Holding back: Media split on covering Bong Go’s poor performance in Senate

LAST MAY 20 and 25, neophyte Senator Christopher “Bong” Go struggled to answer veteran politician and Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon’s questions about Go’s proposed bills to increase bed capacities and to re-nationalize hospitals. Some reports noted Go’s faltering performance, the kind of coverage Go has not quite gotten from the media. Other news organizations stuck to their PR-type coverage of Go, or cited officials who favored him.

Go’s legislative capacity

As chair of the Senate committee on health and demography, Go sponsored 15 bills to increase the bed capacities of several hospitals nationwide. During a plenary session on May 20, he failed to mention that two of the bills would also return control of two provincial hospitals – Benguet General Hospital and Lanao del Norte Provincial Hospital — to the national government.

Senator Drilon pointed out the significance of the provisions to renationalize, which led to other questions about fiscal issues concerning the bills. He also asked Go about the Mandanas Ruling – a ruling of the High Court in 2018 which limits the financial capabilities of the national government. Go affirmed this, saying “Yes, malaki pong kawalan sa national government” – as though he was not aware that his proposal to re-nationalize added more obligations to the national government. Other senators, including Villar, Cayetano, Tolentino, Angara, and Pimentel, added to the interpellation that lasted over three hours. 

Despite the assistance of several members of his staff, Go still struggled with his answers. He claimed that Drilon was prolonging the interpellation. Go requested that the session be suspended many times, ultimately moving to end the discussion of the 15 bills. Drilon objected and argued the importance of the questions. Senate President Tito Sotto III intervened and forged an agreement that the interpellations be continued on May 25.

In the next Senate session, Drilon revealed that Go’s committee ‘sat’ on the said hospital bills for 15 months. “Bakit inabot ng 15 buwan (sa komite) bago dalhin sa plenaryo? Hindi dahilan ang pagtatanong ko kaya tayo natatagalan,” he said. Nevertheless, Drilon ended his interpellation of Go and Senator Zubiri moved to close the plenary debates. 

CMFR noted in a previous monitor the unusual coverage given to Bong Go for his many other activities that have nothing to do with his work as a senator, such as providing assistance to the victims of fire and typhoons, as well as his frequent statements in support of the president, to whom he still reports as a kind of special aide. The coverage of his bills shed light on his limited capacity as legislator, a position he campaigned for and won. Only a few media accounts looked at this angle of the story.

Varying Lenses

CMFR checked the reporting of six print organizations (The Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, The Manila Times, Manila Standard, and The Daily Tribune,) four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas and CNN Philippines’ News Night), including their online counterparts and independent media Rappler for a week, May 19 to May 27.

Manila Bulletin published five news reports on the Senate session and Go’s bills, while TV 5 didn’t publish or air any. The bar graph below indicates which news outlets covered and followed the story.

Picture 1
Number of reports published/aired per news organization

Next to TV5, The Philippine Star published only one news report, without any mention of the Senate debate. ‘Go sponsors bills upgrading hospitals’ tackled the bill and not its infirmities that were revealed in the Senate session. The news report read like a slightly edited press release. During the same period, the Star still covered Go’s other activities and statements with headlines like ‘Go: 10M vaccines to arrive next month’ and ‘Go to lawmakers: Improve coordination, avoid misencounters’ – all of which were slanted to put Go in a positive light. 

ABS-CBN, GMA News, the Manila Bulletin, the Manila Times, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer framed their news reports as a clash between Go and Drilon, without mentioning the failure of Go to answer questions not just from Drilon but also from other senators.  Their articles included transcripts from the exchange, describing the interpellation as a ‘verbal tussle’ or ‘verbal war’ and not a reflection of Go’s weakness as a legislator. 

The Daily Tribune and the Manila Standard beat the other news organizations in treating Go in the most positive light. Rather than highlighting the points raised in the interpellations, both cited House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez and ACT-CIS partylist Rep. Eric Yap, who both lauded Go for showing “malasakit” in the plenary session and called out Drilon for causing the bill’s delay. Their coverage also included emotional statements made by the two sources. Tribune published a commentary on the issue titled “Give partisanship a break” along with a cartoon of Drilon. CNN Philippines and Manila Bulletin, in their online websites, also published one news report each citing Romualdez’s defense of Go in their lead. 

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Screengrab from tribune.net.ph

Online news sites, namely ABS-CBN.com, GMA News Online, Rappler, and CNNPhilippines.com provided a more critical angle and correctly highlighted that Go could not answer the questions from his peers, which revealed his lack of knowledge about the different provisions of his own bills. ‘Go gets schooled anew by Drilon’, ‘Frustrated Go moves to terminate…’, and ‘Renationalizing hospitals: Go tries but fails…’ were among the headlines. ABS-CBN.com and Rappler also exerted more effort in explaining the implications of the Mandanas Ruling and the Local Government Code of 1991 that weakened the basis of Go’s proposed renationalization of hospitals. 

Media and the Election Season

The favorable coverage of Bong Go raises questions about the media’s role in promoting his political ambitions. This early, the media should keep track of the performance of incumbent officials who have been hinting at running in the 2022 elections. The President himself has drummed up Bong Go’s candidacy, calling him ‘President’ in a public event on March 11.

Media are obliged to subject to close scrutiny any public official who seeks any position of power. It is specifically for the purpose of providing the information citizens need to make wise decisions that the Constitution protects the freedom of the press. Unfortunately, some news organizations are mocking that protection by failing to fulfill that obligation.