser, or on the organization’s long term viability, such as when the story puts the powerful in a bad light and invites retaliation. The threat may be more imagined than real, but most editors are not prepared to put their jobs at risk on a mere possibility. In most cases, however, the journalist sees no conflict between his or her own perspective and views and those of his or her editors and employer. Like the latter he or she is a product of the same culture of uncritical acceptance that assumes the present to be either the best of all possible worlds under the circumstances, or, if indeed flawed, is impossible to change.

But some stories no matter how unfavorably they may put a business or political patron in a bad light do manage to see print or broadcast, one of the conditions that makes it possible being the competition among the media organizations. One with some other interest to protect may print or air a story contrary to the interests of another media organization or its political and other patrons. But if the story is too big, too significant, too sensational to be ignored, the rest may follow suit.

This suggests that to some extent the media organizations do have divergent interests that help explain why reports exposing public or private sector corruption—the diversion of pork barrel funds to fake NGOs comes to mind—do manage to be published and aired. But far from demonstrating the existence of the plurality of viewpoints that supposedly endows the media audience with the freedom of choice allegedly inherent in the equally mythical “free market of ideas,” the divergence is an illusion that masks the fundamental singleness of viewpoint among media organizations controlled by business and political interests with a stake in keeping things the way they are.

The seeming plurality is in fact limited to such superficial choices as reading or watching the products of a media organization supportive of this politician or another supportive of his rival, the reports stopping short at that point when they tread on such fundamental issues as the power structure, the social relations that decide the sharing of the fruits of production, and the neo-colonial ties that bind the nation to its former colonizer.

The dominant media do report, for example, on corruption and even the private lives of corrupt politicians; they even comment on them. But they do not explain that the persistence of corruption is rooted in the handful of political dynasties’ monopoly over political power to the exclusion of the majority whose participation is limited to the ritual act of casting their votes every three years.

The reports, analyses and stories of those practitioners who do attempt to go deeply into the roots of the country’s perennial problems with poverty, corruption, injustice, human rights violations, mass hunger and environmental destruction, no matter how accurate, well- researched and brilliantly presented, never see print or broadcast, or if they do, have been edited into defanged versions of themselves. What do get routinely aired or published are reports that barely skim the surface of events and either studiously or unknowingly avoid exploring the black depths that could paradoxically throw light on how and why virtually the same poverty and injustice rooted in corruption and bad governance persist from decade to decade.

The results are mirrored in the reports themselves, in the accounts of scandal after scandal that lead nowhere except to the same social and political rot that gave them birth. The result is mass confusion, cynical acceptance of the way things are, and indifference to even the most hideous theft of public funds and other crimes, among others.

The people the media claim as their constituency have a right to hold all media organizations and practitioners accountable: to demand that they comply with their own standards of accuracy, fairness, relevance, independence and honesty. But to expect the dominant press to serve as democracy’s tribune, to defend the people’s rights, or to fight for authentic independence is to expect the impossible. The so-called “mainstream” press is not about better governance, justice, freedom, prosperity or any other ideal corrupt politicians habitually mouth to keep and enhance their hold on pelf and power. Least of all is it about change, but about keeping things the way they have been in this country for centuries.