Media News Analysis The Volatilian™ View

The bloggers and the blabbers

Philippine bloggers have just made history. They’ll be the first of their breed anywhere in the world to cover national news with full media access to the country’s president. It’s mainstream media’s worst nightmare; their monopoly for harvesting and sowing the news has been successfully challenged. The rights which they squandered have now been extended to the blogosphere. And that’s good news.

This will also come as a severe blow to the political elites which the mainstream media have fawned over for so long; their views, opinions and spin will now be heavily watered down by social media writers who – in the Philippine context – will be able to redress more authoritatively the bias which ‘traditional journalism’ (a misnomer today) has flooded into its coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.

And that’s partly why Duterte granted them this access. In Malacañang’s Music Room last week he met with 13 of them (photo), among them three prominent bloggers. Certainly, these are all pro-Duterte groups but the access is being given universally. Duterte is a long-time advocate of freedom of information (FOI); back in July last year he signed an executive order mandating FOI in the executive branch of government – something which his predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino failed to do, despite his promises to bring in FOI legislation.

Of course, the elitist mainstream are taking this news badly. Their exclusive access has gone and this is a major culture shock. Online-only Rappler – a constant Duterte critic which seems to have turned itself into a Liberal Party mouthpiece – has now taken on the mantle of mainstream’s champion. And like Canute it really believes it can turn back the tide. To this end it has arrogantly appointed itself as the preserver of the Fourth Estate. If that wasn’t so sick it would be hilarious.

We really wonder whether anyone working at Rappler has any concept of what the Fourth Estate is? What principles of journalism govern it? Can most of them even spell ‘integrity’, much less define it in the context of journalism? Practicing self-censorship, as most in the mainstream media routinely do, is not a principle of the Fourth Estate; nor is promoting political bias. Their job is to inform not to indoctrinate. The overriding principle of this institution is its blinkered independence. How tragically few in the mainstream media can claim that – certainly Rappler can’t.

And so what this development also represents is a victory for the readers and followers of news. They now get an alternative view of events and their social and economic significance. From there they can decide. The beauty of this arrangement is that bloggers don’t hide their political identities. And certainly they don’t in the Philippines – in the context of Duterte they’re simply for or against him. There’s no pretense as there is in the mainstream media of being non-partisan; of being “independent”.

True traditional journalism – as opposed to the mockery of it that we have today – is a tough world. It requires discipline. It’s not a glee club. And so – you don’t like the current president you’re covering? Get over it; deal with the issues – and leave out the opinion. No one wants it outside the leader column. It’s not what people buy the paper for. Give the readers – while you still have some – facts; they’ll work it out from there. They’re not cretins; they don’t need to be told what to think by some 20-something ‘reporter’ from the cozy crèche on an editorial floor of some media glistening tower.

We saw a Rapplerette (a young female Rappler reporter) recently, giggling in embarrassment at a Malacañang press conference. She’s a member of the self-adulating elite of the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC); a select private club whose exclusive access to the president has now been partially sidelined. Apparently, she’d been admonished by the president for some repetitive enquiry over Duterte’s War on Drugs. It seems she only ever has one topic for discussion. Our question when we saw that was: is this really what’s bringing us the news; the information we require? Is this the level of political reporting today? No wonder the mainstream media is in such trouble; no wonder they lost the public trust.

We want to hear the president’s view – not the media’s – of the drugs war. But you have to ask the right questions. How does he gauge its success? What does he know now that he didn’t know when he launched it? What would he have done different? What’s it costing, in man hours, in cash terms? etc… etc… And then report it…. “report” it. The thing about this president is he’ll tell you straight; it’s easy. But media’s preoccupation with its own political agenda doesn’t allow that.

When, for example, did Rappler last take Vice President and Liberal Party Chairman, Leni Robredo, to task? Ask her what she means by working as an opposition within government? Ask about her failures during her brief tenure as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council? Or about what she was doing in the US over Christmas as people in her home province of Bicol were being evacuated from their homes as a typhoon raged? Who was she seeing in the States? Did she meet up with her mentor and Liberal Party funder, Loida Nicolas-Lewis – the woman who wants to make Leni president? We never got that coverage.

Rappler certainly has plenty to worry about, though. Here’s a snapshot of this week’s online engagements – these figures denote the number of people who’ve read the stories and then either commented, shared or ‘liked’ them. Rappler got 126,200 engagements against these of three leading bloggers: Mocha Uson, 1,900,000; Rey Joseph Nieto (Thinking Pinoy), 829,100 and Sass Rogando Sasot, 523,000.

Just to highlight what that means, Rappler’s engagements amount to a pitiful 4.527% of Mocha’s, RJ’s and Sass’s combined. And that’s just three bloggers. With ‘circulation’ figures like these, it doesn’t take a genius to work out how damaging the blogspots are to the mainstream press. Advertisers want to reach large audiences; they don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the politics being purveyed. They play the numbers game – and the bloggers have the numbers. Yes, shock, horror, that’s how it works; give the Rapplerette some smelling salts.

Of course, the mainstream believes it can quash all that by snitching and blabbing to the likes of Facebook; that certain pages which it hosts are indulging in “fake news” – as if, for a moment, anyone would accuse them of delivering straight news. Like spoilt brats they’re saying it’s their ball and they don’t want to play anymore – ‘tough competition, forget it, we never signed up for that; that’s not how it’s meant to work’.

But that’s precisely how it’s supposed to work. You put the competition out of business by taking their readership. It was ever thus in this business. And that’s what the bloggers have done. But running off to the skirts of Facebook to get protection is a waste of time anyway. That’s not going to win them readers; it’s going to lose them even more. And so it should. This is a free market; no room for protectionism. Those that don’t have the intellectual wit to win market share should leave it to those who do.

And anyway the bloggers aren’t restricted to where they set up shop on the Internet. Yesterday, for example, a number of them launched Repormista.com – a free-standing site for pro-Duterte blogs. This site we predict will become exceedingly popular in a very short space of time. And it shouldn’t have any problem attracting advertising. We wish it the best of luck.

For us, all this is like a breath of fresh air wisping into the oxygen-starved dull homogeny of today’s media. The Fourth Estate is dead; it committed suicide ages ago and Rappler can have its bones. Long Live the Fifth Estate. We also commend President Duterte for opening Palace access to the bloggers; he’s moving with the times, removing the pampered privilege of the MPC and, more importantly, giving the people – look at those numbers above again – the coverage they want.

The irony in all this is this. Mainstream media emigrated, in large part, to the Internet because they couldn’t pay their print bills. Their floundering circulation numbers and contracting advertising made online look like The Land of Milk and Honey. And it could have been but for one thing – they brought their baggage with them. The stuff that the readers had rejected in the brick-and-mortar world was back on display in cyberspace. And guess what? The readers don’t like it any better there. And so the seed for the blogosphere was actually fertilized by them. An unintended pregnancy. And now they want an abortion.

In the US, President Donald Trump – as unpopular with the mainstream media as Duterte – is doing something similar. Recently he added “Skype seats” to the briefing room, allowing journalists who live beyond 50 miles of Washington DC to have the same access to daily briefings as the White House Press Corps.  “I think this can benefit us all by giving a platform to voices that are not necessarily based here in the beltway,” explained Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. It’s unlikely the illustrious press corps sees it like that however.

Section 4, Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution states: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press …” What that does is make press freedom inviolable. But this is not solely for the benefit of the mainstream media, even though they seem to think it is. When it was originally drafted there was no Internet – that didn’t happen for another three years and even then there were no such things as blogs, they didn’t start appearing until the late 1990s.

And so the point is, Article III, Section 4 embraces blogs in spirit. They are a form of press/media – social media – and they represent expression. And as such they are entitled to exactly the same freedoms.

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