by Jonathan Corpus Ong
By now Filipinos home and abroad, and witnesses the world over, have a stock of visuals and voices that would mark their experiences of the tragic events at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila last August 23. A tall, proud tourist bus, its sides emblazoned in bold Chinese characters, became the unwitting battleground between a kidnapper and his hostages, an ex-cop and his desperation for reinstatement, two TV networks in perpetual one-upmanship, and really, a nation and whatever is left of its pride and reputation.
Some may remember the image of the Hong Kong national tearfully exiting the bus, raising hope that the remaining hostages were safe. Others might recall the thickly accented English of Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno in his CNN interview and his boastful and cringeworthy description of how the hostage taker had been ‘neutralized’ by Philippine police.
As a sociologist of the media, my personal recollections would also extend from the sights and sounds of television and radio to discussions in Facebook and Twitter. For here, in these increasingly robust social spaces, it is perhaps easier to trace how indeed Filipinos tried to make sense of the shock and threat of what had happened.
At the beginning of the crisis, it was curious how online users remarked about the strangeness of it all: “OMG. I thought this could only happen in the movies”. “It’s like a bad reality show.” “Don’t our police play the videogame Counterstrike?” Indeed, in tragedy, it is normal to say that it is simply like the movies, like Hollywood. There is the natural desire to push the threatening to the realm of pop culture, to the world of fantasy and make-believe.
But as the late media scholar Roger Silverstone says, it is still mainstream media–television–that is most central in times of crisis. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, live news and its rolling narration and speculation could offer comfort to its audiences so that the shocking could still be turned into sense. He says, despite the unpredictability that terror and tragedy pose, news media always have a “stock of images, frames and narratives” that will “hold as well as explain.” He further argues that “the familiar” is used “to soften the blow” as there is “safety in the cliché.”
In Monday’s events, what indeed were “the familiar” and “the cliche” in the news reportage? And what kinds of comfort, if any, did they provide?
The first cliché was the spectacle that the media made of the tragedy. This they achieved as a result of the discomforting proximity they enjoyed in relation to the sites of drama and action.We are made familiar with the angle that hostage taker Rolando Mendoza had acted calmly and respectfully toward his hostages until he saw and heard, from the TV in the hijacked bus, of the arrest of his brother and the wailing hysterics of his relatives–all under the bright lights of news cameras. Here the media were literally too close: reporters’ microphones hovered like vultures to the prone bodies of Mendoza’s shirtless brother and his wife, who refused to get up from the ground and surrender to the police. Later, ABS-CBN talk show host Tintin Babao would also tweet how Susan Enriquez, a reporter from rival network GMA, supposedly trespassed police cordons in order to get “exclusive” updates. And, astutely, CSI fans pointed out on Twitter how TV cameras contaminated the crime scene in the aftermath of the tragedy. Surely, the standard of “proper distance” that according to Silverstone marks the operation of a moral media was unmet in the way TV became too close to the action and showed too much of the event. As ABS-CBN’s Tony Velasquez defensively replied to some Twitter critics last Monday, “[On television] more is better than less”. But again, surely they could have tried for moderation, for the middle ground, for “proper distance”?
The second cliché that ran through the media story of what they called “the Manila Bus Tragedy” was the supreme autonomy and authority that journalists enjoyed throughout the day. The media in the Philippines are not subject to any significant regulation that impinges on their operations. The KBP [League of Philippine Broadcasters], intended as a self-regulating mechanism for TV networks, has no actual legal teeth, as any TV network can in fact choose to withdraw its membership from the body to avoid all sanction. With the exception of moralistic censorship of “sex and violence” coming from the hallowed halls of MTRCB [Movie and Television Review and Classification Board], the media do not answer to government, even though they repeatedly demand the government to answer to them. During the crisis for example, there was primetime news anchor Mel Tiangco’s knowing SWAT expertise: “Tsk, they should have used chain rather than rope” when she saw how the rope intended to break into the bus failed spectacularly. And there was Tintin Babao again all passionate on Twitter: “Is this how our SWAT is trained?” There is nothing wrong with a critical media of course. But what happens if the media can only criticize others with little ability to criticize themselves?
This leads to the third cliché . In responding to how their broadcast of the arrest of Mendoza’s brother and their play-by-play coverage at the height of the shootout contributed if not caused the failure of the rescue, journalists reverted back to a company line: “We were just doing our job”. The police, they said, should have made the decision to call for a news blackout rather than they themselves making that assessment on their own. It was curious to see again on Twitter how this company line provided for journalists (otherwise unfamiliar and uncomfortable with fielding questions of media ethics) a true and unquestioned “safety in the cliche”. Journalists tweeted and retweeted: “We were just informing the public.” “I hope the police do not blame the media.” “In the past people complained that the media were suppressed. Now people complain we give blow-by-blow coverage”. Indeed, what we hope for from the media post-tragedy is not defensiveness but openness, less adherence to company rules and more awareness of the ambiguous power that they wield. And perhaps most significantly, we hope that the media remind themselves not simply of their rights—their constitutional rights to speak and to show—but also of their obligations—their fundamental human obligations to respect vulnerable others over and above duties to profit and profession.
In recent statements from ABS-CBN and GMA, I find it encouraging that there is a concerted move to “draft guidelines” and “review procedures”. (Though I find it worrisome that, in less official records and in more personal tweets, Maria Ressa, head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, would reply to criticism, in a frustrated tone, “Damned if you, damned if you don’t”). We could only hope that such “guidelines” are less about professional rights and obligations to their so-called loyal viewers but more about their concern for vulnerable others – others whose status as human beings depend completely upon how the media portray them to the rest of the world.
Indeed, the most tragic cliché last Monday was that the Philippine media did their job when they should have chosen not to. To have taken a pause and question their usual norms and standards would have been the braver, even if more dangerous choice.
Jonathan Corpus Ong is a faculty member of the Department of Communication and media sociologist at the University of Cambridge.
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