ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
Filipinos in America are in a unique situation where in a span of six months, they are faced with having to contend with two of the most controversial and contentious national leaders to emerge in recent history, both in the homeland and in their adopted land. Having had to face uncertainty in their homeland with the vague domestic and foreign policies of tough-talking Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his equally chaotic Cabinet, Filipinos in the United States now face an even deeper sense of confusion and concern right on the very first day in office of US President Donald Trump.
At least, Duterte drew applause from many people, including this writer, for his inaugural address and demeanor, which many described as “precise, presidential and purposeful.” He did not make any curse or threat, and went through his presidential agenda in a straight-forward manner and with a sense of clarity. He did not move away from his prepared speech.
What happened after that day is something else. He went back to diverting from his prepared speech, started cursing and making threats again, and making confusing statements that were obviously not consulted with his advisers and made many ask: Where is this country headed?
And each time his remarks drew protests and controversy, he blamed the media for inaccurate and irresponsible reporting.
His frequent feud with the media makes his similarities with his newfound friend Trump even more striking.
Deviating from the usual tone of inaugural addresses that calls for unity after a long and divisive elections, Trump chose to proceed as if he were still on the campaign trail and lambasted the Washington politicians gathered behind him, including Republicans who reluctantly supported him, in a manner that demagogues have historically done before him with populist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric.
He was obviously addressing his avid supporters and not the entire Americans, the majority of whom elected somebody else but had to vow to the rules of the electoral voting system. With millions of Americans and millions more around the globe awaiting how he would make America great again, as he had repeatedly avowed during the campaign, Trump instead launched his usual campaign rhetoric that roused his supporters but dampened the hopes of majority of Americans.
And millions of Americans were left asking: Where is this country headed?
The morning after the inaugural – Trump’s first official day in office — millions of these Americans marched in several cities all over America, supported by smaller protest rallies all over the world, to vent their anger on Trump whom they described as racist, fascist, sexist, and a few other unsavory words.
But instead of addressing the protesters to allay their fears and soothe their anger, Trump chose to spend his first day in office to launch a bitter attack on news media. He falsely accused journalists of creating a rift between him and intelligence agencies and of deliberately understating the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration. He called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Later in the day, he sent his press secretary to scold members of the press and warn them that the government would hold them accountable for false reporting. In his very first press briefing in the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said news organizations had deliberately misstated the size of the inaugural crowd in an attempt to sow divisions at a time when Trump was trying to unify the country, warning that the new administration would hold them to account.
Earlier, Trump also angered some officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he went on Saturday to make peace with the intelligence community because instead of paying tribute to the sacrifices of members of the intelligence community who died in the line of duty, the President used the occasion mostly to attack the press.
Trump complained that the news media used photographs of “an empty field” to make it seem as if his inauguration did not draw many people.
“We caught them in a beauty,” Trump said of the news media, “and I think they’re going to pay a big price.” Spicer later claimed that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” a statement that photographs and live TV showed to be false.
Two contrasting photos posted by a New York Times reporter on Tweet clearly showed the Obama inauguration in 2009 drawing a much larger crowd than Trump’s. Spicer also claimed that the number of riders in Washington-area transit clearly showed that more people came to witness Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s in 2099. But transit authority figures showed there were 782,000 riders that year, compared with 571,000 riders this year.
In other words, while Trump and his press secretary were accusing the news media of false reporting, they were actually the ones who made false claims about the inaugural crowd.
Trump said he is, in his own words, in a “running war” with the media, a war he is not expected to win just as Duterte is not expected to win his own war with the Philippine news media.
Trump should have realized by now that a strong, truthful and vigilant media is one of the major reasons America has become the bastion of democracy. Duterte, on the other hand, should have known by now that nearly all his predecessors waged their own war against media and lost. Former President Joseph Estrada, for example, tried to muzzle the critical Philippine Daily Inquirer by asking major advertisers to boycott the newspaper. Several months later, Estrada was ousted by People Power.
Only one Philippine president won a battle against the press. The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos padlocked newspaper offices and TV and radio stations when he declared martial law in 1972, but while he won the battle, he eventually lost the war when the so-called mosquito press started stinging him in the 80s. He was ousted in the first People Power in 1986.
Government leaders should stop blaming and warring on media, and focus instead on wars that they should fight – against corruption, poverty and other ills that afflict society. Let the journalists do their job of reporting the truth to build an informed citizenry.