Much ado about merging

1 Nov

Last June 4, a breaking news item by Philippine Star showbiz columnist Ricardo “Ricky” Lo got tongues wagging and cursors hovering in the local internet sphere. The article discussed the green-lighting of a “landmark” merger between media outlets TV5 and GMA7, to be formally launched November this year.

According to Lo, TV5 head Manny V. Pangilinan — popularly known by his moniker MVP – ”virtually confirmed” the merger at a June 2 presscon in San Francisco, where he was inking a separate deal with satellite broadcaster Dish Network in behalf of TV5.

Dish Network also provides satellite services for the streaming of GMA7 shows in the US.

After a few hours, TV5′s online news arm Interaksyon published an article disputing the Philippine Star scoop. Interaksyon cited exclusive correspondence with MVP, who explained how he was misquoted by Lo.

“You know, all I said was: Please support TV5 here in the States. And by the way, please support GMA7, too, since Dish carries GMA. That was all. No mention of merger, investment, combination.

“Certainly no mention of a November deadline or any deadline at all. Sure, some people speculated, and all I said was I can now say we are under discussion but nothing has been finalized at this time,” said MVP. The absence of finality in the merger talks was corroborated by TV5 chief executive Ray Espinosa.

In the following months, buzz of the alleged merger remained. ABS-CBN, the last player in the triumvirate of leading Filipino media networks, even released a PR article online detailing how chairman Eugenio Lopez III was “not threatened” by the proposed GMA7-TV5 deal.

Come October, both parties released statements confirming the fall-through of the controversial merger. MediaQuest Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of the MVP-helmed PLDT group, said that both networks were “unable to arrive at mutually acceptable terms despite the continual discussions and efforts exerted in good faith.”

For his own part, GMA7 CEO Atty. Felipe Gozon proffered: “The issues that the parties were not able to resolve had nothing to do with the price.”

Even if the deal has fizzled out for the time being, this is hardly a case of much ado about nothing. It has opened the minds of media executives, producers and audiences alike to the previously far-fetched possibility of a media merger and its underlying – albeit unrealized – repercussions.

The privatization of media is a double-edged sword. In their landmark text Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explore this duality by dedicating a chapter to the characterizations of who journalists work for.

In the operations of any media corporation, two divisions find themselves both cooperating with and contradicting one another: the newsroom and the network’s corporate arm. As the competition stiffened among different corporations and different channels of media besides, news producers worldwide adapted to various extents a paradigm of the citizen as a customer.

Such a mindset ultimately leads to the corrosion of the integral values of justice, freedom and independence in reportage. Justice in news coverage engages three aspects: fairness, balance and objectivity.

Fairness entails airing both or every side involved in an issue. Balance demands that equal space and equal time be given to all parties. Objectivity, meanwhile, is the avoidance of words and phrases that imply judgment to avoid unduly influencing audiences.

One aspect of freedom in journalism concerns upholding the constitutionally-protected freedom of expression and of the press. This freedom is necessary for the press to adequately and competently perform its functions of citizen advocate and watchdog of power.

Freedom, however, is not only limited to the absence of stifling government control or intervention. Its second aspect entails journalistic autonomy: independence from pressures both internal and external to the newsroom that may impede judicious reportage and editorial judgment.

How do we see these journalistic values lived out or undermined in our most influential news networks? The Philippines alone provides a notable case study.

All three of the largest television networks are owned and operated by businessmen. Affluent families control the publication of the most widely-circulated newspapers and magazines. Such managerial hierarchies lend themselves to what Kovach and Rosensteil dubbed the “bureaucratic inertia” of corporate media ownership.

This presumes that the business, political and even personal interests of head honchos snowball into newsroom decisions to pursue, discontinue or modify certain stories. The danger lies in private interests holding a greater mandate over the public’s right to know.

There is much to be desired and to be enraged about when the priorities of a newsroom shift from producing stories that matter to producing stories that sell. Running a media organization as a business-minded individual or family already brings with it a plethora of conflicts of interest. To imagine the consequences of a merger between two of the largest news networks, both ran by businessmen to boot, would be to multiply the propensities of bureaucratic inertia twofold.

While it is initially reassuring to know that irreconcilable factors not concerning money weighed in on the GMA7 decision, audiences and media practitioners alike ought to be vigilant for the likelihood of another think – and another deal – coming, especially when these could compromise the impartiality and integrity of local news operations.

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