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The virus and the media

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THE COVID-19 virus has been a monstrous  pest to the working press.

The media industry has been one of the hardest hit when the invisible scare descended upon us.  In its wake, many media outfits,  struggling even before the pandemic, were rudely shoved out of business. Those which were doing well before the crisis set in have managed to survive,  hoping that the pest will soon be in the past tense.

With the  economy virtually on a wait- and-see stance, many businesses which had been the consistent source of the media’s revenue stream through ads, have  either paused, slowed or shut down altogether. With the stream drying faster than the ink on newsprint, newspapers, local or nationaly, daily or whatever, soon found themselves staring at horrifying financial reports.

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a fellow media practitioner about the situation. He shook his head and wiggled his fingers like he was having an epileptic attack and then lamentations came out of his mouth as if life had been unfair to him.

“The orbit is gone,” he said, referring to his erstwhile  routine of dropping by  patrons and friends  in the business and political sector who usually provided generous help, those who might be aptly described as ” low hanging fruits”.

This time, not only were the fruits gone,  the trees had become scarce, not even far and few between.   His plight had been simply reduced to a philosophical joke.   Easy to approach, he mumbled, but hard to find, which was usually reserved for user-friendly  politicians.

Without a free press, so it’s been said, democracy is impossible. Freedom of the press is the oxygen of free and unfettered public conversation.

A long time ago, the print media was projected to go out of business in a kind of slow death, ultimately foreseen  being buried in 2050. That’s because of a new genie freed from its bottle: the internet. As news became  available for free online, circulation dramatically  dropped and the print industry had to find a new business model quick to stay afloat.  The old paradigm of circulation equals revenue had been upended, more like blindsided.

The news about the paper’s impending death, however, is a bit exaggerated, following Mark Twain’s protestation. Many  are still reeling, no doubt, but  are finding ways to use the new reality to their advantage — as much as possible.

The prophets of doom had failed to factor in their calculus, which included new technolgy and new emperors, a pandemic like the one still raging, unpredictable and messy, all over the world.         

There were other pests before.  Authoritarians, populist and not, who obviously couldn’t tolerate diverse and contrary opinions.  What has emerged is  the proverbial battle between an immovable object and an irresistible force.  Guess who’s been winning so far.

Every one can easily see or feel the effect of even a partial loss of media. A void is felt sooner or later, as when former Vice President Jojo Binay woed the loss of ABS-CBN coverage of typhoon-devastated areas. In a word, the nation was  having difficuly breathing and he felt it.

Nature hates a vacuum.  Today, one can easily spot the emergence of other networks, from the religious to the ridiculous, channeling  obviously and without blushing those who butter their bread.  There’s a fair warning: media coziness with the state is good for the state but bad for the media, buttered or not.

If Donald Trump, the soon-to-be ex- US president, has been as good in co-opting American media for his populist agenda, he probably would have convinced most  Americans  of his false claims of widespread fraud in the recent US presidential election.

Of course, there were other factors, principally a US judiciary with a spine. In other words, while the Fourth Estate is crucial in a democracy, a solid judiciary and a strong opposition ultimately are a big plus as  safety net against a  despot , a wolf in sheep’ clothing.

The Philippines may not be as fortunate. But it’s trying its best for God knows how long now, riding the trough and crest of  every crisis and every potential pest, Nature-borne and man-made.

It’s currently strugging with double whammies: the virus and the  continuing erosion of democratic institutions. The former may soon be a thing of the past with several anti-COVID vaccines in sight and ready to roll out anytime next year.

The latter will continue to hound our version of democracy long after the pest is gone.   The press stands,  among a few others like the church and the opposition, in the way of a complete political regression.

Barring another unforeseen pest, we hope not.

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