April 16, 2017

On 'Manufactured Noise', anti-Duterte media bias makes financial sense

A former PR operator who now likes to be called a veteran journalist, Miss Manufactured Noise (not her real name) went to a university and asked her barely adult audience whether they’ve heard about certain popular Facebook pages or not. After hearing less than half of them raised their hands, she then went on to conclude that all the buzz generated by these Facebook pages were just, as she calls it, “manufactured noise”.

As an owner of a Facebook Page with considerable following, I saw her observation as less of a critique of people like me and more of a psychological projection, if not a desperate cry for attention. Because Miss MN, who accuses us of "manufactured noise", admitted to having a long history of manufacturing noise herself.

Bubby Dacer

Several weeks ago, I published a post with a line that reads:
Miss ‘Veteran Journalist’, natatandaan mo pa ba si 'Bubby Dacer'?
In response, Miss Mainstream Journalist wrote an incommensurately lengthy post to explain to the public how she turned down several major deals while she was still working for Dacer, saying that there are lines she wouldn’t cross.
Miss Mainstream Journalist was the former right hand person of slain Public Relations (PR) consultant Bubby Dacer, who was known as one of the most influential spin doctors in the 1990s. He allegedly handled Public Relations (PR) work for powerful politicians and ultra-rich businessmen… until he suddenly disappeared and was later found dead in 2001.

I was still a teenager when Dacer died, and I never really understood why there was so much coverage about him afterwards. Back then, I didn’t understand why there’s so much interest on this fellow. Truth be told, the resolution of his case has been, for the longest time, the concern of a tiny subset of the sociopolitical elite.

That is, until today.


From this point, I am forced to hide the identity of all my first-hand sources. The local PR establishment is relatively small and people know each other. Given the amount of money that changes hands regularly, mentioning their names can almost surely get them in major trouble, if not killed.

Moreover, note that this is not some demolition job against Miss Manufactured Noise. If her website’s negligible monthly traffic is an indicator, she’s already past her “journalistic” heydays. There’s no need to demolish her career: it’s more convenient for me to just let it die a natural death.

However, I felt that her story is relevant to help explain what’s going on in the government today. In short, I will use her story as my Exhibit “A”.

If you’re a TP reader who only reads TP articles that are replete with citations, then this is not the article for you. I promise that the next one will be. But for this one, I can’t.

If you’re good with that, let’s go.

The Seedy PR World

Miss MN’s de facto reply to my March 21 post consisted of a list of projects that she supposedly turned down, essentially claiming that she still has some sort of moral fiber in her. Her defensiveness, however, is indicative of one basic fact: that PR work is dirty, that PR work isn’t something that one can’t openly brag about.
Last week, a veteran journalist told me that he found it surprising that mainstream accepted Miss Mainstream Journalist despite her PR past, as hardcore journos typically maintain a condescending attitude towards PR-people-turned-journalists. However, the same person said this is probably because she allegedly had many mainstream journalists on her payroll in the past, so that kind of attitude didn’t apply to her.

But what, exactly is PR?

In 2011, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) crowdsourced a definition for PR [PRSA]:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
With this definition, PR is basically about deodorizing a company’s image, and that’s what most PR and advertising companies do. The same applies to the Philippine context, as most PR and advertising companies here stick to preparing press releases and making sure they’re broadcast or published through Mass Media. That is, most PR firms’ activities are above-board.

But Bubby Dacer wasn’t just another PR guy.

A high-profile lawyer told me that Bubby Dacer walked the extra mile: he was one of the first professional publicists to do black ops – for a fee. For the right price, he’s willing to destroy the reputation of anyone or anybody… and this is presumably why Miss Mainstream Journalist got so riled up over the mention of his name and of her name in the same sentence.

Yes, Miss Mainstream Journalist said in her post that she turned down three projects, including that of a former first lady. Let’s concede to that, but how other projects did she not turn down?

I think this can best be explained by a letter from one of my readers.

MN’s HQ: The Manila Hotel

Let me publish here a letter from a reader who happen to have stumbled upon my March 21 post. I have redacted some parts of the letter to protect the reader’s identity.
(I have just) read your Facebook post about **********, a.k.a. Ms. Manufactured Noise.
I can personally confirm and validate the claims of your source about her and Bubby Dacer. She is the wingman of Bubby Dacer during his PR firm's heydays back in the mid-90s. Imagine, they had their offices in Manila Hotel then. I think you were just in your short pants then.
I used to deal a lot with her as the point person of Dacer every time we have a press release to publish as I was the Corporate Communications Officer then of **********, the ********** in **********. 
She was Bubby's operator to the media. She pays off the media contacts to publish our press releases and she then shows proof of publication to us afterwards. Their firm also handles the black ops PR for our company back then and Bubby Dacer is getting a monthly retainer of P** million for that. That is on top of expenses after every press release is published. That's a lot of money back in 19** to 19** you know.
If Miss Mainstream Journalist was so transparent about her work under Dacer, then why won’t she name her clients that paid her and her boss to do black ops?Journalists paid by PR firms to write twisted stories are real. Miss MN, actually, knows quite a few, because she paid them herself, and handsomely at that, right?

At this point, I think the reader has pretty good idea of how black ops PR works. Thus, it’s time to explain how it’s relevant to the status quo.

Corruption in Journalism

Asked in June 2016 about media deaths, Duterte said [CNN]:
“You know why they are killed? Most of them are on the take…”
Mainstream media reported that line as if it’s something so foreign to them, despite that fact that many of them are, or have been, “on the take.”

Ten months later, not even a single news outfit has released even a single expose about even a single corrupt journalist. Actually, media companies generally do not pursue stories against other media companies and when they do, they frame the stories in the form of someone-said-this-about-that, instead of hard hitting investigative reports with documentary evidence and the whole nine yards.

The reason, I believe, is simple: Mutually-Assured Destruction.
Miss MN, for example, is known to be fiercely protective whenever mainstream media is criticized on social media, even in times when the mainstream media outfit – or the mainstream media man – is clearly in the wrong.
Well, what are the risks of doing otherwise? Imagine Miss Mainstream Journalist agreeing to a criticism against Journalist X or media outfit Y. Given Bubby Dacer’s scale of operations, there’s bound to be someone sympathetic to X or Y who would croak about Miss MN’s previous black ops work.

On the flip side, I have written in a previous section that mainstream “wholeheartedly” accepted ex-PR person Miss Mainstream Journalist because many of them owe Mainstream Journalist a “debt of gratitude”. And besides, Miss Mainstream Journalist likely has enough ammunition to destroy most journalists who get in her way.
Yeah, if one croaks, then the other croaks too. Hence, zero exposés.

But we’re not done yet.

The Duterte EJK Saga

Everybody knows that the single biggest criticism against the Duterte Administration is the alleged thousands of extra-judicial killings (EJKs) committed by his administration.

At first, the EJK Bible was the Inquirer’s Kill List: it was the most oft-cited article when someone talks about EJKs. The problem, however, is that by September, the list’s growth has someone slowed down, and what little transparency in methodology it had led keen observers to notice its damning flaws [TP: Illogicalities]. For one, some of the people it listed turned out to be alive.

Despite its monumental flaws, it was the go-to reference for any critic of the Duterte administration. That is, until college sorority blog Rappler came along.

Overeager to steal the limelight, Rappler came up with its own tally. No, it was not even a list: it was just a tally that Rappler employee Michael Bueza claims as official data from the PNP, something that PNP spokesperson Dionardo Carlos vehemently denied [TP: Bad Math]. For one, over half of the total in Bueza’s list comprise of deaths under investigation, which means that their link to the the narco-trade have yet to be established. 

These two lists have served – or have been serving – as the justification for many an article against the Duterte Administration, despite the fact that these two lists, especially Bueza’s, are essentially fake news.

Despite this, we have been witness to several coordinated media blitzes in the past several months, with journalist Krizette Chu observing two: one on 09 December 2016, and another on 30 December 2016.

The timing of these two blitzes is nothing short of interesting, as it suggests (costly) attempts at PR damage control.

The first blitz was right after VP Leni Robredo resigned from the cabinet [CNN], while the other was in the heat of the #NasaanSiLeni controversy, or when Robredo flew to the US for a family vacation despite the knowledge that a supertyphoon is about to hit her hometown [TP: Thief in the Night].

And don’t even get me started at mainstream media’s general unwillingness to publish stories that are (1) unfavorable to the Liberal Party [TP: LeniLeaks] or (2) favorable to the Duterte Administration.

Internet “empowered” PR firms

Corruption in journalism is as old as the journalism profession itself, the practice of PR companies paying journalists to write heavily spun – if not outrightly false – stories is already a given.

What’s more interesting, however, is the magnitude at which they do it right now.

The advent of affordable high-speed internet and the rise of social media has exposed mainstream news outfits to unprecedented levels of competition. With the digital shift, many publications have shut down while those that remain suffer dwindling readerships.

Worse, websites do not generate as much revenue, and publishers are struggling to reconcile meager income with bloated operating expenses.
The best example would be Rappler.com, or the college sorority blog that’s pretending to be a news outfit. Since its 2011 launch, Rappler has posted total comprehensive losses of Php 162 million, and it has yet to turn a profit in any single fiscal year [TP: Bankrupt].

Despite this, Rappler keeps on going, and going, and going, with massive yearly capital infusions keeping it afloat, capital infusions that do not make financial sense until…
Have you seen a single Rappler blog post that openly criticized Leni Robredo? Exactly.
This is aside from the fact that journalism as a profession doesn’t pay well: I know of several veteran journalists who are worried about how they will send their kids to college. That's how little journalists get paid.

For every financially struggling journalist, the temptation to accept money from PR firms is real.

Thankfully, many journalists refused to join the dark side, but more of them do.

A Global Trend

I think this is the best time to quote Aphorism 46 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil [Quora]:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

The public’s growing distrust of mainstream media is not endemic to the Philippines. It is a global trend, and it is this same kind of distrust that propelled Donald Trump to the US presidency [DenverPost].

When I was in San Francisco in February, I had the honor of having a lengthy conversation with a senior member of the Philippine diplomatic corps. We talked about this seemingly one-sided view of the Duterte Administration in the international scene, and this is what the diplomat told me:
“Western traditional media is financially dying. Media companies have become even more reliant than ever on funding from PR firms for them to stay solvent. These Western news organizations do not really care about the Philippines: it’s culture is so foreign and for many, it’s just as far as way as Mars. But why do American papers fixate on everything Duterte does? It’s simple: because writing about him pays the bills. Now, as to who pays the PR bills, I have a few in mind.”
Well, after the two anti-Duterte December media blitzes that all-too-coincidentally happened right after Robredo-centered controversies, I think I have a pretty good idea where part of the funding comes from. Note that I used the word “part of the funding” because aside from political parties, the funding may also come from foreign government.

Take for example the case of Ukrainian TV. 

Rappler and Omidyar

Last year, Kenneth Rapoza of [Forbes] wrote:
The best way to raise funds for a media project in Ukraine? Go full-bore anti-Russia to easily woo North American and European governments to give you money.
The article said the funders of Ukrainian Hromadske.TV include the GOVERNMENTS of Canada, the Netherlands, United States, Switzerland, Swede, Germany, and the European Union.

Interestingly, the same Forbes article mentioned the Omidyar Network in the same paragraph where it mentioned funding agencies of the seven governments listed above. Yes, the same Omidyar Network that has reportedly, in cooperation with the US government, helped fund the Ukrainian Revolution, i.e. the overthrow of the Ukrainian Government [Pando].

And why is it interesting for Filipinos? Because Omidyar is one of Rappler’s funders [Omidyar].

You see, intervention by foreign powers are the exact reason why the constitution prohibits foreign ownership of local media… except that some media companies, like Salim-owned TV5 and Philippine Star, know how to circumvent this constitutional provision.

And Rappler is just as guilty as the MVP-owned companies, after it accepted money from the same Omidyar Network mentioned above.

Countering PR Spin

How can we counter international PR spin when hiring PR companies is very expensive?
President Gloria was accused in 2007 of hiring Covington & Burling LLP, a hyper-influential US PR firm, for a US$ 50-million, six-month contract for pro-administration PR in the US, although then-Senator Mar Roxas said the contract may be for “something more, perhaps like getting the US Defense and Military establishment to soften resistance to a new strain of Martial Law [Roxas] .”
PR companies, however, may cost a lot less than that. But for a poor country like the Philippines, even one percent of that amount is a lot of money. Hence, we unfortunately are incapable of fighting fire (bad PR) with fire (Good PR), for the simple reason that the president is unwilling to spend that much on it.

And no, open letters to mainstream media will not work. Quoting Upton Sinclair:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it!
At this point, I think the best course of action, given financial constraints, is the reintroduction of the Press Attaché in key diplomatic missions. I extensively discussed this in last week’s article “Duterte vs the World: it's time to review our international PR strategy“.

But let me be clear on this, press attachés cannot realistically reverse the tide of international opinion. However, it can, at least, ensure that international media agencies, while writing anti-Administration stories, will have no good reason not to get the Duterte government’s side of story.

And on a final note, your feeling that there’s some sort of media conspiracy against Duterte is not totally unfounded. Miss Mainstream Journalist is evidence that corruption in journalism existed during her time, and there are more Miss MN’s who are active in the country and elsewhere today.

I am personally unable to see any definitive solution to the problems that people like Miss Mainstream Journalist cause, but I hope that through this article, you’ve gained a better understanding of the challenges we are facing today

You see, the first step towards a solution is understanding the problem, and here it is. [ThinkingPinoy]

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