Duterte not lone media-hater
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2018 - 12:00am

President Duterte is not the only president who hates media – not the government media, but privately owned media, of course. For a review, let’s look at some instances where he showed his utter dislike of media persons. In fairness, he said he respects the journalists who do not accept money. But he stops there. He places in contempt the publicists or journalists who are mouthpieces of vested interests, and those who accept money from illegal sources to keep their mouths shut. He lumps most Filipino journalists into the “lowlife” category. Vera Files, the online fact-checking news website, has compiled a timeline of the government’s attacks against its press critics.

The chronological list, writes Rachel A. G. Reyes of the Manila Times, consists of “verbal threats and intimidation, and breezy false accusations.”

Duterte then said, how to eradicate this courage? “Kill journalism. Stop journalism in the country.” On May 31, 2016, a few days after he sat in office, Duterte told journalists that they could not invoke the right to freedom of expression and find protection from the Constitution should they malign a person’s reputation, writes Reyes. (Journalists hold close to their hearts libel laws to protect their right to freedom of expression as they expose violators of the law.) In the ensuing months, news agencies critical of the president’s policies were under attack. Duterte also threatened TV network ABS-CBN of closure. Then a reporter, Pia Ranada, was banned from covering events in Malacanang. (If that is not press freedom encroachment, what is?). The list of journalists experiencing harassment continues.

As everyone knows, it is not the president who lambasts “erring” media persons. His alter egos do it, without their boss’ bidding. The presidential office for communication, spokespersons and bloggers are quick to come to the defense of their boss, who cannot do anything wrong.

The 2018 Jaime V. Ongpin Journalism seminar held last week concluded that “The perception at the end of the discussion (among communications and journalism students from various universities in Metro Manila) was that, as Tita Valderama reports, “journalism in the time of Duterte has become far more challenging with an environment that has limited access to information while government sponsored bloggers spread propaganda with inducement.”

President Duterte is not alone in hating media. United States President Donald Trump is notoriously abhorrent of the critical publicity he has been getting. The Associated Press reports from Washington that Thomas Jefferson railed against newspapers as “polluted vehicles” of falsehood and error. Richard Nixon tangled with reporters in the toxic atmosphere of Watergate, considering them the “enemy.” Bill Clinton publicly condemned “purveyors of hatred and division” on the public air waves.

Comments the Associated Press: “Historians can point to plenty of past presidents who have sparred with the press. But they’re hard-pressed to find anything that approaches the all-out attack on the media that President Donald Trump seems intent on escalating at every turn.”

“There has never been a kind of holistic jihad against the news media like Trump is executing,” AP reports Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley as saying. “Trump is determined to beat and bloody the press whenever he finds himself in a hole, and that’s unique.”

During a very recent press conference Trump circled to the press and complained about “fake news” purveyed by “dishonest” reporters. He called out individual news organizations, reporters and stories, labelling them “disgraceful,” “discredited” and “a joke.” He lamented “the bias and the hatred” directed at him. “It’s all fake news, it’s fake news,” he said of reports that members of his team were in regular contact with Russian officials. Trump said he was determined to “take my message straight to the people because the press honestly is out of control.”

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer according to the AP, said all presidents have had their moments of tension with the press, but “the scale and scope of this is unlike anything that we’ve seen in the past.”

Those old enough remember the Watergate scandal that saw US President Richard Nixon’s bitterness toward the press, which bitterness led him to leave the White House in disgrace 40 years ago.

The Daily Beast  reported that Nixon, two months after his landslide 49-state re-election, told his White House staff: “The Press is the Enemy. The Press is the Enemy. The Press is the Enemy.”

Nixon’s senior staff followed their boss’ lead, adding 56 journalists and media executives to their infamous “enemies list.” Daily Beast recounts attempts to intimidate through investigations and arrests; there were break-ins staged at private homes and offices. And in the case of investigative columnist Jack Anderson, Nixon’s operatives explored ways to murder the journalist via poison in his medicine cabinet or smearing LSD on the steering wheel of his car. 

John Avlon of the Daily Beast writes that both Nixon and his Democratic predecessor Lyndon Johnson were infuriated by what they felt was unfair media coverage.”

The public assumed that journalists would almost uncritically support the president in times of war. But the new technology of television brought the reality of the Vietnam war into America’s living rooms. When CBS correspondent Morley Safer captured images of American marines lighting fire to thatched roof huts in a village believed to be harboring Viet Cong soldiers, Lyndon Johnson called Frank Stanton, president of CBS News. “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” Lyndon shouted. “Yesterday, your boys shat on the American flag.”

John Avlon wrote that Nixon was “an accomplished geopolitical strategist with deep understanding of both politics and policy, but his hatred of the press would consume him and his presidency… Nixon weaponized his resentments with Machiavellian tactics. While directing attacks at the press behind closed doors, he played the victim in public, rallying his conservative populist supporters against the media ‘elites’ who dared to question his actions or motives. He wanted to destroy the credibility of the critical press.”

The Nixon administration’s reluctance to come down hard on troops who killed Vietnamese civilians so infuriated a former Marine and Pentagon staffer name Daniel Ellsberg that he decided to Xerox 7,000 pages of an internal Defense Department history of the Vietnam War. When the New York Times published the first installment of what would become known as “The Pentagon Papers,” it showed that multiple presidents had lied to the American people about the prospects of success in Vietnam. Nixon sued the paper, but in their 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court declared that the government had failed to meet the “heavy burden” to justify blocking the publication.

Nixon ordered presidential aides to destroy Ellsberg’s reputation, ironically, in the press. “I want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear?” Nixon told his staff.  A year later, a team of burglars deployed to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex.

Two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, took up the investigation. The Washington Post was attacked from the White House as being biased and accused the investigation of being a “witch hunt.”  After 18 months, Nixon, as he prepared to face impeachment proceedings for obstruction of justice, Nixon resigned.

Email: dominitorrevillas@gmail.com.

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