The media and the Manila hostage crisis: Preliminary notes

In the 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Merry takes Pippin to task for stealing the palantír of Orthanc from a sleeping Gandalf and gazing into it, an act that sets off a terrifying encounter with Sauron and places the Quest in peril. “Why did you look?” Merry rails. “Why do you always have to look?” When Pippin says that he cannot help himself, Merry retorts, “You never can.”

The eye may be helpless, as the poet Jorie Graham says, “when the image forms itself, upside-down, backward,/driving up into/the mind,” but when “the world/unfastens itself/from the deep ocean of the given”, ought I/eye resign myself to helplessness, content myself with merely looking on? Ought I/eye not to attempt a refastening, however small or ultimately futile the gesture?

*

Newly arrived with a companion in Ayod—a village in the famine-stricken country of Sudan—and distressed by the sight of people starving to death, even as he sought to lend his efforts to an overwhelmed feeding center, the young man wandered into the open bush in order to try and calm himself. A soft, high-pitched noise caught his attention, prompting him to seek its source.

He traced the animal-like sound to a clearing, where he found an emaciated toddler—a little girl who was no more than skin and bones—whimpering pitifully. She was too weak to stand, and was crawling toward the very center he had just left. As he crouched before her, a vulture landed a short distance away, perhaps recognizing that, with a bit of luck, a meal was soon to be had.

The man would later recount that, in the wake of the appearance of the bird, he had waited about 20 minutes, hoping in vain that the scavenger would spread its wings.

Then, taking the utmost care not to disturb the tableau, the man raised his camera to his eye, meticulously framed his shots, and took several photographs.

Once he had finished with his pictures, he chased away the raptor, sat under a tree to smoke cigarettes, and talked—he claimed—to God, as he watched the gaunt little girl resume her struggle. He cried as well—according to his companion, when they reunited, the man was still wiping the tears from his eyes, saying he could not wait to go home, to see his own daughter, to embrace her.

The name of that man was Kevin Carter, and he was a South African photojournalist.

A little over a year after one of the images of the toddler and the vulture that he had taken was published in the New York Times, and subsequently reproduced in other publications around the world—becoming, in its way, an icon of Sudan, and, more generally, of the extreme hunger and poverty that many still suffer from—Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

As for the Sudanese girl, whom Carter had abandoned, her fate remains unknown.

*

Sudanese girl by Kevin Carter

Photograph by Kevin Carter, courtesy of BBC h2g2. No copyright infringement intended.

I have encountered this, the most in/famous of Carter’s photographs, several times, but whenever I look at it, I feel a sense of horror: horror not so much at what it depicts, or at its formal, even sublime, beauty as an image, but at the fact of its existence. Carter’s picture does not merely re-present a long-gone moment—like all other visual records, it re-presences a particular way of seeing the world: in this instance, the kind of gaze that lights upon a famished child being eyed by a vulture and recognizes an opportunity—not to come to the aid of another, but to distance oneself from that other by retreating behind the lens of the camera and taking the best possible shot.

That the language of the camera, which is to say the language of photography and its sister arts of television and cinema, seethes with force is not, I think, a coincidence: moments, situations, and events are invariably caught, captured, shot, snapped, or taken—rather like animals hunted for their meat, while the resultant pictures and clips are the preserved carcasses mounted for display. The acts of seeing, of recording what one sees, and of sharing that record—these can be violent acts, especially when one is confronted with tragedy.

The violence is inherent in the decision to aestheticize, to render spectacular (that is, to transform into spectacle)—pain and misfortune, thereby acquiescing to the power of the structures that inflict them, as well as anaesthetizing whatever sympathy and care might be summoned for the ones who suffer—and such violence is everywhere perpetuated in the name of telling the truth, which, in our time, is no longer the province of prophets or soothsayers, but of reporters.

It may be true that Carter was only there to document what he saw in order that others might be moved into assuming the burden of addressing the problems of Sudan. It is equally true that the feeding center toward which the girl was crawling was only a short walk away, and Carter neither brought the child to the center, nor asked the center staff to rescue her, if, as some have argued, he had been explicitly forbidden by health workers to touch the children, on account of their depressed immune systems.

*

Much ink has been spilled and much air has been heated in the debate over the manner in which the local mass media covered the hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand last August 23, Monday, and journalists, individually and collectively, have sought to excuse their conduct by wrapping themselves in the flag of their duty to the public, apparently heedless of the possibility that such a duty could be exercised at the expense of the public they claim to serve.

“News blackout is not in our vocabulary anymore,” arrogantly declared Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) National President Herman Basbaño, never mind that Article 6 of the KBP Broadcast Code of 2007 [PDF] specifically contemplates crisis situations, stating that the coverage of such “should avoid inflicting undue shock and pain to families and loved ones of victims” and should not “provide vital information or offer comfort or support to the perpetrators”. In what way, shape, or form did the virtually panoptic, gratuitously detailed, and excruciatingly narrated coverage of the crisis, which some media outfits labeled a “drama”, comply or align with these provisions?

Those who challenge critics of the media to explain exactly how the crisis could have ended less tragically had the reporters on the ground behaved differently are being disingenuous, as one would only be able to respond with a species of speculative fiction. It seems to me that the right question to ask is not, “How would the situation have changed?” but, “Did the media act with due diligence, with integrity, and with compassion during (and after) the crisis?”

Also disingenuous are those who insist that media workers cannot be faulted for succumbing to the professional instinct to report. Are journalists victims of their training and experience? Are they fundamentally incontinent, utterly bereft of the ability to hold themselves in check, to remember that their work is governed by ethical imperatives beyond the injunction to bear witness, to lay bare the capital-T Truth—not to mention guidelines from previous unfortunate experience?

Perhaps the most honest—definitely the most chilling—response to the firestorm of criticism against the media that I have come across was from Maria Ressa, the head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs. During a forum at the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines last August 28, Friday, she said that had ABS-CBN unilaterally stopped or delayed its broadcast, “We would have been criticized by the viewers or what viewers would have done is switch stations.” (She had previously tweeted a similar assertion.)

Based on this statement, the foremost concern of Ressa, and by extension, of her network, would appear to be nothing more than ratings—which is to say, in the final analysis, money, or what might be collected under the general rubric of cultural capital (trust, credibility, prestige), because ratings have no value if they cannot eventually be transformed into one or the other.

Let me be clear: I do not begrudge journalists their earnings. Like many other noble professions, journalism is practiced for money (though probably not wealth, and, in this country, certainly not longevity). The desire to inform and educate is not easily—if at all—separable from the desire to attain financial security and gain status. But has the drive for profit, economic or otherwise, become so overpowering as to erode the media’s sense of responsibility, if slowly and surreptitiously? Has the Fourth Estate become complacent, considering that it has historically received from the general public a level of trust far greater than most other institutions, including the state? Does the press see itself as accountable to its audience in the first place, and if so, to what extent?

What might journalists write about, report on, photograph, film, record, cover, broadcast, or talk about if they ceased to focus on fighting battles for attention, for advertisers, for legitimacy, for the bottom line? What might journalism look like if reportage ceased to involve sensational spectacles of suffering that serve less to stimulate action than to stupefy the mind and steel the heart against pity?

Jay Salazar

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar has been blogging intermittently since 2002. He lives and works in Metro Manila. His personal blog is Random Salt.

  • baycas

    MICHAEL ROGAS: Captain Rolando Mendoza, good evening, sir…
    CAPT. ROLANDO MENDOZA: Good evening, sir.

    MICHAEL: This is Michael Rogas from RMN. Sir, you are the hostage taker, is it right?
    MENDOZA: Right, sir.
    MICHAEL: What is your plan at this juncture, sir?

    x x x x x

    (The ever hopeful Mendoza reads aloud the Ombudsman’s letter upon the request of Rogas. Note that Mendoza is already in personal contact with Orlando Yebra, the chief negotiator.)

    MENDOZA: x x x x x…for me this is trash, this letter is trash! This is not what I need!

    MICHAEL: Ok, what’s your plan, sir? Now that your demand was not met…
    MENDOZA: For me this is trash, this is not what I need. What I need is their decision, reversing or not reversing (my dismissal). That’s it! Thank you for the effort of the mayor and the vice mayor, I don’t need that letter, sir.

    MICHAEL: What is your plan now, sir, what do you want?
    MENDOZA: There’s nothing in that (letter), nothing, none whatsoever, sir. It only says a review will be done. In effect, nothing will come of it, nothing, sir. That paper is nothing to me, if it said (I am) dismissed already, nothing will happen as a result (of that letter), sir.

    MICHAEL: Captain, what’s your plan now, sir?

    MENDOZA (addressing Yebra): This one, I’ll make an example of this one, step aside, go away…I don’t need that (letter), sir, that letter has nothing to say…you, you’re a lawyer…there’s nothing in that (letter)!

    MICHAEL: Captain, wait, please calm down.
    MICHAEL: Captain, take it easy, sir…What’s your plan now, sir, inasmuch as your demand was not granted, we will call the Ombudsman at this point in time.
    MENDOZA: Most likely something bad will happen inside this bus.

    MICHAEL: Wait, through us, RMN (live radio broadcast), what is your request (from the authorities)?

    x x x x x

    —–

    Clearly, the negotiator failed MISERABLY in his job as he wasn’t able to frame a “yes-able” proposition to the hostage taker. Imagine asking an already impatient (Read: pissed off) gunman to still wait for a review???

    And adding insult to injury had the temerity to “lie” to the hostage taker (borne by his incoordination with assistant negotiator Romeo Salvador who promised to return the brother’s handgun and the extreme error of bringing along the brother whose presence is already suspect the first time this brother appeared on the scene)???

    Nonetheless, I believe a re-negotiation can still be done with a new…this time, trustworthy…negotiator.

    All demands of Mendoza are negotiable even up to the last minute: the primary demand (reinstatement) and the instant demands (pullout of the snipers, withdrawal of the SWAT team seen deploying, and stopping the arrest of his brother – regardless if Mendoza saw the “manhandling” on TV).

    If only the events were not overtaken by Rogas’ so-called “interview.” If only Rogas didn’t “harass” Mendoza. If only Rogas didn’t “promise” an effective communication to authorities. If only Rogas didn’t put upon himself and RMN the task of mediating the hostage taker’s demands…

    If only RMN (through Jake Maderazo) alerted the police early on the “interview” of their ongoing talks with Mendoza…

    If only Mendoza was given an opportunity of a TRUE DIALOGUE, then none of the innocents are dead today.

    —–

    Quote of the Year:

    The interview by (radio reporter) Michael Rogas gave the hostages an extra few hours to live,” Pimentel, a former senator, told the station.

    http://business.inquirer.net/money/topstories/view/20100921-293504/Radio-rejects-hostage-phone-hogging-allegations

    —–

    The politicians and the police are accountable but those irresponsible members of media, by virtue of their constitutionally-protected primary right to press freedom, are NOT. The most they will get, if ever found guilty of Grave Offense (first time) by the “self-regulatory” body of the KBP – the KBP Standards Authority – is a Php15,000 fine plus reprimand (Rogas and Tulfo) and Php30,000 fine plus censure (RMN).

    If the whole picture of the culminating events of the August 23 Hostage Incident will not be understood then those irresponsible members of media will continue with their irresponsibility…”only doing their jobs,” as they are mouthing what they did, with clean hands…when all the while they are bloodied by their insatiable hunger for news and their unquenchable thirst for fame!

    —–

    Media vilifying media should probably be a part of SELF-REGULATION.

    http://manilatimes.net/index.php/opinion/26840-vilifying-themselves

  • I agree with your points and even tweeted it

    http://twitter.com/momblogger/status/22698020222
    “My point exactly on media outfits esp chilling statement of @maria_ressa w/c appear to be nothing more than ratings http://bit.ly/bP5lrl

    Then Maria Ressa replied to that tweet clarifying context
    http://twitter.com/maria_ressa/status/22719678159

    “@momblogger Far from it. Context: asked audience if they watched. They did. Then the quote – which is not abt ratings. Symbiosis btwn govt & media in these sitns: govt resolves and manages info; media reports. If govt fails, is media at fault? There are things we wish we could’ve changed but we were not in control. We now have measures in place for future.
    maria_ressa via UberTwitter”

    • Jay

      It is true that the media was not in control of the situation, but then again, no one expected them to take charge, and certainly no one is blaming them for the failures of the government.

      What the media could have controlled quite easily, and clearly didn’t, was their coverage of the crisis. At the very least, the reporters could have taken it upon themselves to show compassion for the hostages. Ressa is merely clouding the issue and playing the victim. If she is saying that viewers are complicit with the media by watching the coverage, then that may be correct, but it does not mean that viewers are robbed of the right to criticize, and that the media cannot be held accountable for their unethical actions.

      The phrase has been oft-abused, but the crisis could have been a teachable moment as far as journalists were concerned. If they had held themselves in check, they could have shown the public precisely how to act when one can only be a witness to a tragedy: to treat those suffering with care and sympathy.

      • My disappointment with media is that they’re saying, “this is what the viewers want.”

        1. that’s being irresponsible— they’re not being asked /not/ to air it. They are being asked not to air it in real-time. What’s been gleamed at is that the hostage taker was able to use the broadcast feed as intelligence. He knew troop positions.

        2. people are glued to the tv. all the surveys have indicated it. Everyone watches TV, and these networks keep saying “ako ang simula ng pagbabago.” well, they should put their money where it is worth. Like it or not, Media— particularly broadcast media has a leadership role to play.

        It is up to media to raise the quality of discourse. we can’t have crime stories of rape being aired at 7 o’clock in the morning, or at 6 pm at night. hell, air it when the kids are asleep, when the negativity doesn’t suck the lifeblood from a people already down in the dumps! Things like that.

        3. It is understandably a cut-throat business and Ressa is queen shark. Had she backed down, there would be the other networks still doing the same thing. So this isn’t just one network— it is an industry-wide matter. This is something Media and journalism as a whole need to agree on. Evoke like a treaty agreement. We will not air things that puts lives in danger during N incident. There are times when we all disagree with government, but like it or not there are moments when we have to.

        4. Jay, it remains a “teachable-moment” but I fear, Media in general is unapologetic simply because they don’t understand what exactly they did wrong. This incident I guess teaches all of us to be a little bit more humble. I guess, media hasn’t learned that lesson yet. And yes, to treat those suffering with care and sympathy.

  • Felicity

    Well said Jay. Journalists face many ethical dilemmas, this one was certainly one of them. I personally believe they crossed the line. The gall of any reporter to call a hostage taker in the middle of the crisis, unbelievable! And as for Ressa, to defend their actions on the basis of what, “our viewers will get angry”? And what of the fates of the hostages? Of the lives on the firing line? If they simply sent out a message on broadcast saying that they will discontinue “live streaming” as it was, and just update on significant developments as they progress, the public would have understood. On the international front, that day just happened to be a slow news day, so CNN and BBC ran the drama relentlessly simply because they had the fresh video. If they didn’t (courtesy, by the way, of ABS), they would have found other, drier, stories to tell.

    Mendoza might have killed innocent people, but the media also made a killing.

    • Jay

      Thank you, Felicity. It’s disappointing, if not surprising, that many media representatives have decided to emulate Pontius Pilate.

  • Felicity

    Well said Jay. Journalists face many ethical dilemmas, this one was certainly one of them. I personally believed they crossed the line. The gall of any reporter to call a hostage taker in the middle of the crisis, unbelievable! And as for Ressa, to defend their actions on the basis of what, “our viewers will get angry”? And what of the fates of the hostages? Of the lives on the firing line? If they simply sent out a message on broadcast saying that they will discontinue “live streaming” as it was, and just update on significant developments as they progress, the public would have understood. On the international front, that day just happened to be a slow news day, so CNN and BBC ran the drama relentlessly simply because they had the fresh video. If they didn’t (courtesy, by the way, of ABS), they would have found other, drier, stories to tell.

    Mendoza might have killed innocent people, but the media also made a killing.

  • Bert

    All life’s drama. One has to do what has to be done according to his own discretion and his own conscience. We have our own specific job to do to be able to survive this harsh and hostile world. We have our emotions, and we suffer, seeing that we could have done something and we did not. But…we are not here in this world to be super heroes. We are not here to save the world by ourselves.