Incoming president Rodrigo Duterte gained notoriety for his brash and crude persona, his mouth spewing cuss words like gunfire every chance it gets. His street-style, verbal attack on major issues has often put him in hot water. This time, he aimed his crosshairs at the issue of media killings, chastising supposed unscrupulous journalists who engage in corrupt practices by saying they deserved to be killed—just like that.
Not surprisingly, it elicited adverse reactions from the media whose members threatened to boycott his press conferences. Unfazed, Duterte unabashedly countered that he's "ready to lose the presidency, just don't fuck with me," soon followed by an announcement that there will no longer be any press briefings and all his statements will be released through government channel PTV-4.
Still, the national/social media issue remains his foul-mouthed behavior. After the f-bomb issue came the catcalling of a woman reporter from GMA and, apparently, another f-bomb aimed at the United Nations. Truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.
The controversial "don't fuck with me" remark landed on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, no less—not your usual Page 1 fare, I must say. Whereas tabloids would carry this kind of sensationalized material, people expect more of a major broadsheet reputed for high-standard news reporting. Many fear this might spark a change in their manner of writing and reportage.
By and large, there have been arguments and some intelligent discourse on why the President-elect acts that way; some even say it's just the way he is and that the media should just suck it up and do its job. Given that, should the media also modify the way they write and make headlines to quote him warmly and accurately?
The principles of journalism dictate that its practitioners do their work a certain way. The principles are sacred, especially since media can and does influence people's thoughts and opinions. But reporters and editors don't have to be controversial to deliver truth and accuracy in reporting. Is it all right to quote a strong, foul language because the president utters it?
The whole issue of the f-word on the front page of PDI may be this: Did the editors allow its use because they firmly believe there is nothing wrong in using the word "fuck" on a title as a direct quote? Did the editors mean for it to cast Duterte in a bad light again? Or, did they do it exactly for this purpose—for people to talk about it and sell their paper, for far more arguments, discussions, clicks, shares, and comments?
Cause and f-fect
Whatever the motive was, it wasn't unprecedented, particularly if you consider foreign press. In 2004, The Washington Post quoted then US Vice President Dick Cheney verbatim when he told then-Senator Patrick Leahy to go "fuck yourself." In a Slate.com article published in June 2014, Dan Kois wrote about how editors decide when to use the f-word. Editors are said to "weigh the newsworthiness of the event in question against concerns about community standards." He went on to write, "it's up to the editor to decide whether the journalistic purpose of the story is best served by bluntness or decorum."
The difference, though, was it wasn't put on the front page. Executive Editor Leonard Downie was the one who approved the use of the f-word because the remarks were "made in public and 'not in a casual way.'" Still, the Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, noted that had the story been on the front page, "the specific language would have likely been alluded to or pushed past the jump," Kois wrote. In short, they would not have printed the f-word or put it on A1.
Still, over five decades ago, the Guardian became the first paper in Britain to use the f-word, thanks to its editor Alastair Hetherington who refused to heed his colleagues' pleas not to. With a more "liberal style guide" that lets them use language most of their competitors would not, the guide's advise to writers apparently is: "Use only when relevant, typically when quoting someone."
There are a few more of these in newspaper history, including an instance when the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail had to use the f-word because it was the name of a band they listed in an Arts story.
Now, PDI must have the same system in place. The question is, has the era of a bold, brash new president ushered in another new age of journalism—an equally bold one where writers and editors forgo tradition and propriety to tell it like it is and readers are not supposed to flinch when they do? If so, with this incoming president we may soon enjoy a bevy of f-words on the front pages of every newspaper if he goes back to calling press conferences again.
In some respects, publishing "fuck" worked—the ones reporting the news has become the news. Whatever their reason is, I just hope the paper's integrity remains intact. After all, the media is society's watchdog. While it may be true that there are corrupt persons deeply entrenched in the system (as in almost all sectors of society), there are those who remain true to this time-honored profession and we still need them to call out those who are in power.
Because I did not grow up in a cave, I have encountered adults and even young children spewing out "PI" and the "F" word almost everywhere. However, exposure to them didn't turn me into a foul-mouthed person. Perhaps it was the way I was raised; I like to think I'm responsible enough for myself. If Digong is the way he is, then I am the way I am.
Personally, though, I believe people should be mindful of their actions; actions have consequences. Journalists have the responsibility of presenting facts with utmost integrity. In the same breath, people look to an elected leader of the land—especially this one, divisive as he is.
"Change is coming," as Duterte's campaign cleverly put it. People supported him during the presidential campaign, totally ignoring—and some even cheering on—his unorthodox demeanor that eventually won him the presidency. Now, this very same boldness and arrogance has been causing him serious rifts among different sectors of our society. It's a little troubling because, I don't know about you, for me a leader's job is to unify those under him.
In an article by self-confessed Digong confidant Ramon Tulfo, also in PDI, he says the man he saw in the late night presscon last Thursday was different from the man he knew before the elections. He said his heart bled when Duterte "practically declared war on the media," noting the latter must have forgotten he was one of them.
He then said he watched his friend, "incredulous at his behavior," but reasoned the incoming president "forgot he was on national television."
Of course, pundits and armchair activists are having a field day with their doomsday scenario of how the whole country, under Digong's leadership, is in for a destructive change instead of a positive one. Still, in my humble ordinary citizen opinion, I'm all for a no-bullshit president who goes hard on criminality and injustice, rather than a sweet-talking leader who is involved in corrupt practices or turns a blind eye on them. But I believe Duterte must know where to draw the line; I can get on board with a leader who leads by example.
I am in no way wishing for Duterte's downfall; his failure is ours as well, whether we voted for him or not. He needs the people's support now more than ever; but he, too, must give his people the confidence that things could actually get better, beyond the bravura and the kanto-camaraderie he is used to. Change comes from us, but is it really too much to ask for him to change a bit as well? Otherwise, his mantra of "change is coming" could just as well mean "change is kaming mga nasa pwesto lang."