Specious and Disingenuous (updated)

THE UNIVERSITY of Santo Tomas (UST), in a Philippine Daily Inquirer story by Lito B. Zulueta (“UST: CJ Earned Ph.D”, January 2, 2012) attempts to answer Marites Dañguilan-Vitug’s “UST ‘Breaks Rules’ for CJ” which claimed that UST granted Renato Corona a doctorate despite his having overstayed in that school’s Ph. D program, and what’s more graduated him with honors despite being disqualified under UST’s own rules.

The UST reply claims, first, that it did not break the rules that govern its degree-granting powers because, being an autonomous institution recognized by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), it has the right to amend those rules. UST also argues, according to the Zulueta article, that Ms. Vitug did not disclose that she had written a book on the Supreme Court, and could thus be biased against Corona. The school also asked who went over Ms. Vitug’s article before it was published, since, as an example of online journalism, it was probably not vetted, having appeared first in the news website Rappler. UST implies as well that the media should not have paid any attention to what it considers an internal issue.

The basis of the UST argument is specious at the least. An autonomous institution can indeed change its own rules, but not so that someone unqualified under the old ones can benefit from the change, but in furtherance of what is both fair as well as just in that the new rules can equally apply to everyone else. What’s more, that it is an autonomous university does not exempt it from public scrutiny through, among other institutions, the media, but only to direct CHED supervision.

Its claim that Ms. Vitug did not disclose a previous “run-in” with the Supreme Court is also false: In her article, Ms. Vitug included the fact that the book, “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court,” earlier raised questions about Corona’s academic record. Ms. Vitug wrote the book. Ms. Vitug also disclosed that she had tried to get the UST side as well as Corona’s and even that of the Supreme Court administrator, but had been ignored.

The argument that as an example of online journalism Ms. Vitug’s article did not go through the gate-keeping process standard in print journalism is similarly misleading. Gate-keeping is indeed an issue in online journalism, but as editor-at-large of Rappler, Ms. Vitug is herself one of the site’s lead gatekeepers. Vitug, who has been a journalist for 30 years, is also the founder of Newsbreak, “which has operated as a magazine and online for more than a decade until it joined Rappler in December 2011.”

CMFR notes that Ms. Vitug’s attempt to get the side of UST and Corona, and her disclosing that she was either rebuffed or ignored, were both in keeping with journalistic ethics and protocol.

The real issue is not whether the media should be paying attention to what a school does. It is part of media responsibility for them to do so, and both Ms. Vitug and the Inquirer should be cheered, the former for writing the story, and the second for publishing it.

But what educational institutions do, whether they’re at the primary, secondary or tertiary level, is so obviously imbued with public interest no knowledgeable practitioner of journalism would require any explanation. The real question is whether the UST attempt to reply to Ms. Vitug through an article written by one of its alumni—Mr. Zulueta is a UST alumnus who has in the past written extensive and glowing public relations stories on UST and its achievements—does not constitute a conflict of interest between, on the one hand, the school’s interest in protecting its image before the public, and on the other, the public’s right to an unbiased, accurate and fair report on a matter of public interest. (Mr. Zulueta is also a journalism faculty member of UST and adviser of The Varsitarian, the official student publication of the university.) Ms. Vitug doesn’t have to explain herself, but UST does—and in a less disingenuous manner than it has so far done.

(CMFR will do a more extensive analysis in its website and in PJR Reports.)

In a letter to BusinessWorld last January 10 (“Who will watch the watchdog?”),  Lito Zulueta of the University of Santo Tomas noted “striking resemblances” between the January 2 Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility statement  (“Specious and disingenuous”) and my January 6 Vantage Point column in BusinessWorld (“Rule makers and rule breakers”), and insinuates intellectual theft, presumably from CMFR,  on my part.

Mr. Zulueta was as usual speaking out of ignorance.  As CMFR Deputy Director and editor of its media monitoring publication PJR Reports, involvements  I have many times disclosed, I wrote the January 2 CMFR statement for uploading in the CMFR website, and subsequently developed it for BusinessWorld into a column. Unless I can be accused of stealing from myself, Mr. Zulueta’s attempt to divert attention from his egregious ethical lapses by alleging “intellectual theft” can only be described as pathetic.

In addition to making up the ethical rules of journalism as he goes along (he claims, for example,  that  journalists should disclose their  associations only to gatekeepers and not  to the public to whom anyone with a molecule of knowledge of journalism ethics knows  they should be even more responsible),  Mr. Zulueta also speculates rather than proves.  The suggestion that it was in furtherance of propaganda for the University of the Philippines that I wrote the column in question—in his attempt to turn an ethics issue into a  competition between UP and UST that can happen only in the dreams of juveniles in a state of arrested development– is as absurd as the implication that I stole from myself after 45 years of  service to the University of the Philippines where plagiarism is an offense even more unforgiveable than stupidity.

My links to UP as a professor of journalism and  former dean of the UP College of Mass Communication are well-known, as Mr. Zulueta himself noted, which would make my  reiteration of those connections  unnecessary unless compellingly relevant. They are irrelevant to the present case,  but whenever they were pertinent–for example when I criticized UP, for, among other offenses, raising tuition fees, or failing to curb fraternity violence–I  have in the past disclosed them as well as my connections with CMFR in behalf of  the ethical imperatives of transparency and full disclosure. I have never done public relations work for either institution. I have often been critical of UP, and I direct those interested in establishing the truth of this claim to my website  (www.luisteodoro.com) and to CMFR’s (www.cmfr-phil.org).

– Luis V. Teodoro