How not to be a Hack, Lesson 2: You are not a stenographer

HERE is an example of an infuriatingly common problem with the way modern-day journalism is practiced, an item that caught my attention because it looked like a good topic for my Sunday column this week:

“SENATE Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Wednesday warned that at least 1,200 companies were poised to leave while a “good number” of investors were having second thoughts because of the government’s plan to remove tax perks under a second package of tax reforms.”

Just to put the topic in a little context, the tax reform package being debated in the Senate would reduce corporate income taxes, but also “rationalize” fiscal incentives by removing many of them and gathering administration of the rest under a single agency. The controversial measure has pitted the government, which feels that the current incentive regime is uncompetitive and is being taken advantage of by companies that don’t really need tax perks, against the business community, which of course doesn’t want to lose them. Drilon, a bloated plutocrat since birth, is evidently siding with business on this one.

The common mistake made here is confusing notoriety with credibility. In a general sense, yes, what Frank Drilon says is newsworthy, particularly when he says it during Senate floor proceedings, which are a matter of public record. Drilon is a senior elected official, so presumably the public has an interest in what he says in the course of discharging his office.

His position, however, only entitles him to be listened to; it does not automatically confer competence and authority over whatever subject matter is at hand. At no point in Drilon’s remarks did he provide any evidence to back the specific numbers in his assertions: 1,200 companies that would leave the Philippines, and 150,000 workers who would lose their jobs. One could hope that he had some factual basis for his claim, but for all anyone knows, Drilon could have figuratively pulled those numbers from his prodigious ass.

Simply reporting what Sen. Drilon said results in a maddeningly incomplete story, and worse still, a story that gives an impression of fact, even if that it is not its intent. As the story is presented, the news item is that “1,200 businesses will close and 150,000 workers will become unemployed if the tax reform package is passed without at least being significantly amended,” and the primary source is Frank Drilon. Based on his position alone, however, Drilon is only credible as a primary source for news about the Senate; absent any explanation of where he got the information he is sharing, he is simply offering an opinion.

The obvious reaction on the part of the reporter should be to challenge Drilon as to the source of his information. If that is not possible, or no explanation is offered, there are three ways this story could be approached that would make it credible:

Good – Clarify that the news item was merely a statement by Drilon, and that he offered no evidence to support his assertion. In this case, the story is no longer “what Drilon said,” but rather “Drilon said something.” This story will not be of any actual use to readers, but it will at least be technically correct and neutral.

Better – Report the unsupported statement by Drilon, then seek a viewpoint from the opposite side (in this case, the Department of Finance or the Department of Budget and Management). The readers can then draw their own conclusions as to whether the pro or con point of view is more credible.

Best – Report Drilon’s statement; a counterpoint by a proponent of the tax reform plan; and an analytical viewpoint from a third-party, recognized subject matter expert, who may support one or the other views or offer a completely different one. This presents readers with a reasonably well-rounded overview of the entire topic, and allows them to form informed opinions about it.

Simply repeating what an official says without context or corroboration is not reporting a story, it’s taking dictation. Build your skills and credibility by learning to question more.


Inclusive Business in the Philippines – The Manila Times, Dec. 2, 2018

Getting serious about inclusive business – My Manila Times column for Sunday, December 2.

LAST week, I attended the “Inclusive Business Leaders’ Conference” hosted by the Department of Trade & Industry-Board of Investments and the private-sector group Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), held in the fortress-like refrigerator known as the Philippine International Convention Center (Seriously, they need to dial the AC back a bit. It’s freezing in there.). Inclusive business (IB), when it is taken seriously, is an attractive concept because it offers much broader and more sustainable benefits than purely social safety nets.

Although the idea is not exactly new, it has only existed as a formal part of the UN Development Program’s anti-poverty playbook for about four years, which is why awareness of IB among businesses and the public is still rather low, and the government’s strategy is still at what would be considered a pilot stage. There are still some significant gaps to be filled, and the effort needs to be expanded far beyond its relatively narrow current focus (agriculture, and to a lesser extent, tourism) for it to have substantial results. The most obvious subtexts in the various presentations were that financial inclusion and access to credit is still a major stumbling block, along with physical access to markets, and reducing red tape and maintaining consistent regulation and governance.

Still, the initiative is encouraging, and generally seems to be on the right track despite those nagging issues. Hopefully, the government and private sector stakeholders who have started all this will be able to maintain their momentum.


The Wages of Arrogance, Paid in Full

IT seems somehow unfair that a tribe who are considered the most isolated people on Earth were the subject of international attention this week, but that is exactly what happened to the Sentinelese after they reacted predictably to a trespasser on their remote Indian Ocean island.

The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island, an outlier of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and are considered the last pre-Neolithic people on Earth, direct descendants of the first people in Asia who migrated from Africa about 75,000 years ago. Nobody knows how long the Sentinelese have been there; some anthropologists have estimated the tribe may be between 15,000 and 30,000 years old.

In fact, nobody knows much about the Sentinelese at all. Written descriptions of the tribe date back to at least the 14th century but are vague at best, and an attempt by the British colonial government to establish contact in the late 1800s ended in disaster. For a period of about 15 years beginning in the late 1970s there were intermittent attempts by scientists to observe the Sentinelese up close, but these were unsuccessful; until this week, the last report of any substance about the islanders came from the Indian Coast Guard, which attempted to survey the island by air in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The reason why nobody knows much about the Sentinelese is because the Sentinelese have made it abundantly clear at every encounter with someone from the outside world that they want absolutely nothing to do with them. Anyone who has ever dared to venture onto or even within shouting distance of North Sentinel Island has been met with a savage response. The Indian Coast Guard helicopter sent to ascertain the condition of the tribe after the 2004 tsunami was famously greeted with a hail of arrows from the Sentinelese (the picture at the beginning of this article is a still from a short video the crew managed to shoot as they were fleeing the area); in the official report of the mission, the helicopter pilot noted drily that the tribe was evidently “fighting fit” despite the disaster.

In 2006, two fishermen poaching in the waters near North Sentinel Island ran aground and were hacked to death by the tribe, leading the Indian government to declare the island off-limits; by law, no one is allowed to approach within three nautical miles of North Sentinel Island. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard mount regular patrols to keep trespassers away, and even avoid violating the cordon themselves except in emergencies. The reason for the prohibition is to protect both would-be visitors and the Sentinelese from almost certain death; because of their isolation, it is presumed the tribespeople do not have immunity to most common diseases – even something as mundane to us as a cold virus could very well completely wipe them out.

Pest Removal, Sentinelese-style

To John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old, self-professed evangelical Christian missionary and adventurer, this unique little society needed to be “brought into the kingdom of Jesus.” And so with full knowledge of the ban on approaching North Sentinel Island – in his diary he opined that “God was hiding him” from the Indian patrols – he hired some fishermen to take him just off the shore of North Sentinel Island, and set off in a canoe to bring the heathens the gifts of a soccer ball, scissors, safety pins, some fish, and the Word of the Lord.

The news reports about what actually happened have varied, but it seems Chau made two attempts. The first, on November 16, resulted in the Sentinelese breaking his canoe, and forcing him to swim to safety back to the fishing boat sans gifts but sporting a couple of brand-new arrow wounds, including one through the Bible he was carrying. His second attempt the following day was his last; the fishermen observing from offshore reported seeing some tribesmen dragging Chau’s body along the beach and then burying it. The fishermen then returned to Port Blair, the administrative capital and largest town of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to break the news to Chau’s waiting friends that the Sentinelese had been no more interested in joining the kingdom of Jesus than they had been those of modern India, Emperor Hirohito, Queen Victoria, or the various Indian maharajahs, South Asian sultans, or Chinese emperors who have come and gone over the centuries.

In the aftermath of Chau’s death, Indian authorities arrested seven persons in connection with violation of the ban on the island – five fishermen, and two friends of Chau, according to various news reports. The authorities also registered a case of murder against “unknown persons,” but later explained that doing so was mainly a matter of keeping paperwork in order so that Chau’s cause of death could be accurately recorded, and that they had no intention of bothering the islanders about it. As of now, at the behest of the US consul, Indian officials and researchers are studying whether it would be feasible to try to recover Chau’s body; the tone of official comments on the matter, however, suggests that they probably won’t.

No Sympathy

What has been interesting to watch as the story has cycled through the media this week is the differences in the angle taken by the US and global media, and the universally harsh reaction of readers to it.

Foreign media, for the most part, has focused on the Sentinelese and their protected status; this headline from The Irish Times is a typical example:

American media, on the other hand, has focused on the young adventurist, and made his religious conviction an extenuating circumstance to his having willfully violated the law of a foreign country, as this headline from CBS News suggests:

The public is having none of that; while a sympathizer with the man’s self-ordained cause is occasionally seen, reactions have been overwhelmingly damning:

And well the reactions ought to be damning, because John Allen Chau’s ill-conceived “mission” perfectly exemplified the arrogant, exploitative exceptionalism of evangelical Christian culture. A graduate of Oral Roberts University (founded by a real-life Elmer Gantry who once famously extorted $8 million out of his followers by claiming that God told him He “would call him home” if they didn’t cough up the money), Chau was evidently sincere in his belief that anyone not living according to the precepts of the modern white American interpretation of Pauline dogma is evil and needs to be corrected – in one of his diary entries, he referred to the North Sentinel Island society as “a last stronghold of Satan.”

His “sincere belief” is being used to somehow excuse, if not exactly justify, his destructive and self-serving objectives. It is clear he was aware that he was violating the law, beginning with entering India on a simple tourist visa – which explicitly prohibits proselytizing – with the intention of carrying out missionary activities. His diary indicates that he was clearly aware that his mission was illegal under Indian law, and that he made a plan before setting out to evade detection and arrest. And of course, he was obviously aware of the fatal risk of approaching the Sentinelese. If he was aware that his having contact with them might also be fatal to them, that too was not enough to dissuade him.

The Sentinelese are one of Earth’s rarest cultural treasures, a unique and exceedingly fragile living link with our own species’ ancient past. They have maintained an unaltered way of life since perhaps 300 centuries before the earliest tenuous seeds of Abrahamic religion even sprouted.

Yet John Allen Chau sought to destroy all this and remake it according to his own naïve and narrow conception because of his “beliefs,” which was not only a display of willful disrespect towards the Sentinelese people, but an aggressive attempt to rob humanity in general of an artifact of our collective heritage. His actions, and the dogmatic principles driving them, were no less horrifying and damnable than the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or ISIS’ destruction of Nimrud and Palmyra.

The only difference is, this time, the monument fought back. And for the time being at least, the world is probably just a little better place because it did.

Bong Go highlights his senatorial qualifications by presenting a superfluous idea

MANY Filipino voters have wondered if former Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go is truly qualified for the Senate seat he has been actively campaigning for since the instant his former boss invented a taxpayer-funded executive position for him out of thin air more than two years ago. Go, however, put any misgivings to rest this week by floating just the sort of uselessly irrelevant policy idea the Philippine Senate is famous for, thereby demonstrating that, if elected, he’ll fit right in to that august body.

Go’s proposal, one that he would presumably pursue if elected to the Senate, is the creation of a “Department of OFW Concerns,” that would serve as a “one-stop shop that will provide government services to cater to the needs of our modern-day heroes,” he explained. Go made the proposal in a media exposure exercise with a number of overseas workers recently rescued (by one of the two existing agencies that exclusively handles OFW concerns) from Kuwait, where they had been enslaved in three massage parlors.

With his proposal, Go, whose only job since 1998 has been to serve as an executive assistant (what we would describe in the part of the world I come from as a “toby”) to then-Mayor and now-President Rodrigo Duterte, demonstrated that he is every inch the qualified Filipino politician on every count, and probably should expect a landslide victory as a result:

  • Suggesting that the proper way to correct any inefficiencies or lack of performance in existing agencies is to ignore those problems, and instead invent a completely new layer of bureaucracy;
  • Using the magic words, “One-stop shop,” which automatically improves government services, even if a patron of an agency so designated has to visit eight different counters, make four different fee payments, and complete 47 process steps within the premises;
  • Unironically referring to OFWs as “modern day heroes” without showing any awareness that it has been decades of half-assed government reliance on labor export that has propped up the Philippine economy, rather than any substantial economic growth policy;
  • Shamelessly exploiting some private citizens’ personal tragedy as a campaign event; and
  • Using a case in which the instruments of government functioned properly and exactly as they were designed to do as an example of “what’s wrong with the system.”

This guy matches the Senator archetype so well someone should check to make sure he isn’t actually an AI program. For the kind of government the Philippines seems to prefer, it would actually be better if he is – that way, they could launch 11 more copies of him, and fill out the entire reelection slate at one go.



Pop Cinema

The Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody may be a sanitized, Cliff’s Notes version of the history of one of rock-and-roll’s giants, but it largely deserves the massive positive reception it has gotten.

THERE are two ways one could look at the sentimental screen biography of Queen and the band’s flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury: One can either nitpick it to death for its historical inaccuracies and relative lack of depth; or one can accept it for it was obviously intended to be, the warm and somewhat self-congratulatory memories of the surviving band members brought to life for the purpose of introducing one of music’s most remarkable and successful acts to the two generations born since Queen was a current thing.

Given that the movie, which was only released at the end of last month after eight years of on-again, off-again production has as of this writing grossed about six times its production cost and is now the best-selling musical biopic of all time, whatever flaws it may have are evidently not holding it back, and should probably be overlooked.

Bohemian Rhapsody, which takes its title from Queen’s epic 1975 hit single, follows the life of Freddie Mercury (played in outstanding fashion by Rami Malek) from his joining original band members guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) in 1970 (bassist John Deacon, played by Joseph Mazzello, joins the band at the same time as Mercury) to the band’s immortal performance at the 1985 Live Aid event in London’s Wembley Stadium.

Mercury is portrayed as an astonishing, driven talent, but a troubled man struggling with his own identity and loneliness. His story in the film follows a sort of redemption arc, but one that isn’t necessarily judgmental; Mercury comes across as a dreamer who is led astray by his own weaknesses – his well-known homosexuality chief among them, although it is dealt with in strictly PG-13 fashion – and people taking advantage of him, learns a bit of humility, and triumphs in the end with a performance of a lifetime, which earns him the acclaim for who he really is that he has been seeking all along.

That’s not really how the story went in real life, of course, but condensing 15 years of the life of complex personality and the career of an extremely talented, innovative band into a two-hour movie is a difficult job, and Bohemian Rhapsody does it fairly well for the audience it seems to be aimed at. For the benefit of those for whom this movie is likely their first introduction to the phenomenon that was Queen and its memorable lead singer, the film does a faithful enough job of basically explaining who they were. For those of us who grew up with Queen on vinyl, Rolling Stone and Spin magazine under the bed or shoved in our school lockers, and MTV when it still played music, the film may seem like it is following a script made up entirely of bullet points; all the elements of what made Queen what they were are there, but presented in a rather shallow and not entirely true-to-life way, leaving us to fill in the details from our own memories.

But Bohemian Rhapsody is good enough that doing just that is rather enjoyable; I came away from it feeling nostalgic (I graduated high school in the spring of 1985, just a couple months before Live Aid), and happy to have seen it. My only real complaint is that very few whole songs found their way into the film; I’ve always been a fan of Queen’s music, and so many clipped versions of their hits left me feeling a little cheated. But that is a relatively small matter, and not something that should keep anyone from watching and enjoying the movie.

From Shit to Shinola

Energy Solutions’ hazardous waste disposal facility in Clive, Utah, one of the most desolate places on the planet. Photo from the company’s website.

Most communities would not welcome a reputation as a garbage dump. But Tooele County, Utah is not most communities.

MY column in The Manila Times on Tuesday (“The world’s trash could be PH’s cash”) highlighted a problem that occurs far too often in the Philippines, the dumping of large volumes of trash from other countries at the nation’s ports. Thanks to an incorrigibly corrupt and hopelessly incompetent Bureau of Customs, shippers of unwanted waste have found the Philippines to be an ideal destination for it. Even if it is discovered and intercepted by local authorities, which only happens occasionally, the Philippine government has proven to be completely powerless to compel the offenders to take back their garbage.

Aside from implementing the obvious solutions of dismantling the Bureau of Customs and replacing it with an agency that actually works, and developing some diplomatic balls to tell countries like Canada and South Korea to take their trash elsewhere, the Philippines might consider approaching the problem as an opportunity. Except for scrap metals, the bottom has largely fallen out of the recyclable materials commodities market, particular for plastic; with a huge supply of virtually cost-free raw materials to work with, a lot of which is produced by its own environmentally unfriendly population, developing recycling technology could go a long way to meeting the Philippines’ oft-expressed but never realized aspirations of building up an industrial base.

The Waste Land

TRAVELING west from Salt Lake City along Interstate 80, one skirts past the airport and the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, past the sad remnant of the once-famous Saltair Resort, and around the northern nose of the Salt Lake Valley’s western wall, the Oquirrh Mountains, festooned with the industrial complex of the Kennecott Copper Corporation. Beyond the low pass, the land flattens out into scrub desert, 100 miles of nothing all the way to the Nevada line, where one can find the glorified truck stop that is the casino oasis of Wendover. Before reaching Wendover, one crosses the Bonneville Salt Flats, on a stretch of highway that causes a great many accidents due to speed and spatial disorientation: 37 miles of absolutely straight, level road – one of the longest distances between exits in the whole US interstate highway system – across a featureless plain of white salt.

The highway follows the route the Donner Party took to California, and everyone knows how well that turned out.

This land is Tooele County (it’s pronounced too-will-ah), 7,300 square miles of high desert that for most people is little more than a place to pass on the way to somewhere else. It does have some interesting features; the Salt Flats are a unique landscape, as is the shore of the Great Salt Lake. The small mountain range in the center of the county surrounding Deseret Peak is set aside as national forest, and is an oasis in the otherwise forbidding terrain. Most of the county, however, is as close to natural waste land as is possible; it is the bed of the ancient inland sea known as Lake Bonneville, a thin, mostly waterless mantle of poor soil over several thousand feet of sedimentary clay. Including a couple thousand Goshute Indians – the once-nomadic native inhabitants of this land – about 68,000 people live in the county; most in the valley on the western side of the Oquirrhs, most of the remainder in Wendover hugging the Nevada state line (the airport there was formerly an air base, and was the training site for the crews that carried out the atomic bombing of Japan), and very few in between.

The sterile nature of the land doesn’t offer many economic opportunities. There is a little irrigated farming in the areas around the population center in the eastern part of the county and the Goshutes manage to grow a little on their reservation in the otherwise aptly-named Skull Valley, but these efforts are strictly limited by the amount of available water. Mineral wealth, although there is some, is sparse and difficult to mine, unlike in the lands to the east, west, and south of Tooele County.

Since the territory is so barren, the county’s first customer, so to speak, was the US government. Apart from the former Wendover Air Base where the atomic bomber crews could be trained in secrecy and relative safety, other major military installations include the Dugway Proving Grounds, once the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the US, and the Hill Air Force Range, a wide corridor lying just north of Interstate 80 that serves as the practice area for the F-16 fighter wing stationed at Hill AFB north of Salt Lake City.

Even though many of the people who call Tooele County home would like to be able to do something more productive, about 30 years ago the county decided to embrace its geographical reality and encourage the development of waste disposal industries. By all accounts, despite the obvious risks, the effort has been an astonishing success; between 2000 and 2008, Tooele County had the fastest job growth of any county in the US. The county is now home to no fewer than eight major waste disposal facilities, including one that handles low-level radioactive waste (much of the debris from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, for instance, now lies in Tooele County), a hazardous waste incinerator, and between 1999 and 2012, an incinerator built to dispose of more than 13,000 tons of nerve gas and blister agents under a treaty banning chemical weapons. The county’s newest arrival is the medical waste disposal company Stericycle, which will be opening a new facility soon after having been pushed out of its former location closer to populated areas near Salt Lake City.

Tooele County’s unusual economic model has not been built without some controversy. Environmental groups aggressively oppose any plans to expand the hazardous industries, and have won some small victories in terms of imposing tough regulations on those that are allowed to operate. And many in the county joined the State of Utah in drawing the line at high-level nuclear waste, successfully opposing a joint venture between the Goshute tribal administration and a private company to open a transfer facility – where waste would be held temporarily before being shipped to the still unbuilt Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada – on tribal land. For the most part, however, the people of Tooele County have given the waste disposal industry the benefit of the doubt, and in the process, have built a standard of living that doesn’t lag too far behind the tech-driven lifestyle of their urbane fellow citizens on the other side of the Oquirrhs.

A potential lifeline for a country drowning in garbage

There are not likely to be many places on the planet where Tooele County’s model – which is only possible due to is dubiously appropriate environment – can be duplicated exactly, and the Philippines with its rich natural ecosystem is certainly not one of them. But for a country whose own waste management behavior and infrastructure is woefully inadequate to deal with its own garbage, let alone that which is attracted here by the government’s sieve-like security against smuggling, the basic thinking behind Tooele County’s unusual growth has some value. If the garbage is going to end up here anyway, finding ways to monetize it makes the best of a bad situation.

The recycling industry, particularly for plastics, is one area worth exploring, as I touched on in Tuesday’s column. Recycling technologies that overcome the limitations of mechanical recycling have been developed that can turn plastic back into its basic chemical components, in the process creating several different types of fuels and lubricants as well as basic compounds from which new plastic materials can be made. For non-recyclable waste, incinerator technology that reduces it to a very small volume of inert material – while creating energy that can be used for electricity generation – is also advancing quickly. Even landfill technology, arguably the simplest means of handling large volumes of waste despite being the least preferable, could make major advances if the technical expertise gained by working in the sandbox of Tooele County is combined with the Philippines’ native knowledge of sensitive environmental systems.

All it takes is a little imagination and a suspension of rigid NIMBY thinking, which so far has done nothing at all to ameliorate the Philippines’ waste management dilemma. Trash is, unfortunately, likely an infinitely renewable resource, and one that every country of higher than a Neolithic level of development has more of than it knows what to do with. Doing something, anything progressive at all, will be an enormous step in the right direction.


The New Media War

THE past year or so has been an extraordinary time for the media, and not in a good way. The enmity directed at the press by governments and the public is unprecedented in its global scale and volume; with startling speed the historic concept of the “Fourth Estate” seems to have evaporated, leaving the traditional media with a serious existential crisis both as an industry and as a necessary component of society.

To whatever extent it deserves to be having its crisis, the increasingly harsh rhetoric and open attacks – some of them legal, most of them not – directed at the media is alarming. In January of this year, two Reuters correspondents were sentenced to seven years in prison under a colonial-era state secrets law after investigating reports of killings of Rohingya villagers by security forces. In just the past several weeks, disturbing events have happened at an accelerating pace. Early last month, prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a Washington Post columnist and US resident who was noted for his criticism of the Saudi government – was killed, dismembered, and his body dissolved in acid inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, apparently on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. About a week later, Jake Clapper, a former senior intelligence official and CNN commentator critical of Donald Trump, was targeted by one of more than a dozen letter bombs sent to prominent Trump critics and Democratic Party figures last month by a rabid Trump supporter. At the end of October, voters in Brazil swept ultra-right wing Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency; Bolsonaro has been vocal in his threats against Brazil’s “fake-news media,” stoking fears among journalists and news outlets.

On Wednesday, the day after the chaotic US midterm elections, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta had his press credentials revoked and was barred from White House grounds after a testy exchange with Trump during a news conference. Trump, who has regularly attacked the media critical of him and his administration as “enemies of the people,” has since threatened more reporters if they don’t “treat the presidency with some respect.” Also on Wednesday, right-wing Fox News commentator and ardent Trump supporter Tucker Carlson’s home in Washington, DC was attacked by a group of about 20 “antifa” (“anti-fascist”) protestors.

A little closer to home, Singapore authorities on Friday threatened draconian legal action against the “alternative media” site States Times Review if it did not retract an article linking Singapore Prime Minister to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal. In a post to Facebook Friday evening, the news site said it would not remove the offending article, and invited the Singapore government to file the appropriate charges; Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) later blocked access to the website.

Here in the Philippines, the Department of Justice on Friday recommended the filing of tax evasion charges against the online news site Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa. Rappler, one of the most vocal critics of President Rodrigo Duterte, had its corporate registration revoked earlier this year by the Securities and Exchange Commission over violations of prohibitions against foreign media ownership.

Gray areas

All of these cases and the many, many other less-publicized incidents of journalists and news organizations around the world being harassed or threatened by various means bring howls of indignation at the violation of “press freedom,” but that is no longer regarded with the sanctity it once was. The public support for the protection of the fourth estate ideal that media and its advocates evidently are hoping for has failed to materialize, and as a consequence, “anti-media” actions continue to be carried out with relative impunity.

Part of the indifference toward “attacks on the media” can be attributed to the widespread perception that the media itself is not entirely blameless for the persecution it suffers. In most of the examples described above, there are potentially extenuating circumstances that complicate the issues.

In some cases, there seems to be a lack of realistic situational awareness. The two jailed Reuters journalists in Myanmar, for instance, probably ought to have been aware of the potential legal weapons that could be used against them, given how explosive the issue of the Rohingya minority is in that country. Not only does the Myanmar government adhere to a practically formal policy of eradicating the Rohingya, it is overwhelmingly supported in it by Myanmar’s other ethnic groups that make up the majority of the population. The Reuters newsmen may have realized all this and believed that the story they were pursuing was important enough to run the risk. If that’s the case, they deserve some respect for their commitment and bravery, but the end result makes them martyrs, not necessarily journalists who were treated unfairly – at least not according to the standards of the political and social environment in which they were working.

Much the same can be said of Jamal Khashoggi as well. Saudi Arabia is an absolutely monarchy, whose leadership can do pretty much whatever the hell they want to do – include brutally quash dissent – within their own realm (which, by diplomatic custom, extends to the properties on which their overseas embassies and consulates sit). He may have realized his antagonism towards the Saudi rulers was putting his life in danger, and persisted out of conviction that he was doing the right thing. On the other hand, there are indications that he, just like the Reuters correspondents silenced by being imprisoned in Myanmar, was counting on the nebulous, but outdated presumption of media sanctity. After all, his visit to the Istanbul consulate where he met his gruesome end was made for a reason a man who does not expect to be a martyr might have – to secure an official certification of his civil status as a divorcé, so he could marry his girlfriend.

And in some cases, the tribulations of media are legitimate subjects for schadenfreude, because they are examples of arrogance getting its comeuppance. Tucker Carlson uses his position as a “journalist” to recklessly spread a provocative ideology of hate and discrimination; the man can’t repeatedly kick the hornet’s nest, and then cry foul when his fig leaf of respectability as a part of the media doesn’t protect him when the hornets finally emerge. Maria Ressa and Rappler have much the same problem: They attracted a backlash from the biggest target of their criticism by dispensing with any notion of journalistic objectivity, and in some cases, basic facts, but are finding it difficult to argue that “press freedom” exempts them from adhering to basic business regulations.

Divinity lost

What really undermines the credibility and authority of “the media” is that it is not necessarily a specialization any more. Thanks to the evolution of the digital world and the variety of platforms it offers, anyone can become “the media”; as a matter of fact, virtually everyone who is “connected” in some manner is already “the media,” even if they’re not aware of it.  “The media” as a discrete, privileged entity doesn’t exist anymore; its remnants are simply toward the right end of a continuum that stretches across all of society, and varies only in terms of motives, capabilities, and resources.

Another factor that breaks down the myth of the media as some kind of special social case is the inescapable fact that all media – the entire spectrum, from the barely-literate teenager posting duckface selfies on Instagram to global news organizations – is a for-profit business. Whether earned value is measured in the mundane social cache of attention or in dollars and cents, every purveyor of information has a market, and tailors the product to that market’s demand. That means that bias is an inseparable part of the media product; there is such a thing as “journalistic integrity” – doing thorough research, presenting verifiable facts, and drawing rational conclusions – but the concept of “impartiality” or “objectivity” is a lie, and always has been. It’s only been in the very recent past that the wider public has begun to catch on to this, and many organizations who still consider themselves “the media” have yet to accept it, even though it’s obvious to any news consumer; pick up any two newspapers, or watch any two TV newscasts, and you will inevitably see the same set of facts presented in two different ways.

All of this simply means that potentially everyone is a producer in the same big marketplace for information and ideas; the only real differentiation between any two entities is market share, and that’s a variable. The newspaper which provides content that I supply to it as part of its product to that marketplace has no more immutable claim to authority than I do writing on my own for this blog. The duckface teenager theoretically has the same opportunity to establish credibility as Fox News does; she may not have the same resources or skills, but fundamentally she is a player on the same stage – neither has any more or less natural right to be there than the other.

Don’t bring talking points to a gun fight

The “war on media” is not really a war as much as it is a global-scale, anarchic riot. There are those who are trying to peddle certain knowledge products in the marketplace, and there are those who are trying to stop them. No, it is not in any sense morally right that a producer of information and ideas is stopped from plying his trade by being chopped up and dissolved in a bathtub. The morally right thing to do for someone who is dissatisfied with that particular seller’s wares is to patronize or produce superior ones, not kill his competition. Or bar him from the White House press room, or threaten his home and family, or use an obscure law to throw him in jail, or mail him a pipe bomb, or threaten to ruin his business. But these things happen, and simply arguing from a moral position that they should not obviously doesn’t stop them from happening.

It’s like trying to defend oneself from gunfire with curt language. Bullets have no respect for your sensibilities, and the one holding the gun probably doesn’t, either. The only things that will protect you when someone is shooting at you are to either shoot back, or hide behind something that can stop a bullet.

The media – however it is defined, and whoever identifies as a part of it – will continue to lose battles to the Trumps, Bolsonaros, and bin Salmans of the world unless it can change its perspective: Dispense with the victimhood, and think in terms of aggressive market dominance. Rather than complaining that someone is using foul means to prevent a certain message from reaching the marketplace, concentrate on product improvement – making that message so compelling, so irresistible that demand for it is overwhelming and nothing can stop it.