The showbiz press gets into politics

We all know that the media are playing an important role in this election. What is seldom discussed is how candidates and parties are attempting to influence media coverage and the means that they employ in order to skew reporting in their favor.

In this two-part series, the PCIJ discusses something new in the 2004 elections: the unprecedented involvement of the entertainment media in the coverage of candidates and elections. The result, as the first part of this series reports, is a national race marked by the entry of entertainment PRs into what used to be the exclusive domain of political spin doctors as well as the increasing presence of politicians in the entertainment sections of newspapers and broadcast news. All these come with a price.

As reported in this series, many in the entertainment press consider accepting envelopes of cash and other freebies as the norm and do not deem it corruption. The series, however, does not taint all news organizations and points out that many journalists are immune to corruption. But it says that the “new” forms of corruption coexist with old forms, including subsidized coverage and allowances given to political reporters covering candidates.

The 2004 elections has marked the unprecedented involvement of the entertainment media in the coverage of candidates and elections.

The 2004 elections has marked the unprecedented involvement of the entertainment media in the coverage of candidates and elections.

THE MEDIA have always been a major player in Philippine elections, more so now with the pervasiveness of television. But there is a twist in this year’s elections: the increasing influence of the entertainment media and of showbiz celebrities in the campaign. And that, of course, comes with a price tag.

Well aware of the power of television and entertainment to sway votes, politicians who are losing out to celebrities have started to feature more entertainers and talk about showbiz issues in their campaigns. They have also been cultivating relations with the entertainment press. Indeed, as celebrities flood the political field, career politicians have found it necessary to engage the services of members of the showbiz media, which have made stars and icons of otherwise ordinary people.

The result is a national race marked by the entry of entertainment PRs into what used to be the exclusive domain of political spin doctors as well as the increasing presence of politicians in the entertainment sections of newspapers and broadcast news. In addition, entertainers are becoming important as endorsers of candidates even as the candidates themselves, in an effort to win the masa vote, have been seen playing cameo roles in TV sitcoms and telenovelas.

But all these cost money and often involve lucrative deals between media people and PR operators. These new methods of media corruption also come on top of traditional methods of influencing coverage, such as subsidized coverage and allowances and “wholesale and retail” payoffs for journalists reporting on candidates.

In general, many in the entertainment media have always seen any “gift” given to their members as part of a purely commercial transaction, for which the giver would then get in exchange a mention in an article or an entire story. Most do not see anything wrong with this practice, so that the notions of what is corrupt, who is corrupt, and who is corrupted become entirely blurred and confused.

What is certain, however, is that ever since the landslide victory of Joseph Ejercito Estrada as president in 1998, politicians have realized that the showbiz press has the ability to raise a politician’s stock, says Lolit Solis, a top showbiz manager who maintains a stable of stars and also co-hosts an entertainment show on TV.

Ano ba ang unang binabasa ng masa sa mga tabloid (What does the mass audience read first in a tabloid)?” she asks. “‘Di ba ang entertainment stories at columns? Dati ‘di pinapansin ang mga entertainment writers, pero nung nanalo si Erap, suddenly ang daming pulitikong nagpapatulong (Isn’t it the entertainment stories and columns? Whereas before entertainment writers were taken for granted, there was a sudden rush of politicians who sought their help when Erap won).”

Solis says the entertainment press is the best way for a politician to create mass awareness. She cites the case of Senator Manuel Villar, whom she helped win in the 2001 senatorial elections through the “Sipag at Tiyaga” TV ads that featured one of her wards, sexy star Rosanna Roces. From somewhere in the 15th to 20th place in pre-election surveys, Villar eventually rose to the No. 7 slot.

If the 2001 elections’ winner via celebrity endorsement was Villar, this year it is senatorial opposition candidate Maria Ana Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal, who has a celebrity campaigner in popular young star Judy Ann “Juday” Santos.

From No. 19 in February surveys, Madrigal is now at No. 8, a showing that many political analysts credit to Juday’s endorsement of Jamby’s “Kontra Pulitika” campaign.

Aside from appearing on Madrigal’s print and TV ads, Santos also joins her candidate in political rallies. Solis, who is not Santos’s manager, says that the package she offers politician-clients includes her stars’ appearances in rallies and motorcades as well as appearances by the politician in sitcoms or shows starring her wards. All for a handsome fee, of course.

Aside from Roces, Solis’s talents include Rudy Fernandez and his wife Lorna Tolentino, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and wife Lani Mercado, Christopher de Leon and wife Sandy Andolong, Tonton Guiterrez, Amy Austria, and director Chito Roño. Solis is also helping Revilla, who the surveys say is topping the senatorial race.

Beyond these celebrities, Solis counts four politicians — Villar and his wife Cynthia, Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, and Senator Teresa “Tessie” Aquino-Oreta — as among her clients.

A media handler says it is common practice for entertainment columnists who are also showbiz TV hosts or talent managers to be paid commissions from the political endorsements of their wards. The stars are paid easily in the millions and the commissions that are passed on to their managers-cum-columnists are regarded as nothing but a part of a business deal.

As PR for the entertainment press, Solis from time to time arranges press conferences for her political clients and ensures the attendance of 25 or so entertainment writers whom she has a direct line to. “Si Villar, at least four times a year. Si Senator Oreta, once in every three months,” she says.

The presscons are very informally structured. “Parang get-together although medyo formal ang mga tanong ng mga reporters compared sa mga tanong nila sa mga artista (They’re like get-togethers although reporters tend to ask more formal questions compared to the kinds of questions they ask celebrities),” says Solis.

The topics, however, are often related to the entertainment sector — the easier for the entertainment reporters to mention the politicians in their columns or articles. This has prompted Raul Roco supporter Yolanda Villanueva Ong, group chairperson of the advertising agency Campaigns and Grey, to see the limits of involving the showbiz press in an election campaign. She notes, “We can’t elevate the content of entertainment reports beyond discussing what a candidate can do for the movie industry.”

During such press conferences, too, freebies such as gift certificates, cakes, and envelopes of cash are commonly distributed.

One staff of a Solis political client confesses, “I suffered from culture shock the first time I attended a presscon for the entertainment writers. If the distribution of envelopes is rather discreet in the political beat, for the entertainment press it’s out in the open. As Nanay Lolit said, ‘Naku, in the entertainment press you don’t need to hide anything.'”

PR handlers say that entertainment writers for tabloids normally receive P500 while some of the biggies get double or quadruple the amount for attending press conferences. Some of the Class A scribes get as high as P5,000 in envelopes just for attendance.

Dondon Sermino, entertainment editor of Abante, admits that payolas or envelopes containing money are almost always expected during presscons and most members of the entertainment press see nothing wrong with it.

As Sermino explains it, celebrities are no different from films being publicized, and the envelopes are therefore part of promotion expenses. “Ang tingin namin, ‘yung envelope does not necessarily mean they are trying to bribe us.”

There is no conflict of interest involved, he argues. “How can there be when the ones we are covering are not the policymakers?”

Solis, according to her client’s staff, also helps monitor entertainment stories and “praise releases.” She does damage control, quickly finding out reasons for negative stories.

Solis herself does not see any conflict of interest between her role as manager and PR for stars and hosting an entertainment talk show. She is also not the only showbiz PR who has been tapped by politicians to boost their stock. In 2001, according to a senator’s media handler, another prominent showbiz publicist was paid in the hundreds of thousands to shepherd showbiz reporters to press conferences, making sure these were well attended.

In a way, the inroads made by showbiz managers, hosts, and columnists in the political arena have become a bane for political PRs. “These biggies have become our competitors,” says Peter Singh, former Senate media liaison officer and an ex-member of the media operations group of presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. “They have taken over the task of building up politicians on the entertainment side.”

Political PR people and analysts say that it is bad enough that the big number of celebrities participating in this year’s elections has meant that the content of election campaigns has remained stuck with personalities and intrigue.

Projected as bigger than life by the entertainment media, these idolized icons, says Singh, are shielded from “the microscopic scrutiny” that politicians are usually subjected to and are therefore able to represent themselves as far less tainted than ordinary politicos.

Still, the new showbiz approaches to political campaigns this year has not meant a total end to the more traditional strategies of influencing media coverage. While many journalists remain honest and above board in their reporting, others have not been immune to inducements offered by well-funded campaigns.

On the campaign trail, the expenses of many reporters are subsidized, meaning hotel, food, transportation, use of the Internet, and take-home gifts are all given for free, according to Marcial Reyes of the opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP). On average, the KNP spends at least P2,500 per reporter for a two-day campaign. The amount rises when reporters need to be transported by plane.

Assuming regular coverage by 15 reporters, the organization spends from P18,000 to P20,000 a day for the media on the campaign trail for subsidized expenses alone. Whenever a provincial campaign supporter takes care of the food or local transportation, the party is able to save more money.

“They are able to help us anyway by giving us space in their media outfits,” reasons Reyes. “Others are even quite critical of us, but the idea was to let them see first-hand how the campaign is going.”

The arrangement is not exactly frowned upon by many media outfits that cannot afford to cover the entire campaign. And since there are no explicit policies about these in the codes of ethics adapted by these news organizations, “subsidized” reporting has become acceptable to many. Only the bigger or more principled media firms insist on paying their own way.

Thus, during the 2001 election campaign, many reporters for national news organizations were reportedly paid P1,000 each for the coverage of political rallies in Metro Manila. In nearby provinces, the coverage fee was said to be P1,500 while some journalists from the local or community press were given P500 each. But out-of-town coverage that required reporters to be away for several days merited rates as high as P3,000 a day, per head, says media operative Sammy Martin.

Some of the more senior reporters received between P5,000 to P10,000. “The reporters remember me because I was generous,” Martin says.

Another media handler says that in this election, they keep on retainer select political reporters and desk persons. Money is given in cash. Some reporters — both print and broadcast — get a minimum P5,000-monthly retainer, the handler says. But a desk editor from a major daily gets P20,000 a month.

Some of the reporters on payroll did not ask for the money, the handler clarifies. But he adds, “They were offered and they agreed.” Without preconditions, these reporters are merely expected to get their patron’s side when a negative story runs and oblige when requested to print “press release stories.”

The showbiz element in the current campaign, however, has meant money that is far more serious. One publicist, for instance, says he was willing to pay producers “up to P200,000” for a cameo appearance of a politico in a popular television show, provided his candidate had a speaking role with the show’s top-rating star and that they had a say on the script. Other publicists, though, say personal relations cultivated through the years were enough to get them by.

But no one denies that the star-studded, media-driven 2004 elections have left non-celebrity candidates scrambling to get a share of showbiz glitter. One example is former Trade Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, who is on the administration’s senatorial lineup and has appeared in the comedy show “Ok, Fine, Whatever.”

He has also used the “Mr. Palengke” image to appeal to the masses even as his handlers have linked him romantically to TV/radio news anchor Korina Sanchez.

Sanchez had endorsed Roxas on her morning radio show. But neither has categorically spelled out exactly what is going on between them, preferring to play coy. In the meantime, Roxas jumped to No. 2 in an April Social Weather Stations survey, up from the No. 17 post in mid-January.

Not to be outdone, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been interviewed by talent manager Boy Abunda in his Sunday entertainment news show, “The Buzz.” (Abunda however says that his support for Arroyo is “contextual” and that he is not being paid for it. He has also appeared on commercials endorsing Arroyo’s presidential bid.)

To show how much she cares about the survival of the entertainment industry, Arroyo even signed the Optical Media Act or the anti-piracy law during her proclamation rally last February. Celebrities led by TV host Kris Aquino graced the event.

The “celebritification” of Philippine politics can be traced back to the political ad ban imposed in 1986 and lifted in 2001, says Campaigns and Grey’s Ong.

Without political ads, new politicians had no means to get their names recognized by mass voters. This opened the doors of politics for the first time in 1992 to the likes of comedian Vicente Sotto who topped the Senate race then, followed by action star Ramon Revilla. TV personality and former basketball player Freddie Webb placed 12th.

By 1998, there were five celebrities in the Senate. Former news anchor Loren Legarda led the list of freshly elected senators, followed by lawyer and TV/radio host Renato Cayetano, and then Sotto. Another former basketball star, Robert Jaworski, and his father-in-law, reelectionist Revilla, claimed the No. 9 and 10 spots respectively.