reprinted from the author's book, "Worse Than Free: Essays on Journalism Ethics and Other Media Issues"
October 10, 1997
Last week, publishers and editors gathered at The Anvil, the exclusive restaurant at the Philippine Commercial and Industrial Bank, for something that had the promise of an extraordinary event. But the absence (so far as I have observed) of any news about it tends to show there was nothing in it after all.
To be sure, the circumstances were extraordinary, thought more in the sense of curious: It was a newspaper (the Inquirer) that did the inviting on behalf of the news subject (the Bankers Association of the Philippines), and the event was held outside the news subject's headquarters, which, in this case, was rather unusual.
Questions of propriety understandably arise, but those questions cannot be resolved fairly until the arrangement between those two unlikely partners is When the peso is down, and interest rates, inflation and unemployment are up, what is the positive to accentuate about all that? taken out of the shadows and brought to light. For all we know, the Inquirer and the bankers, although seemingly guilty of bad form at first look, may have been brought together by the best of motives. Still there are other questions - professional questions - that have to be dealt with.
As it happened, the event served as a forum for criticisms of the manner in which the newspapers had been reporting the nation's economy. The Inquirer and the bankers felt the newspapers owed it to the nation to "accentuate the positive" and help attract the investment it sorely needs.
Someone has remarked that, given the brawling style of journalism it itself practices, the Inquirer had a problem of credibility from the start. But again, who knows? We might begin to see a mellowed Inquirer.
At any rate, the remark I want to take up, because it is the more professionally relevant one, comes from an editor of BusinessWorld: "When the peso is down, and interest rates, inflation and unemployment are up, what is the positive to accentuate about all that?"
Assuming that somehow something positive was found and seized for the trick and some investors were fooled, how long would they stay fooled? What about the greater, less privileged and therefore more vulnerable masses, the people who most acutely feel the economic pinch and look to the media for the answers to their most anxious questions? Hopeful stories might be good therapy for them, but false hopes are another matter. And false hopes are precisely what the Inquirer and the bankers might engender with their idea of positive journalism.
The idea recalls something that Henry Luce, the Time magazine founder, said: "I'm a Protestant, a Republican and a free-enterpriser, which means I'm biased in favor of God, Eisenhower and the stockholders of Time, Inc." The quotation is often cited, but cited more for its cheeky charm than for anything else. In fact, it mocks the cornerstone principle of journalism - objectivity.
I imagine that Luce's words ring with even greater charm in these market- driven times, when almost everyone seems looking for an excuse to fit the profit motive in whatever he does.
I don't know that the patriotic sense with which the Inquirer and the bankers try to invest their advocacy sets it admirably apart. All I know is that news by itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, neither positive nor negative, and, as such, meant to be told like it is - with taste and good sense, sure, but without bias.
Thus, a piece of news is left to affect its consumer in ways determined by how he himself views it. Who was it that said, "The best news can get you down if you insist on it?"
All this, of course, is theoretical. But it is also tradition. To Henry Luce, "Objectivity is a myth," therefore, something to dismiss. To me, it's an ideal, something to aspire for. To the Inquirer and the bankers certain news can be - should be - made positive. To me, all news is neutral.
Ultimately, I suppose, the question will be settled in a tug between market and conscience. And who knows? We might yet see the day of The Positive Daily, peddling "news guaranteed to make everybody happy."
That will be some trick. That will be the day.