January-June 2004
Special Election Issue
The Campaign

Spinning the news

Political PR is redefining the way elections and other major events are covered.

Fidel Ramos, shown here campaigning for the presidency in 1992, institutionalized political PR when he took over Malacañang.

IT WAS a slow Saturday, and so a middle-level editor thought nothing of working on a press release handed over by a senior editor and turning it into a readable news item. It appeared in the paper the next day, and that should have been that. But then the three government officials who were quoted in the piece complained to the newspaper’s editors, saying the writer of the press release had not interviewed them at all. They also said that they had not authorized the issuance of such a press release under their names. An internal investigation conducted by the paper’s management later revealed that a shadowy political PR person had been the source of the fictitious story. Apparently, the aim was to cast the winning bidder of a government contract in a bad light.

The paper never bothered to issue a retraction. The senior editor, who was reportedly paid a six-figure sum to see that the “press release” would be published, is still working there. And those who read the piece remain clueless that they had been fed fiction masquerading as fact.

In a world that keeps getting more complicated by the second, the media play an important role in helping the public sift through issues, pointing out which one needs more attention than the others and providing facts that could help people make informed decisions. And as the country prepares to hold one of its most competitive elections in history, the media have become all the more crucial for the public to be able to scrutinize candidates and understand issues. But what should have been the age of information has instead morphed into a golden season of propaganda, enhanced truths, and hyped realities, as mainstream news is manipulated by the masters of the political spin.

It used to be that the spins were confined mostly to the showbiz pages. Or at least that’s what most people assumed. But political PR has been alive as long as there have been politicians, and while it wasn’t as successful as it apparently is now, it did help some politicians enhance their public images and get elected, sometimes again and again.

In the past, too, political PR was generally aboveground; most of the time it was clear when the news stopped and the papogi began. But today’s political spinmeisters seem to prefer to work unseen by the public, even as a few of them arrogantly flaunt their influence-if not outright power-over select but well-placed journalists. And as their insidious influence on newsrooms grow, so does the amount of disinformation that is inflicted on a still largely unsuspecting public. There is, however, really no telling how much of the news is being spun, with journalists themselves sometimes not even realizing that they are already part of a web of deceit.

POLITICAL public relations persons come in varying labels depending on the imagined or real power they want to project, the largesse they dole out, or the favors they dispense. Spokespersons, media strategists, media relations officers, public information officers, and public affairs specialists are only some of the names they like to call themselves. Most journalists refer to them simply as “operators.” Whatever label they prefer, though, all of them share the same objectives: first, spin news stories that will put clients or principals in a good light; second, play down stories that will harm clients; and third, neutralize rivals through whatever tactic that works.

While there are political PR practitioners who perform their jobs professionally and scrupulously, they have been overshadowed by those for whom ethics can even be less than secondary. These PR practitioners will exhaust all means to attain their three main objectives, with some of them not hesitating to unleash extraordinary weapons in their arsenal whenever they see fit. They go to great lengths to know their “enemy” -members of the media. Better yet, they strive to make the enemy their “friend.” In the past, establishing friendly ties was enough; these days, media and PR practitioners alike admit that money often changes hands.

A PR practitioner makes it his or her business to learn the likes and dislikes of a target editor or reporter, including food and drink preferences, birthday, hobbies, music and book favorites, maybe even the kind of friends the journalist has. But the most important question the PR person would want to know the answer to these days is this: Would the journalist be amenable to receiving cash or are gifts preferred? For one broadcast journalist, the more astute among the listeners to her radio show probably know the answer to that one now. During one program, she reminded a known operator that she was waiting for her “baon” as she was leaving for a short trip abroad, apparently unmindful that some of her listeners could have understood that she was asking for cash.

For those more squeamish over being handed bundles of cash, PR people are flexible enough to provide expensive meals or perhaps a fancy knick-knack. They can even send the journalist on an all-expenses-paid overseas vacation, away from the prying eyes of his or her media colleagues. Sometimes, it takes as little as a regular, generous round of drinks “for the boys” at a favorite journalists’ hangout.

In exchange, a PR person expects favorable coverage of his clients or principals. Sometimes, an operator is satisfied with a simple alert from a “friend” in the newsroom about a particular item that might affect a client. The operator would then issue a quick rebuttal, and by the time the news item sees print, the client’s side is already included.

In many cases, the operator ensures that favorable coverage himself, and no one is often the wiser, except for his few select friends in the newsroom.

One PR practitioner describes the process, which those in the business refer to as “layering.” The handlers first divide the labor, and assignments are done. The “good man” is the “formal” PR person who deals with the media openly. His functions include issuing press releases or speaking on behalf of the principal. There is also a “bad man” or a “bag man” who distributes the “envelopes” to reporters and editors. The “bad man” also makes the calls to the newsrooms to give specific instructions to the friendly editors on how to spin a particular story or to have it spiked altogether. A press release can even be released in toto, with a regular reporter’s byline just slapped on it right before it is published. The “bad man” obviously operates in the shadows and is not seen in the public operations of the “good man.”

One female reporter says she and many of her colleagues know which among their editors are on the payroll of operators. But she says, “We choose to keep quiet about it because our respective editors do not do anything to reprimand the editors on the take. It is normal among beat reporters to fear being punished by editors on the take through various means such as refusal to use our story. Punishment can (also) border on sexual harassment.”

Some reporters say they get reminded about their editors’ “special ties” with operators even outside of the newsroom. One journalist says that a PR practitioner she bumped into at a press conference made it a point to tell her “your editor is a very good friend.” Then the PR person called the editor on his cell phone just to say that the reporter was there.

Another journalist says that after he and other reporters got into a heated exchange with the media handler of a presidential candidate, he got a message from his editor: “Ease up. He is my kumpare (close friend).” The reporter says what further riled him was that his editor did not even bother to investigate the incident first.

TO BE sure, all these are hardly encouraging to journalists who just want to do their job well. After all, the vast majority still do journalism the old-fashioned way-interviewing sources, gathering documents, checking and rechecking data. But the rise of “packaged” political stories-and the apparent welcome these receive in some newsrooms-could soon see many of these reporters putting away their tape recorders and their notebooks.

After the crude manipulations of the Marcos era, political spin was honed to a fine art when a free press was restored in 1986.

“At the House of Representatives, numerous reporters have ceased to personally interview the lawmakers,” says one reporter who still refuses to let go of his pen and notepad. “Beat reporters just wait for the press releases of a creative operator who quotes at least five congressmen in a single press release. This new type of multiple sourcing in one press release relieves the reporters of the cumbersome process of interviewing, transcribing, and writing a story. All they have to do is just rewrite the press releases and their day’s work is done.”

As some reporters tell it, the situation is no better at the Senate. One political reporter who has been on the political beat for a quite a while says that several members of the Senate press corps now demand that the transcript of a press conference or an interview be available immediately, even if they had attended these. There are even those who do not go to the Senate anymore, he says, because the transcripts of events there and press releases are now being faxed straight to their residences by the senators’ media relations officers (MROs).

In such a setup the operator is in perfect control, dictating the nature of the coverage. And by affixing their names to what are probably mere fabrications, the reporters legitimize lies.

To a certain extent, the situation is eerily reminiscent of that which existed during martial law. Only then, the public knew they were being fed falsehoods.

Journalists who had criticized Ferdinand Marcos were put behind bars, while the luckier ones were simply thrown out of work. Almost all media institutions were then placed under government control. . Indeed, the then Philippine News Agency (PNA) and Channel 4 were transformed into official government propaganda machines. When Gregorio Cendaña was appointed information minister, the government’s dominion over the media was formalized and completed.

Cendaña had a pool of writers in Malacañang to churn out press releases for the Palace press corps. At the rubberstamp legislature that was the Batasang Pambansa, he had another batch writing the press releases of Marcos’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan for the journalists stationed there.

“From his office in Malacañang, Cendaña’s control of information flow during martial law…extended to the press office of the then Batasang Pambansa,” narrates a reporter who covered the legislature during that time. Cendaña’s “kitchen Cabinet” also made sure that reporters toed the official government line, he says.

Another journalist recalls that at the height of martial law, Cendaña’s staff regularly sent lechon to various news desks during weekends. That, he says, was one of the small ways the information minister had tried to smooth things out with the middle-level and senior editors as their reporters rewrote the numerous government press releases for publication.

AFTER the fall of Marcos in 1986, most of the media institutions that had been controlled by his government were sequestered by the new administration and eventually refashioned into its own publicity machine. But there was freedom of the press once more, and while there were problems that hindered coverage of the Aquino presidency and political news in general, the public trust in the media was back.

Journalists worked hard to regain and maintain that trust. When Congress reconvened in 1987, reporters ran after the legislators so they could write stories acceptable to their editors. The “ambush interview” was born as journalists jostled among themselves and pounced at the hapless public official who strayed near them. Somehow, the MROs who had ubiquitous during the Marcos era seemed to disappear from the press offices, and even the press releases slackened in number.

There were also enough officials to mine for juicy sound bites or snappy quotes, among them Jovito Salonga, Joker Arroyo, Rene Saguisag, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago. And even if the president herself had a languid way of speaking, her speeches were laden with elegant turns of phrase that reporters used with glee to spice up stories. Somehow, although the president was media-shy, there was little need for the invisible hands of spin doctors to define the parameters of political debates and national discourse.

When the media-savvy Fidel Ramos became the next occupant of Malacañang, however, the MROs and political PR practitioners came back with a vengeance. “From being mere legmen of the Cendaña era to ‘shepherding’ reporters during Cory’s time, the MROs during the time of Ramos became figures of importance,” says one reporter. “They were institutionalized.”

Ramos availed himself of the services of publicist Ed Malay, as well as Ramy Diez, whom he plucked from a big advertising and public-relations firm. But the former armed forces chief also brought to the Palace a psy-war expert. The appointment of Honesto Isleta as an undersecretary at the Office of the Press Secretary would be another mark that Ramos had a full understanding of the complex dynamics of dealing with the media and of importance of putting psy-war experts to man the premier government propaganda machine.

It was also at the start of Ramos administration that small, independent public relations groups began handling “political accounts,” says one editor. But no one can recall exactly when MROs and PR practitioners were transformed into “operators” -so called because, explains a journalist, “of their penetrating influence over middle-level and senior-level editors that make their work easier when dealing with reporters.” No one can also explain why political PR political went underground, although the furious exchange of money under the table may have had something to do with that.

For sure, though, corruption in the media antedates the Ramos and even Marcos era. In her groundbreaking 1998 book, News for Sale, journalist Chay Florentino-Hofileña cites previous studies as saying that corruption of Filipino journalists started “as early 1950s, with newspapermen being bought off with cash by politicians and businessmen alike.”

But she also says that “media corruption in the post-Marcos era is costlier, more pervasive, and even more systemic.” And with the fusion of new and old corrupt practices, she predicts that corruption “will continue well into the next century.”

One editor, meanwhile, thinks that while corruption may not have started with Marcos, he and his martial rule nevertheless made corruption a seeming part of ordinary life, a normal occurrence. “Our penchant for get-rich quickly schemes, the destruction of our work ethic, our seeming acceptance of graft and corruption are clear monuments of how Marcos and martial law had institutionalized corruption in the Philippine society,” she says. Since the media are part of society, it was inevitable that these, too, would succumb to corruption.

And how. According to some media insiders, press and photo releases printed on page one can cost from as low as P3,000 to a high as P25,000 while those relegated to the inside pages are priced from P3,000 to P5,000. The innovative operator at the House, meanwhile, is said to be commanding a fee already in the millions, although it is unclear if that sum is divided among the many players of the scheme.

Pera-pera lang ‘yan! (It’s all about money!)” says the editor, who has turned cynical. Because not so long ago, it was all about truth.