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Bias and the future of journalism

Cebu Journalism & Journalists
September 24, 2015 9:57 pm
17 Min Read

By Dr. Resil B. Mojares


POLITICAL BENT. In the 1900s, all the major newspapers of the prewar period were either owned by or allied to politicians.

Bias—a term that is not necessarily pejorative—has always characterized media from the beginning.

From the introduction of the printing press in 1593 and the appearance of the country’s first newspaper (Del Superior Gobierno) in 1811, until the mid-19th century, the printing press was a virtual state and church monopoly. The press was the voice of the ruling authorities; it was essential in the functioning of state and church, from disseminating information on civil and ecclesiastical decrees, programs and activities, and commercial information (shipping schedules, market prices) vital to the functioning of the economy, to propagating the knowledge and values useful to the formation of good colonial subjects and Catholics.

It was not until the mid-19th century that the press began to be privatized and secularized as persons and groups outside church and government came to own and operate print shops and publish materials out of them. While the state exercised licensing and censorship powers, this time marked the appearance of socalled “independent” and “commercial” newspapers.

The mid-19th century also saw the birth of a “public,” since the idea of a “public” presupposes the claim to a source of authority (“the People”) apart from church and state, and puts the premium on rational discussion, debate and consensus rather than simple obedience. (Where the authority of Pope or King is absolute, there can be no “public,” only believers and subjects.)

The press is both cause and result of the rise of a public. This is when the press begins to make the claim of being the articulator of “public interest,” medium of “public opinion,” and voice of “the people.”

The reality, of course, is much more complicated.

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First newspaper

In Cebu, the first local newspaper did not appear until the last decade of the Spanish period. This was El Boletin de Cebu (1886-98), founded and edited by the Spaniard Eduardo Jimenez y Frades, whose father, a printing press owner in Manila, published, together with his son Diego, El Porvenir Filipino (1865-76), an important Manila periodical. Diego subsequently relocated to Iloilo where he founded El Porvenir de Visayas in 1885. Diego’s brother Eduardo moved to Cebu and started El Boletin de Cebu. Eduardo, however, died a year after and control of the paper passed to Spaniard and Cebu resident Alfredo Velasco.

Boletin de Cebu was born at a time when journalism (typically combined with printing and publishing) had emerged as both profession and enterprise. However, journalism at the time was dominated by Spaniards (both Iberian and Philippineborn) since they usually had the resources and connections, and the sense of entitlement to speak for and about the country. While many were motivated by a genuine zeal for modern reforms, it was a zeal dedicated to the glory of the Empire and the maintenance of the colony.

This was the case of Boletin de Cebu, published by Spaniards in the Spanish language, devoted (as the Spanish historian Wenceslao Retana wrote) to “matters that affect the prosperity of Spanish colonization” in Cebu. This outlook can be seen in the person of its publisher-editor, Alfredo Velasco. The son of a colonial official, Velasco was a fairly prosperous merchant and one-time presiding officer of the Cebu City council (ayuntamiento). A conservative and earnest Royalist, his pet advocacies were civic celebrations exalting Spanish rule and economic measures and physical improvements that would show that Cebu was a prospering and proper “Spanish city.”

As the only newspaper in Cebu, Boletin is priceless as historical record but its pro-Spanish bias is clear. When the anti-Spanish revolution broke out in the environs of Manila in August 1896, Boletin’s reports condemned the insurrection as the “criminal” activities of “ingrates and malcontents,” an “act of parricide” against Mother Spain. (In the journalism of the time, little distinction was made between news and editorial.) Boletin proudly reported that in Cebu, “loyal capital of the Visayas,” there was “an outcry of general protest, of unanimous indignation” among the “peaceful and honorable residents in whose hearts live the love for Mother Spain.”

That, in reality, things were not too cozy in the “loyal capital,” as Boletin depicted, is shown in the fact that the revolution would erupt in Cebu less than two years later.

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Partisan passions

Cebuano journalism flourished in the 20th century. Since the century began with the US occupation, partisan passions were high and these passions played out in the press, as shown in the suppression of the first Cebuano-owned newspapers, the volatile nationalist Vicente Sotto’s La Justicia (1899) and El Nacional (1899). But opposition to US rule would quickly give way to a spirit of accommodation, as exemplified by Sergio Osmeña’s El Nuevo Dia (1900-03).

Other kinds of media partisanship would emerge. Catholic anxieties over rising secularism, the Aglipayan breakaway and the entry of Protestantism instigated the appearance of the pro-Catholic newspaper Ang Camatuoran (1902-11), published by Imprenta del Seminario de San Carlos upon the instance of prelate (later bishop) Juan Gorordo and the Vincentian Pedro Julia. More important, the advent of electoral politics and the fierce competition for local leadership would fuel the proliferation of newspapers.

It is remarkable that all the major newspapers of the prewar period were either owned by or allied to politicians. The Sotto brothers, Vicente and Filemon, singly owned El Pueblo (1900), Ang Suga (1901-12), Ang Kaluwasan (1902-10), and La Revolucion (1910-41). The Cuencos (Mariano Albao Cuenco, a failed candidate for governor, and his sons Mariano Jesus and Jose Maria Cuenco) owned El Precursor (1907-41) and El Boletin Catolico (1915-30). Vicente Rama owned La Nueva Fuerza/Bag-ong Kusog (1915-40), while Paulino Gullas published The Freeman (1919+).


HERO AND VILLAIN. On July 22, 1927, Bag-ong Kusog owner-publisher Vicente Rama wrote and published the thinly disguised story “Si Amar ug si Leon” under a pen name portraying Rama (Amar) as the hero and his congressional rival Maximino Noel (Leon) as the villain.

There were many newspapers that presented themselves as party organs, like the Nacionalistas’ El Nacionalista, published intermittently between 1909 and 1921, and Partido Democrata’s El Democrata, between 1919 and 1927. But these were mostly election-season publications and the good thing that can be said about them is that they openly identified their bias.

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Those that aspired to be mainstream newspapers tried to balance commercial and political interests by projecting themselves as the mouthpiece of the “public interest.” But such were the pressures of partisanship that their bias was evident. Bag-ong Kusog built up the image of its owner-publisher, Vicente Rama. Rama himself (in the manner of Vicente Sotto, who wrote short stories that projected himself as a hero) would, in the middle of a fierce congressional fight between him and Maximino Noel, write and publish in Bag-ong Kusog (22 July 1927), under the pen name Datu Dakula, a thinly disguised story, “Si Amar ug si Leon,” in which Rama (Amar) is the virtuous hero and Noel (Leon) the despicable villain.

Political partisanships would continue in the postwar period, as shown for instance in the war between the Cuencos’ The Republic Daily (first established as The Republic in 1947) and its bitter rival in the 1950s, Sergio (Serging) Osmeña Jr.’s The Daily News (1951-60). Each would manipulate coverage for political advantage: putting out “documented exposes,” employing columnists as attack dogs, publishing forecasts to create a bandwagon effect, splicing photographs to show “massive” crowds at their candidate’s rallies, and freely using political humor to ridicule opponents. Reporting an accident involving a bus of the Cuenco-owned Bisaya Land Transportation Company, The Daily News reported the accident in an item with the head “Tree Hits Bisaya Bus,” to twit the Cuencos for their penchant (so Osmenistas say) for avoiding responsibility by blaming somebody else.

Politics in Cebu was so polarized that even an attempt by two non-Cebuanos (Angel C. Anden and Alfredo S. Cruz) to publish a non-partisan newspaper, Pioneer Press, did not survive. After reporting on poll violence in 1949, the paper’s editorial office was visited by heavily armed men and the paper’s editors had to flee to Manila.

(On the subject of media fabrications, I have a personal anecdote to narrate. As a college student, I moved around with literary-types, one of them already a practicing, street-wise journalist who suggested we put out a magazine to cash in on the election season by selling advertising space and stories. The cover (photograph and story) was sold to a congressman who was running for reelection, articles were written and materials readied for the press, but for logistical and other reasons it looked like the magazine would not be able to come out before election day. To salvage the magazine, it was decided that the cover article be turned into a post-mortem piece on why the congressman lost in the elections (since it looked certain that he was going to lose). And so I found myself tasked to write, even before the polls had actually taken place, the cover article about why the congressman lost. The magazine came out after the elections but I do not now recall—and perhaps did not know even then—how my journalist friend got out of the fix (dealing with a congressman who had paid for an article about his defeat), or how much was paid. Mostly, we were in it for the fun and adventure. Such were the rough-and-tumble days of journalism.)

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Professionalization

Since then advances have been made in the professionalization of journalism. If we compare today’s journalism with that of the prewar period, several shifts can be noted. Today’s media organizations are more formal and autonomous enterprises; the technology has vastly improved; media workers are better trained in the craft; content is more diverse and inclusive; clearer demarcations divide news and editorial matter; and there is greater concern for issues of ethics and objectivity.

This is not to say that journalism has been freed of political interference or the pressures of the “market” (indexed by readership numbers and advertising revenues), whose influence is often more decisive than that of the amorphous body called the “public.”

But what is more basic is the bias that is built into the form and practice of journalism itself. Take the newspaper as a specific case. The newspaper (and media in general) is necessarily manipulated (in the literal sense of being “handled”). It is not unmediated: what is published is selected, written, edited and laid out in very structured space where precedence, length and visibility distinguish between the “more” and “less” significant. To say, therefore, that the newspaper mirrors society by “simply reporting the news” is either simplifying or dissembling.

Bias is built into the routinized practices of news gathering, as in the reliance on established “beats” and the “usual sources” (and the press release, though less so as in the past). The Indian journalist and Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Palagummi Sainath, for instance, laments that India’s major newspapers have several reporters assigned to the “business beat” (in practice, corporate business) but not a single reporter is assigned to cover agriculture or the rural areas. This led him to caustically remark that, by and large, media is mere “stenography,” the transcript of the doings and opinions of big business and the governing elite. (This is, of course, a product of the character of newspapers as distinctly urban, male and middle class in orientation, by virtue of their location, readership, advertising base and personnel.)

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