Last night, I got a chance to talk to an old friend in the public relations (PR) business. I sought his thoughts on my increasing complaints on mainstream media (MSM), particularly the way media manipulate the news to make the protagonists appear like antagonists under the suspicious grounds of profiteering. Profitmaking, we decided, is good. We love money, even though it's been unfairly tagged as the root of all evil. But profiteering in media is something else; it's moneymaking at the expense of delivering truth, which is a sacred calling. Somebody must call out MSM on it if one hasn't yet.
There's no question that media has a business side. We all need to earn our daily bread, after all. But when we are assaulted by distortions in the newspapers and nightly news, we are forced to step back and pause for some serious thinking. We haven't even addressed our concern yet on media's role in precipitating or helping worsen the Manila hostage situation into a national crisis several weeks ago, and here we are being assaulted once again with our strong suspicion of intentional distortion.
Since our friend specializes in spinning words to make a product more palatable, we asked what he thought of these things. He said, without much thought: "That's how media really is."
Appalled by the confirmation of purposeful sensationalism by one who works closely with media, I then mentioned how another friend of mine had been interviewed lengthily by a TV news reporter only to find out that he would be quoted in bits, and the little one that's chosen is not even the meat of his message. I got this reaction: "Even before your friend was interviewed, the news item already had been made. The journalist was merely fishing for the right soundbite."
Soundbites? My mandibles dropped to the floor I had to pick them up. I wonder if I am guilty of the same sin. I am not exactly a media insider, but more of a lifestyle writer and sometimes opinionator in the fringes who specializes in promoting stuff and taking bold sides on issues. I know I can be guilty of a little dose of PR-mongering when I minimize the negative aspects of the subject and highlight the positive ones, but I know that these media-media subject contracts or 'ex-deals' (exchange deals) have a very important disclaimer or clause: the writer retains the freedom to say whatever s/he wants, although a writeup is ultimately subject to the editor's (and sometimes publisher's) objections as well. There is an unwritten rule that objectivity and honesty must not be sacrificed; I believe that's also the basic rule in the PR world: there is a way of presenting sides to a truth, and it does not have to involve outright lies, i.e., those that are meant to deceive.
Clearly there must be a line that must not be crossed, in media as in anywhere else, especially when we deal with matters in which objectivity is paramount, or else media becomes a perpetrator of distortions that lead to homicidal outbursts and unwarranted mass-based hate on persons and institutions.
The recent public exchange in the RH Bill, the most controversial, emotional, and divisive issue I have ever seen as a writer-blogger, and therefore in which objectivity and calm are of utmost necessity, is an illustrative case in point in media's tendency to reduce their subjects into fighting cocks, as though media is merely a cockfighting arena. Painting the Catholic Church and its prelates as a bigoted, antiquarian, judgmental, oppressive bunch of devils and elevating the President and theatrical artists-protesters as their hapless victim to perspiring neo-Rizals and incarcerated neo-Galileos, media rouses the masses into a collective hatred for the villain of the day and inspires the same into running to the rescue of their perceived martyrs and heroes.
This manipulation of the TV viewer and newsreader is nothing less than shameless. The consumer of media is held hostage by the cockfight, with the consumer's desired reaction successfully elicited. A laughable scenario is thus effectively staged.
But are staged animosities and confrontations the right way to foster genuine dialog? Media platforms should not be parodied into a cockiness contest, with all participants appearing as though they are preening for the kill, hackles perpetually raised.
Some of us consumers have opted to tune out, as a result. Some who are extremely pissed off go so far as to exhort others for a total boycott, which is sad because, without media, we are left with mere interest groups with conflicting interests. Some are wise enough not to believe everything that is peddled but consume media anyway for the entertainment value; understandably, no telenovela and extreme sports show is more enjoyable than the one inside the media cockfighting ring because it involves real people, with the possibility of real feathers ruffled and real lives ripped. Some who are brave and unfazed are inspired to dig further deeper but how many are they?
Many are those who are left being manipulated without even knowing. It is hoped that they open their eyes wider, not limiting themselves to our society's self-appointed messengers of news (and presumably the truth too), our new umalohokans. Ultimately, what is hoped is for the Fourth Estate to police its own ranks, to adhere to ethical principles and unwritten rules of common decency, and -- to go by the precise language of papal encyclicals -- to "uphold the primacy of truth over the pursuit of profit."
American media insider Tom Wolfe has somewhat already satirized this state of affairs in his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. We need only to remind ourselves of what a farce it all is, with media engaging in a slow mass suicide, and the rest of us at the losing end.