THE Philippines is an interesting anachronism in terms of media, in that print media – primarily daily broadsheets and tabloids – are still the biggest media segment in the country, despite having been supplanted by television (which is in turn losing ground to online news) everywhere else in the civilized world.
This potentially puts the press in a position to be a powerful influence in this country, particularly since most newspapers are individually owned, unlike the broadcast media, which is largely concentrated in two or three conglomerates. Unfortunately, the Philippine press, despite its pretensions, is not the fourth estate it ought to be, and is generally regarded as having surrendered any real influence it could wield to the social media.
Although social media advocates consider this a good development, it has been terrible for the country; as a result of the failure of the organized press, people here are less informed. The volume of political expression has grown, but its density has not; despite its pretensions, the alternative/social media has significantly less strength to serve as and check and balance on institutions than its bloated size would suggest. Ironically, media’s “democratization” has enabled greater authoritarianism.
Why has the press failed?
The ownership structure of the Philippine press explains part of the failure, at least for a significant number of the country’s print media outlets. The ownership of every newspaper has considerable commercial entanglements; owners either have a stake in a number of diversified businesses, or a number of business interests are represented on press company boards, or both. Political ties are even more of a factor. While many owners do try to be apolitical, past and present alliances unavoidably call their objectivity into question.
A few of the more obviously politically-connected owners include the Rufino-Prieto clan of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, who are closely associated with the Liberal Party; the Olivarez family of the Daily Tribune, who have been close supporters of Joseph Estrada’s Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino; the Sun Star, which is controlled by the politically entrenched Garcia clan of Cebu; The Manila Times, whose owner Dante Ang and top columnist Bobi Tiglao were both associated with the administration of former president Gloria Arroyo; and the Romualdez family behind The Manila Standard, who, while not as obvious about their connections as some of the others, have been variously connected with both the Nacionalista party and Lakas-CMD.
Having their wagons hitched to entire herds of sacred cows has made the shift in the media business model – which was originally triggered by the growth of broadcast media, and accelerated with the development of social media – more extreme for the Philippine press: The actual product – news, information, and commentary – is considered merely a vehicle for the primary revenue source, which is advertising. One glaring example of this is the common practice of giving away subscriptions, which should be a newspaper’s bread and butter, as incentives to advertisers.
The press, if it wants to earn profits – which it certainly does, being controlled as it is by people who have elevated rent-seeking to a sublime art – has no choice but to operate on this model, because first of all, the rapid expansion of social media means there are a lot of substitutes for the product. Second, that product is largely undifferentiated; there is a finite amount of news to peddle on any given day, particularly given the dearth of journalistic talent in the country (which is an entire topic in itself).
Of course, individual print outlets still have to find ways to differentiate their product in order to stand out, since audience size is still the metric to attract advertising, so they do so with the only variable resource available to them, which is commentary. Columnists are the only real source of creative talent in the Philippines’ media landscape, so having a roster of good ones does objectively make one’s product better, but commentary is by nature subjective. Any newspaper could strike a balance by presenting a variety of viewpoints, but because of all the sacred cows (see above), the local press tends not to employ opinion writers whose views diverge too far from whatever posture the paper’s ownership adopts.
The upshot of all this is that the press is broadly – and accurately – regarded as biased, and consequently has weakened credibility and sociopolitical influence. It is a situation that is not likely to change, unless owners emerge who are willing to keep the political and commercial spheres at arm’s length, and are not particularly concerned about earning a profit – characteristics that have not applied to any Filipino of more than modest means, ever.