THE constitutions of many countries confer vast powers to their leaders. Yet, these powers are not absolute.
Their common experiences with authoritarianism demand the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. Still, there are times when the limitations of power fail because, while their strengths are considerable, they can be overturned by the relentless machinations of cunning men. The past is filled with leaders enriching their armies, cowing their legislatures, paralyzing the courts and inciting the necessary passions from their supporters with the goal of taking complete control of their governments.
But there is an institution that has never succumbed that easily and, in fact, has always been instrumental in ending unfettered authority. This institution, at first glance, looks fragile for it only stands on paper and relies on the air to exercise its power. Yet, in many ways, it is more powerful than the mightiest of rulers and, for better or for worse, has remained true. This institution is the press.
The power of the press comes from its ability to influence, shape or sway public opinion. Through its different mediums—newspapers, television, radio, Internet and now, social media—it fulfills its basic mandate, that of delivering news. But that simple act invariably comes with the discretion to choose the events, places, personalities and issues that truly matter. This is a simplistic description but nevertheless true:
How the press determines the world can become the reality because people may form their judgments from such a determination, as many actually do so. Thus, the power of the press comes with the unique potential to build and destroy.
These powers were expanded by a new trend that developed in the West during the postwar era—that of advocacy journalism. Compelled by the events of almost biblical proportions in the preceding decade, journalists felt that writing the news as it is does not anymore represent the true calling of their profession.
They determined that delivering the news must also result with the education of the public about the relevance of the issues and how these issues can affect their lives. Of course, this entailed them to put their personal views in their reporting.
Admittedly, the decision to inject personal opinion in a supposedly objective profession brought dangers since the public always has the natural inclination to believe that everything the press tells them is impartial and true. But most of the great journalists of the age, from James Reston to Mary McGrory, to Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw, were responsible men and women, fully aware of the vastly consequential nature of their work, and how their words affect people, and were always careful to distinguish the lines of fact, conjecture and opinion in their writings and broadcasts.
It also helped that the causes they advocated were also right and just, representing the collective yearning of the times—the environment, minority rights and equality of the sexes, among many. Ultimately, all these gave the press a new level of respectability, and yes, credibility.
The might of the press reached a magnificent zenith in the 1970s when the reportage of two The Washington Post writers, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, uncovered the Watergate scandal and ended the Nixon administration’s abuse of power. Achievements like this emboldened journalists all over the world and we can say that both the foreign and Philippine press had a consequential role in the events that led to the first Edsa Revolution.
Thus, even as the press became a powerful leviathan, people were not threatened by it.
For time and time again, they have seen the fundamental fairness and accuracy of media institutions in delivering the news and in sharing their opinions. In fact, this reality has enhanced the power of the press; it is powerful because it is trusted; it is trusted because it has largely satisfied the demands of honest reporting and intelligent discussion of issues. With these, the press became the fourth estate, the virtual emperor of the air.
Yet, when an institution like that of the press achieves awesome powers, it is inevitable that other power centers will take note of it and try to engage it. Leaders, especially those wanting to have absolute power, try to deal with the press, either in directly threatening it with censorships and closures or in coopting it through bribing its members. In doing so, they know that to control the press is to control public opinion, and to control public opinion is to have the keys to an easy legitimization and perpetuation of their authority.
In some ways, they have succeeded, but only temporarily and partially. Dictators were able to close media institutions, but only during their time in power, which is not forever. Leaders are able to put journalists in their pockets but enough remain uncorrupted to expose their shenanigans. The press became what has since been its current form: The entity that can be temporarily defeated, but cannot be completely conquered.
Then, we see the wave of the current times. There are leaders from all over who think that if they cannot cow the press into silence and it absolutely refuses their methods of ingratiation, there is still a way to defeat its power: Undermining its credibility. When the news about them is negative, no matter how true, they howl about the press being purveyors of fake information and of being a corrupt institution.
They attack, they question and they impugn just because the way reality is presented by the press does not exactly jibe with what they want. Hence, the timeless tactic of “when you dislike the message, you shoot the messenger.”
What should be understood by these leaders is this: Waging a war with the press is a lost cause from the start. Not because it is infallible or invincible; it is not. The press shall always win because it has more than fundamental accuracy and fairness. I say this from the perch of being an ordinary consumer of news with an impartial mind. It is true that the press is occasionally guilty of trampling with the facts, but that is not intentional. In the rare times that reporters have tried to spew falsehoods and groundlessly destroyed reputations, laws have dealt with them, rather swiftly and harshly.
So, it must be accepted that as long as the press will continue to tell the truth, while it advocates worthy causes, it is here to stay, and it will always have the support of the vast majority of the public, ensuring it a secure place in the societal power struggle. It will continue to watch over leaders and powerful entities not just because it is its job, but more important, it is its obligation to democracy. A democratic society, which is the commonest face of the world today, needs a mechanism of accountability and the press is one of the most dependable in that regard.
Indeed, the press must fulfill that responsibility because the people must simply know, because as Thomas Jefferson once said so long ago, “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.”
F. Victor G. Manangan, 29, is a freelance writer who is currently reviewing for the 2017 Bar Examinations. The views expressed by Manangan do not necessarily reflect those of the BusinessMirror’s.