By Raïssa Robles
I will talk about media corruption as I’ve seen it and felt it and faced it.
If there are reporters who are corrupt, it is because the editors tolerate them or are on the take themselves. The industry is really quite small. Tongues are loose. Talk is cheap. The giver boasts and the taker often splurges.
Those who are on the take are known in the industry. And some are pretty big names.
Will I disclose who they are? No.
There is one main reason why readers do not get a complete understanding of the corruption in mass media – the people in the industry don’t want to talk about it. The reason? it involves colleagues, friends, people you see and work with everyday. Apart from this, it’s hard to give names for the simple reason that there is no documentary proof. It’s the kind of practice where people don’t keep records, for obvious reasons.
To understand what I’m talking about, let me explain first the process of producing news in newspapers.
News reporters are usually assigned “beats”. Sometimes the beat is topical like “justice” or “foreign affairs”. Many times it is locational. For instance, someone covers the Quezon Circle area – that would include the government agencies there like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, the Philippine Coconut Authority, sometimes even the Quezon City government.
The reporter is responsible for all the news in that beat. Every beat competes with all other beats for space on the newspaper front page. Sometimes, there are special pages devoted to that beat.
Now, this is something most people outside journalism NEVER understand. This work comes with a time constraint — a deadline. Stories have to be submitted by a certain time each day. This puts pressure on reporters — and correspondents (who are not full-time employees and are paid less than reporters, usually on a flat rate basis — to produce. This happens everyday. Nowadays most journalists get two days off. In my time we got one. And in my time you didn’t have a choice when that day off would be – it could be the weekend or the middle of the week.
And almost always, Christmas was a working day for me.
Why do people put up with that? I don’t know. Why do people become doctors? Or tax accountants? I guess part of the reason is that working to a frantic deadline creates a rush, which you become addicted to if you keep doing it long enough.
Anyway going back to the process of news writing: a reporter’s copy passes through an editor who has the complete license to edit, rewrite, re-angle, destroy and rebuild any story that is published. The editor also creates the title (the head)and is usually responsible for the first paragraph (the lead).
So even if a reporter is in the pocket of a politician, an editor’s eagle eyes would be able to spot the trend, the slant, the frequency of copy about a specific politician. Unless the editor is untrained or also in the pay of the same politician or told by “higher-ups”.
It is also an editor’s job to make sure all sides of the news are covered. When I was working at the Philippine Star desk, when an important side was missing in a story and the reporter could not be reached, I called up a source that would give me that side.
So if a side is missing, blame it on the reporter and on the editor who allowed that to be published. If the reporter or editor really made the effort to get an important missing side but the source was unavailable or would not talk, this information also has to be written into the story.
What I’m saying is, corruption is not just the problem. Lack of training and sloppiness are also problems that others might mistake for corruption.
Corruption in different kinds of media reporting
What I just outlined above pertains to reporters working full-time for newspapers and correspondents paid per piece writing for the “hard news” section.
A different set of rules is followed by newspaper columnists or opinion writers. Sometimes, columnists come from the ranks of reporters but oftentimes they don’t. They are contracted by the newspaper owner or by an editor to dish out opinion on mostly anything under the sun. Because of this, political and corporate strategists love to sit down with columnists, massage their egos and shower them with presents and favors. Some columnists are quite ethical in their dealings with news sources. Others are not.
I have been frequently told by colleagues in the industry the names of this or that columnist demanding freebies from hotels and airlines – just because they are columnists.
The point I’m trying to make is, please don’t blame reporters in general for what columnists write. Columnists are not writing hard news but their opinions and if they parrot word for word the stand of companies or corporate sectors on certain issues, then just stop reading them. For some, reading them is a hard habit to break because aside from writing news columnists are often the favorite venue for leaking news.
Newspapers also publish “soft news” – on entertainment, lifestyle and movies as well as feature stories on who’s hot in the news.
Personally, I have stopped reading much of the soft news published by local newspapers because most of them sound like advertorials – or advertisements dressed up like news reports. I might as well read the side of a box of cereal.
At the soft news section – the entertainment and lifestyle sections – of a number of newspapers, almost everyday is like Christmas. Gift baskets, party food and designer cakes arrive frequently with Thank you notes or invitations to future events.
At least one Lifestyle editor has told me her editorial choices aren’t swayed at all by the presents but she can’t discourage givers because they might feel hurt or insulted since this is an industry-wide practice. Others, by contrast, demand freebies as part of their job. I’ve heard stories of some writers who demand certain rooms and bed sizes for their free stays in resorts and hotels.
I don’t know if lifestyle and entertainment reporters are bound by the same Code of Ethics as news reporters. In newspapers, these two major sections are independent kingdoms with their own set of rules.
How newspapers I worked for handled corruption
Of course I’m only talking of the hard news section. I was fortunate to start my news career with Raul Locsin’s now-defunct Business Day newspaper. Raul and his wife Leticia (who started out as a movie reporter) had definite guidelines for reporters.
First, if we had to interview a source over lunch, the newspaper paid for it.
Second, no cash gifts of any amount were allowed. If someone still gave cash, this was to be turned over to the office which would then take care of getting in touch with the giver. You see, this was during Martial Law and if a government official were to give cash, turning it down to his face was a bad idea.
Third, during the month of December, all reporters were “grounded” – that is, we all covered from the office via telephone. This was to avoid any hint of a BD reporter asking gifts from sources. Bawal ang mamasko. But nothing barred a source from sending over gifts to the office.
The reporters were allowed to accept token gifts like calendars, diaries or umbrellas with logos. But nothing expensive.
In The Manila Chronicle where I worked next, the same guidelines were more or less observed, except that I don’t remember having to stay in the office in December.
When I worked in Philippine Star when Mrs. Betty Go-Belmonte was alive, I once received cash amounting to several thousand pesos as “coffee money” and as per editorial guideline, I turned it over to her office. She then wrote a very nice letter to the politician thanking him for his generous donation to Damayan, her charity project.
Why do some politicians give cash to media men?
Because often there are reporters who flat out ask them for money and they want to be democratic about it. Also, it was the practice long before Martial Law for politicians to give reporters cash. There is this revered icon of journalism who, before Martial Law, went around the House of Representatives with two wallets. One had money, the other was empty. It was his practice, I was told by his former colleague, to send around the empty wallet to lawmakers. It would be bulging with money by the time he got it back.
Of course, in our business there are very few secrets. Word of such unethical practices gets around. Politicians’ aides talk and before you know it, the gossip has spread around the journalism community.
But no one does anything about it – not the editors, publishers nor newspaper owners.
I asked my former Manila Chronicle editor Vergel Santos yesterday whether there was any law against government functionaries giving journalists cash.
“I don’t think there’s any law. Especially if it becomes a private arrangement,” Vergel, now BusinessWorld publisher, told me.
Republic Act No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act punishes those who bribe government officials. But it does not punish government officials who bribe members of mass media.
Vergel told me that indeed, there are state officials who give journalists payoffs. He told me that one post-1986 senator used to meet media men every week. “It was always well-attended. He gave away money.”
Personally, punishing such a practice is one piece of legislation I would welcome because from my experience, government officials often use our tax money to bribe mass media in exchange for favorable coverage or to hush up stories about them.
I have been bribed with cash four times – twice by senators, once by a general and once by a local government executive. In all four instances, I believe tax money was used. In two of these incidents I flat out refused the money and angered the givers. In a third instance, I turned it over to the newspaper owner. In the fourth instance, I donated it to charity in the giver’s name and personally handed him the letter of thanks.
In the early 1990s, a reporter named Yvette Fernandez (now editor-in-chief of Town & Country magazine, Philippine edition), wrote an exhaustive piece called “Envelopmental Journalism in the Metro Manila Media” for the Philippine Press Institute. It was based on interviews with – among others – 18 beat reporters, two photographers, three editors-in-chief, six editors, and a public relations practitioners.
Reading the report, I realized with sadness how little has changed in my profession. Only the amounts involved have risen. Here’s an excerpt from Yvette’s piece regarding corruption in the police beat:
“Every week,” says one police reporter, “the anti-vice unit gives about P4,000 to the press club. We divide it and get about P200 each. that is only from one unit. Where do they get the money? From the gambling lords, drug lords, smuggling lords. From the prostitution kings and queens that they protect. How do you think those joints remain in business?”
“In the police beat,” claims another broadsheet former police reporter, “the lowliest sergeant and corporal would give you cash gifts of P50, P100, and P200 for you to write about their cases. Like when they would catch a robber, a car thief. They would treat you to a sumptuous merienda, or give you money. It’s a habit, and the beat is usually monopolized by tabloid reporters or veterans who do not care about ethics.”
President Benigno Aquino III was right when he said rank-and-file reporters and correspondents ought to be paid better. But I would like to challenge PNoy to issue an Executive Order banning employees and officials in the Executive Department, including the police and military from giving mass media personnel cash or ATM load. I wonder if he will.
I would also like to challenge both chambers of Congress to do the same, to ensure a level playing field among them as far as media coverage is concerned.
And as for all those “public service ads” now appearing on print, TV, and radio featuring this or that incumbent government official who is known to be running for office next year, I hope the Commission on Audit initiates a probe whether or not they are using our tax money for these ads.