Thursday, January 24, 2008

Entitled to your own facts

Former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was in an argument with one of his senate colleagues over an issue. The other senator, probably sensing that he was losing the debate, said "You may disagree with me, but I'm entitled to my own opinion". Moynihan brilliantly quipped in reply: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts".

This story is insightful because you can tell it to anyone and they'd likely give out a chuckle and nod in hearty agreement, but in practice the statement "you are not entitled to your own facts" is not as reliable a truth as you'd expect. Politicians and journalists have come to take such liberties with the facts that their spin on the issues is given as equal a weight as the reality itself. Depending on your viewing preferences, inflation is either at a record low or a record high; the national debt is either shrinking or spiraling out of control; poverty is either going down or going up.

The absence of even a rough agreement on the facts means there are no reference points for accountability, and every opinion is given equal footing-- no matter how uninformed.

Which brings me to the catalyst of this entry. Last Sunday was the seventh anniversary of Joseph Estrada's fall from power. The Philippine government, understandably eager to reach out to Estrada's many scorned supporters, decided not to mark the anniversary with any special commemorative activities. (Perhaps they also realized in hindsight that the Supreme Court declaring the presidency vacant doesn't make as much sense today as it did in January 2001). The Inquirer, never one to pass up a chance to stoke the flames, made their front page headline for Sunday: "Palace: Forget EDSA II". They even had the gall to make their lead sentence "Read Malacañang's lips: Everyone should forget EDSA II".

This is the country's most widely circulated paper, seen by millions in newsstands and sidewalks all over the archipelago. All blaring to even casual observers that Malacañang wants you to "forget" EDSA II-- which is just not true. It's a destructive bias for negativity. I don't expect them to report on all the airplanes that arrive safely, but I do wish they would aspire for a standard of responsible journalism. For better or for worse, The Inquirer is considered the country's newspaper of record. Even if their editors do not agree on an issue, it is always possible to present it in honest and fair-minded terms. But what's done is done, and in the end what actually came out of the mouth of the Malacañang spokesperson matters less than the interpretation blazed on the front page.

Naturally, the following day the militants and bloggers are up in arms, denouncing President Arroyo's supposed amnesia and comparing her to a Holocaust denier. It's hard to blame people for not reading past the misleading headlines to dig out the hard facts, especially in an article as muddled as that one (you'd have to read several paragraphs into it before getting to the beef). Not everyone has the time to pick apart the news articles to segregate truth from innuendo.

There is no great reward in store for those who dare to articulate the truth, especially when the truth can't be painted in black and white. The reward goes to those who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, and in big bold letters.