Character in journalists

Mark Twain, John Lewis – From Mark Twain House & Museum

By JoeAm

Facebook follower Al Hadj Bin Aday asked me when Philippine journalists would start to write like I do, which I presumed to mean directly with a touch of literary flair to align words in a way that hits meaning on the head with a #10 ball-peen hammer.

I reflected on the writers that influenced my literary bent the most and responded with:

“When they read enough Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to absorb the humility, humor, humanity, and morality of meaningful expression.”

On reflection, I would add a dash of Lewis Jenkins and Kafka for their passionate reading of the absurdities that act as spice in any dish of humanity. Haha, and Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad for their travels, John Steinbeck for his American roots, Jonathan Swift for his satire, Robert Lewis Stevenson for his swashbuckling, and . . .

Oh, my, so many riches in those paper pages . . .

Well, back to Facebook, a medium that is so broad in reach that one seldom gets to the depths most certain to be below the splatterings we paste upon the walls.

That remark I made is perhaps the wisest remark I have penned in my decade of blog-writing in the Philippines.

Those four qualities – humility, humor, humanity, and morality – can be found within the writings of both Twain and Dickens, an American and a Brit, both possessed and passionate about the social struggles of their times. Both aware of poverty and the way it warps civility and kindness. Both cynical about governments. Both wanting to do something about the unfairness and cruelties imposed on commoners’ lives by the greed, meanness, and ignorance of their betters.

The two books that best put these four qualities of authorial character on the table are Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, America’s most well-read book, and Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, the greatest casting of good versus evil in all the libraries holding record of our shortcomings and heroism as a people. Well, neither is an easy read. Twain creates his own dialect for Huckleberry Finn to capture its raw earthy rendition of life in the poor southern United States. Dickens writes in such fine detail and intricate, emotive wisdom that I would sometimes only be able to manage a few paragraphs at a time, then pause, having been whacked someplace deep with impressions beyond words of how much living there is to be had in life.

  • Humility is what you find when you realize you are neither a hot-shot nor a failure. It is a place of acceptance where there is no longer a need to show off, and so you can let others into your life, no risk, no loss, no expectations, no need to impose or even explain.
  • Humor is finding the way life fits together in unexpected ways. It does not only mean jokes and punch lines, it means irony and surprise and joy at the way words knit together or explode to be, for some reason, funny. Both Twain and Dickens found humor in the most wretched of scenes, and that humor made the wretched even worse, and the hope even greater.
  • Humanity is what most of us miss because we are too busy defending ourselves or trying to impress others or earning a living. Humanity is the truth about pain, in the main. And the exquisite joy from overcoming it and seeing the dark burdens dissolve.
  • Morality represents the rules we impose on ourselves because, to be without them, we would be weeds rather than flowers.

Journalists in the Philippines mistake subservience for humility, I think, whenever they engage with powerful politicians. They never get to the real meanings, they don’t challenge, they accept what they are told. Humility is not like that. It is strong. It is calm, unshakable. It is not weakness. It is attached to truth, not to power. It NEEDS truth, the real truth. Not the stories and nonsense.

Humor. Journalists take themselves too seriously here, I think. They are not themselves, they are little stickmen and stickwomen taking notes and writing words to fill a page and get to the next story. They are the product of rote teaching that demands obedience and not independent thought. Twain and Dickens write about the right to life that we all deserve, to explore, test, learn, fall down, get up, challenge, succeed, fail, smile, grow some more, and always, always, always remain excited about the possibilities ahead. Philippine journalism lacks insight and so the nation lacks it.

Humanity. Philippine journalists get it, I think. They know of poverty and suffering and joy and pain. But humanity is like the cloud above rather than the earth beneath their feet. And, on the ground, they do tabloid stories and plaster bloody dead bodies across the TV screen for junior to gawk at, and raise evil up as good. They are the designers of Filipino lifestyles putting halos on Imelda Marcos and Bong Go and Grace Poe and Rodrigo Duterte as if they were people who can bring goodness into our lives, even if they are without that capacity in their own humanity. Philippine journalists rarely transfuse humanity into the content of their work.

Some Philippine journalists seem to have morality. They know right from wrong. They display good values when interviewing guests. But they have no real ethical fiber. They don’t impose those values on other journalists. They accept that their profession can be populated by Tiglaos and Tulfos and Failons and purchased journalists and it doesn’t affect them at all. Well, ethics are the standards of a group, and as long as these self-dealing showboats are allowed in the profession, the profession is a fly-by-night collection of unethical story-tellers in which gullible people presume lies are truth and dirty tricks are more righteous than honesty.

It’s just like legislators and judges and department officials blowing smoke at Filipinos every day rather than building a great nation. It’s called the Calida Syndrome, where sense and civility fall victim to purpose.

The result of this abuse of journalistic character is a country that worships stars, thinks badly, elects incompetents, and accepts nonsense as virtue.

The land is rich. The people are beautiful. The nation is ugly.

I hope more and more Filipino journalists find and express their humility, humor, humanity, and morality.

As they write, so goes the nation.


30 Responses to “Character in journalists”
  1. edgar lores says:

    1. Good influences. Superb values.

    2. It’s strange. For me, I cannot name writers who influenced my style which, I suppose, is why I don’t have one. But I can name writers – books, really — who influenced, not really my values, but my way of seeing.

    3. For me, the thing reading teaches foremost is that the universe is a strange and varied place. I have read Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” and the complete plays of Eugene O’Neill. I have been enamored of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and Silverberg and Zelazny.

    4. I find that this eclecticism results in:

    o A toleration of diversity
    o A fine discernment
    o A dose of humor
    o A burden of judgments

    4.1. The first two and the last are antithetical. The third keeps you in balance. It’s as if you develop empathy but have no room for it… and therefore you must laugh… or weep.

    5. I find that values are mostly innate but are reinforced by reading and writing. The latter supremely clarifies one’s values.

    6. It seems to me that there is one overriding value or norm in the Philippines: power. Journalism operates within this context and it is found wanting… with certain exceptions. The power of the pen is dulled by the power of the political sword.

    6.1. Power has many forms or sources. It is primarily derived from political position, money, profession, status, affiliation, and beauty.

    6.2. The power of the pen (and the brain) is yoked to sustain power in all its forms.

    6.3. Humor is an instrument of power. “Joke only.” And power leaves little or no room for humility, for humanity, and for morality.

    6.4. Power is its own morality. And people accept this. What power does — no matter how extreme, ridiculous or insane — is right including the intimidation of journalists and the media. (Rappler refuses to be intimidated but ABS-CBN has seemingly bowed to pressure.)

    • Yes, power is its own morality and I suppose the principled person learns to accept that. Not bend to it inside, but do so outside. Power teaches being two faced, I suppose. And cynical. And an anonymous writer, or one far away in a safe land.

      Journalism in the Philippines is transactional, like life. It is emotional, like life. It is not conceptual . . . like life. The best journalist on the global scene today I think is Christiane Amanpour. Her interviews go right to the heart of the matter. She holds nothing back but is always respectful. She seems never to be in a hurry. I don’t know of anyone who does not respect her.

      Philippine interviews seem to me to dabble around in trivia, bullshit is accepted as fair dealing, and no one ever gets to the heart of the matter. They don’t mind if their profession is full of political gamers or paid journalists. It is the way it is. I’d imagine they are bowing to power most of the time. Inside they might have private thoughts, outside, they have tin armor.

    • 6.4. and speaking truth to power in the Philippines is to SHAIM power. For power to not hit back is to lose da BILIB of people. Almost like a Western man who got cuckolded in the olden days and did not go for a duel.

  2. chemrock says:

    Jolly good read Joe.

    William Wordsworth and John Keats influenced me greatly in my formative years . Thus I was an escapist, an idealist in my younger years, a romantist who was greatly pained by the ills in the world and so I tried to delay growing up. Wordsworth and Keats taught me something fundamentally important in my life – the ability to see beauty in small things. Where people see trees, I see the colours of the leaves, the beauty of their shapes, how they bend to the winds in unison.

    Unfortunately, grew up I did, and see a world I inherited far from what the poets painted. Alas, upon being born, we transit from a perfect, idealized realm into the imperfect, un-ideal earth. Then again, some are even more unlucky for they were born into an imperfect world in squalor, surroundings of filth and garbage, missing parents, incompetency, corruption, inpunity all around.

    Whilst you paint a picture of low standards in Filipino journalism, which stands supported in reality, there are several journalists who have written exceptionally good, truthful and deeply questioning articles that pricked nerves. Unfortunately, such articles garner no mainstream acclaim or readership with a mentally void public. The articles are either lost and deeply buried in the archives of some web sites, or the authors are lying buried in some hometown cemetery, cut down in their youth.

    • Real life does tend to be abusive to youthful ideals, I agree. I could not even read Dickens in the 9th grade. But after slogging through some of the mud that life can generate, Dickens was like an island of truth without the hope extracted. I agree that the Philippines has had, and does have, wonderful writers but the overall mass of sensationalism and idealized heroes overwhelms good conceptual thinking. I intend to write about that in a future article.

  3. karlgarcia says:

    The Tulfo’s, Carmen Pedrosa, Alex Magno, Tiglao, etc can definitely use your templates as their template.

    Most of them especially Pedrosa complains of the opposition’s opposing just for the sake of opposing which is very wrong, I do not know what fallacy(ies) was demonstrated but a lot of appeal to emotion or looking for kakampis on most of them.

  4. Pablo says:

    Quote: Journalists in the Philippines mistake subservience for humility, I think, whenever they engage with powerful politicians”
    And still a substantial amount of journalists are murdered every year. Philippines is in the top league.
    It must be very, very difficult to openly discuss corruption etc. when you and your family are threatened and bad examples are all around. In the relative safety of, with like minded people, it is not so much a threat.
    I am humbled by the journalists who still try to do a good job and would not like to call them subservient. Even if there are only a few. We have to face reality. How much is your family worth when the other side can kill without repercussions?
    I followed the orders of my partner when it was clear I got exposed when we wanted to openly talk about poaching (as part of the planning process) and I was not brave enough to tell my partner to move abroad and arm myself to the teeth. How much more for journalists who are exposed nationwide?????? Politicians get police protection. Journalists are game.
    So, before talking about the intricacies of journalism, we need to ensure they have a good chance to survive.

    • A now deceased Filipino former journalist once told me this over a bottle of whisky:

      “Tell me, what do you do if you know that those who offer to pay you can also pay to have you killed?”

      • edgar lores says:

        And to the national media operators:

        “If you do not give the administration good publicity, we will charge you for unpaid taxes. Or we will not renew your license. Or charge you with cybercrime.”

      • popoy says:


        News reporters excel in the what,
        who, where, and how.
        Columnists and pundits SHOULD be
        cold-bloodied and objective in
        the surgery of whys. For sure
        this is reality in Australia, Canada,
        UK and the USA; where journalists
        don’t get MURDERED.

        Why are journalists being
        Murdered in the Philippines?
        Are their deaths like commodities
        For sale? Contractualized labor 50% down
        100% upon completion. Do killers
        Kill for principles or for the money
        or lack of employment?

        Is culture a candidate culprit?
        An incumbent president once demurred to
        A culture of poverty and violence, a culture of
        Lawlessness and culture of corruption
        Or was there no connection at all?

        Where does the fault lies? The law itself,
        Or the lawmakers, the law enforcers,
        The magistrates or the journalists themselves?

        Bread, bread, bread, money, money, money
        A dire lack of it or a plenitude of hunger
        And insatiable greed for money and power
        Of very sick souls may be, just MAY BE
        Constitute the root and cause of it all
        The Murders of Filipino journalists.

    • That’s true. I wish I had made that point in the article, or qualified it to say that I was talking about national media and not local or provincial journalists, who indeed are in danger if they cross the powers there. Thank you for raising the point.

  5. popoy says:

    Ito ba ayOOT dito sa topic ni Joe Am?

    This wannabe poetry already
    been posted here in TSoH could be
    just a few days ahead of published opinion.

    Yes, Yes, YES, many of us,
    university graduates in the early sixties
    had been fated to work
    in the three Crocodile Farms
    but many had survived unscathed
    from these Gulags of Corruption.
    The noble character of workers
    called DANGAL died
    a slow UNLAMENTED
    but certain death amongst
    the laughing fat crocodiles
    in the three snake pits.

    The verse above has NO connection but many people have yet to read:

    GOTCHA – Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) – February 8, 2019 – 12:00am

    They’ve conjured rules to withhold from citizens their Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth. An honest official willingly would publicize his SALNs. Thieves instinctively cover up their loot.

    Constitutionally required from all government men, SALNs are basic proof of integrity. The sworn declarations should detail the filer and spouse’s wealth before, every year during, and after holding office. Since its passage in 1989, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees enabled citizens’ access to the SALNs. SALNs authorize the Ombudsman and Bureau of Internal Revenue to initiate confirmatory scrutiny. So weighty are the annual filings that high officials can be taken to task for infractions. Chief Justice Renato Corona was ousted for fudging his SALNs, and successor Maria Lourdes Sereno for failing to submit a complete set of hers. An Armed Forces comptroller-general was convicted partly on the basis of SALN discrepancies. On trial at the Sandiganbayan are hundreds of bureaucrats, with SALNs as evidence.

    SALNs draw accountability from the government, and trust from the governed. Yet the House of Reps last week passed Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Resolution 2467 to make it hard for citizens to obtain SALNs. Henceforth, a SALN may be released only upon majority consent of the House members. Plus, payment of P300 for one member’s SALN, or about P90,000 for all their SALNs for one year; clearly higher amounts to get hold of multi-years. To think that the same House has for years delayed passage of a Freedom of Information Bill.
    What have they got to hide? Majority Leader Ferdenil Castro mumbled something about lawmakers’ supposed right against harassment if SALNs are used for “fishing expedition” and character assassination. But this is not a chicken-or-egg mystery. Long before they joined government there already was the SALN requirement. If they didn’t like it, they shouldn’t have entered public office.

    The SALN concealment came at the same time that lawmakers were inserting pork barrels in the 2019 national budget. Speaker Arroyo was divulged to have an astounding pork slab of P2.4 billion, and her ex-Majority Leader P1.9 billion. The latter denounced the exposé by saying that 99 other members had thicker lard than Arroyo’s. Then came further disclosure that the remaining 195 had P160 million each. Totaling P305 billion, the pork barrels embedded in the 2019 budgets are now 14 times larger than when the Supreme Court outlawed them five years ago.
    Pork barrels fund haphazard dredging, flood control and road works, from which lawmakers extract kickbacks. That is why they are called “Tong-gressmen.” Tong connotes Chinatown underworld gangs that collect protection money and undeserved commissions.

    The pork insertions in turn quickly followed the House’s passage in December of a fake federalist draft constitution. Sponsored by Speaker Arroyo, its provisos are only to keep the lawmakers and kin in power. Term limits are lifted for members of Congress and local elective officials. The existing prohibition of political dynasties is deleted.

    That self-serving draft fundamental law reinforces yet a third moniker for them: “trapo,” short for traditional politicos but meaning “worthless rag” in Tagalog.

  6. NHerrera says:

    The same set of character traits — Humility, Humor, Humanity and Morality — is nice to have in a person other than a journalist. That is, to my mind, we don’t require traits from journalists more than what we generally desire from a person we like — a son or daughter fondly recalling his or her father or mother at anytime.

    • popoy says:

      To NH if I may, along humility, humor, humanity and morality also HONOR is what I fondly recall about my Itay and Inay. Not money or property but HONOR is the prime legacy parents could leave behind to their children.

      POLITICIANS (I think only some but others will say many) live a life of humility, humor, humanity but WITHOUT HONOR.

      • popoy says:

        Dangal at Hirap

        Alin mang bansa kung
        marami ang walang dangal
        At kakaunti lang ang umaangal
        TIYAK mananatili ang KAHIRAPAN.

        In any country where
        Many are without honor
        And where so very few
        Fight to disavow
        Poverty shall remain
        to continue.

        • popoy says:

          Kapag ang isang talata
          Pinaikot (spin) para
          Maging isang pekeng tula
          Ang talim ng dating ganito yata

          Sa buong mundo alin mang bansa kung
          Maraming taong gobiernong magnanakaw
          At kakaunti lang ang botanteng lumalaban
          Malamang mananatili ang kahayupan.

          • popoy says:

            To accept and affix the word honourable
            before the names of mega thieves
            is like to accept and affix the word Saint
            And call the devil St. Beelzebub.
            Smacks of same, same; No difference
            from imbecility or nonsense.

            Same same also are the above lines
            for the writer to commit
            the rare sin of righteousness
            because it is not always right nor
            sinless to be righteous.

      • NHerrera says:

        Yes, Honor — that, too.

      • Honor is an interesting topic. Libel laws protect it. To me it is the emotions attached to morality when morality is internalized, or committed to. Insulting emotions is insulting the person at a deeper level than just insulting their thinking.

  7. NHerrera says:

    Oh-oh, they just got bees to do what I treasure; I am outta here.

    “Scientists say bees can do basic math”

  8. madlanglupa says:

    Speaking of journalists: any sort of sympathy towards ABS-CBN and its impending broadcast license cancellation is being eroded as many of its known newsmen are found to be harboring anti-Aquino sentiments and aiming to have the former President jailed in any way necessary, including support for Acosta and her snake-oil demagoguery.

  9. karlgarcia says:

    People all over are more concious of fake news, online trolling, bullying, and the rest of the abuses known to man.

    Unfortunately since the time of the first intrigue ( Real life adams and eves, cains and abels),sensationalism sells.

    So what journalists must do as mentioned is too be ethical and honorable.

    Biases can not be removed from the human nature.
    Journalists can be wrong, and failure is not an option but inevitable, so correct errors and rise and learn from failures.

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