Mind da News: Aquino on Critics and Criticism

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, January 17, 2014 — President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III is intolerant of and sensitive to media criticism. And he lacks the finesse called for a person in so lofty a position as the president of a country. His intolerance and sensitiveness shows his lack of understanding and appreciation of media; his lack of finesse is regrettable.

Like any other president or government officials, Aquino III wants media to publish only the “good” – especially Malacanang press statements and releases without redaction and comment. As is the practice, media give preferential space to news from Malacanang but present what they see as the other half of the truth through critical comments in editorials and opinion columns and reports from other sources. This is adversarial journalism – bringing out the whole truth, for half-truth is propaganda.

President Aquino III expressed his disdain for media criticism “in an article posted on the website of the Presidential Communications and Operations Office” (PCOO) about his interaction with high school students from Miriam College at Malacañang”. As quoted by various media outlets last January 7 and 8, he told the students referring to media,We have a cottage industry of people who make a living criticizing me” — the critics seeing “nothing good in whatever I say” and detracting “from [efforts at] solving the problems of this country.” His New Year’s resolution: Ignore them.

In unburdening himself to student paying him a courtesy visit, President Aquino III was petty. If he felt that media critics have been unfair to him and adversely affecting his efforts to solve the problems of the country, why just tell it to students? He should have addressed the nation from Malacanang so the people will know. That should have been the most dignified way.

The veteran journalist Amando Doronila, in his colum (Analysis, Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 13, 2014) “Aquino stokes adversarial role of media”, took Aquino to task. Read the column. In part, he said: “In defining the media as a ‘cottage industry,’ the President betrayed a gross misconception of the function of the press in a democratic society and trivialized the principle on which the relationship between the press and the government pivots.”

This he saw: “Ignoring media criticism slams the shutters on a healthy debate over contentious issues involving the administration’s lackluster performance in revitalizing the economic growth … The administration will be deluding itself if it expects the media to go easy on scrutinizing its performance. … The press cannot disengage from scrutinizing the administration’s performance without being remiss in its function and responsibility as the watchdog of public interest.”

Have media been unfair to President Aquino III? Except for a few harsh critics, including the so-called “netizens” in the social media, the media in general have been moderate and forthright in their language. The President and his men evidently don’t like the contrary views and facts media present side by side with their own.  But media are bound to tell their readers “the truth, nothing but the truth” – closest to full truth helped by their knowledge, sources and resources.

If you look at the news stories and opinions in adversarial media, this is what they are telling their readers and the people in Malacanang, particularly perhaps the President: “Let’s put the record straight: The straight path has not been followed and is not as straight as pictured by President Aquino (Ang daang matuwid ay hindi sinusunod at hindi kasingtuwid katulad nang nilalarawan ni Pangulong Aquino ).” Of course, this is contrary to what Malacanang would like the people to believe.

Has the President to be the one to contend with adversarial media? Not at all! It is below the dignity of his office to tangle with his media critics. But he should not ignore media criticism as, no matter the sting, it may reveal some overlooked or unseen positive realities. Ego often blinds.

Should wrong and misunderstood facts and information not be clarified and errant opinions rectified?  Of course, they should be. That is the task of the PCOO and PCDSPO (Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office). They and the media agencies under them, being funded with taxpayers’s money as information organs of the Office of the President, must defend the President from media critics.

Yet, we see President Aquino III in the frontline defending himself, his cabinet and government.    

But, maybe the President is irrepressible. He considers fighting media critics and others a good fight and he does not like to run away from it. However, can’t he avoid being petty, being harsh in the guise of “frankness”?

When interviewed – in ambush or formally – he cannot avoid questions about his critics and their criticism, his political enemies or intriguing events and issues. But he can avoid being personal, sounding hurt or scolding and vindictive. When invited as guest speaker or during special occasions like that visit of high school students is not the time to unburden his sentiments. That’s pettiness unfit for presidents.

Item: On December 5, 2011, he was invited to keynote the first National Summit on Criminal Justice. In his address of 1,359 words, he criticized Chief Justice Renato Corona for his midnight appointment, face to face and in his presence and the justices of the Supreme Court. This was the focus of media reports.

He also (1) condemned the injustice suffered by his family during the Marcos martial law regime; (2) lambasted the Supreme Court for blocking the government measures and efforts to let President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo account for her alleged crimes; and (4) recounted the violation of the constitution in creating a congressional district in Camarines Sur in favor of the son of President Arroyo which the Supreme Court upheld.

For reviving the controversial, his speech might not be questioned. But as a keynote address it was out of place – not giving direction to the Summit. The unburdening of his sentiments and grievances against the Supreme Court, Corona and Arroyo belonged to another occasion.

Item:  As special guest of ABS-CBN during its 25th anniversary celebration of TV Patrol on July 27, 2012 Aquino slammed the newscast’s main anchor, former Vice President Noli de Castro, who was present. The bulk of his speech was not focused on ABS-CBN’s flagship primetime newscast but in criticizing De Castro for supposed baseless speculation, and commentaries against the administration despite his own stint in government. (Rappler, July28, 2012 and January 7, 2014).

In criticizing De Castro for failing, during his six-year stint as vice president, the problems he now wants the Aquino government to solve, the President was off-base. He knows that the vice president does not actually exercise or hold the rein of power.

During his speech, his hosts and the entire audience fell into “minutes of awkward silence” – during his lambasting of the Supreme Court at the Summit, the justices just restrained themselves from walking out.

Does it mean that the President should not criticize the media for inaccurate, negative and other faults in reporting? At issue is not the criticism but the manner of criticizing, the use of language and the propriety of the occasion. On April 23, 2012, President Aquino III was keynote speaker of the 16th Press Forum of the Philippine Press Institute. His speech was to the point but cordial and keyed to the forum theme. He confronted the captains of the Philippine press with instances of inaccurate, negative and biased reporting that they should address.

Comparing his four-page (8-1/2 x 11) speech at the PPI with the two-and-a-half page at the First National Summit of Criminal Justice and the quotes from his talk at the ABS-CBN affair would reveal two personalities of the same person – the first civil and cordial with finesse and humor; the second, petty, harsh, resentful, vindictive.

A person may be the President, the King or the Queen. But if he or she criticizes or insults his or her host face to face in the presence of the guest, that, by any ethical norm is “rudeness”.

[Author’s Note: Mind da News, the alternate of COMMENT, is an opinion on the the news.]