When the benighted opts to remain in the dark
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2009-01-27

Ignorance among the poor and downtrodden is not just because of a generational cycle of poverty. Some of the poor and downtrodden are ignorant (which promotes poverty) because of the choices they made in life.

Lack of education can be blamed on wealth disparity especially when there is really an intense desire of the poor to rise above their station in life through education. They realize that education is what will allow them to get better paying jobs that their parents or grandparents never had.

But for many poor people, their lack of knowledge of important information can be traced to their counter productive media habits. You can easily see this in the media they patronize.

Those who have a good career path tend to watch television documentaries that expand knowledge and keep a person abreast of technological advances in the world. Compare them to the non-achievers who tend to watch inane television variety and game shows.

And it is not a question of whether these channels that feature documentaries are available only on cable. If documentaries appealed to the masses and will be watched by them over their established preference for comedies, dramas, variety and game shows - the top rating free-to-air television networks will offer documentaries.

It is not a question of language either. The top quality BBC and PBS documentaries that you can watch on Australia Network or Discovery can be easily dubbed into Filipino or even narrated in Filipino by somebody like Edu Manzano who would make an excellent and credible presenter.

None of the top rating television networks feature documentaries on their schedules simply because these will not be watched by the masses. The “Empires” series of documentaries which can be seen on the Australia Network are a great source of information on how the Roman, Ottoman, Japanese empires were born. But the ABS-CBN and GMA Network will never program that against a Judy Ann Santos drama show or the Bubble Gang.

Those who are focused on improving themselves will read the more informative English language newspapers like the STAR. Those who are content with living a hand to mouth existence so long as they get their three meals a day will likely prefer to read the scandal-oriented tabloids.

There are radio stations that attempt to provide developmental programming that can uplift people’s skills and standards but these do not compare in listenership ratings to those radio programs that feast on scandals and gossips in both showbiz and politics.

There are those who suggest that this rather illogical situation happens because the poor is so traumatized by their conditions in life that they tend to gravitate to these escapist entertainment programs. And these broadcast networks that earn big bucks out of these escapist entertainment programs are only too willing to provide as much of what their target audience wants.

Broadcast networks - radio and television - are mandated to provide public service. Public service is why the government provides them the franchise to operate the airwaves, a public domain. But the lust for money has altogether caused the abandonment of these primary goals.

They rationalize their programming with this: “Entertainment is also an important public service.” They will argue that without entertainment, a country like ours that is deeply mired in poverty and social conflict could already be suffering from anarchy and fighting in the streets.

In 1972, when former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, all the broadcast networks (along with all publications) were shut down and reopened only under close government supervision. Of course, the clear intention then was to prevent any counter moves to the imposition of the dictatorship.

Mass media is the most potent means with which to stir-up the people to reject a dictatorship. In fact, the 1986 People Power Revolution was considered a media revolution - to show just how powerful media can be.

But notwithstanding the clampdown on press freedom, martial law would have been an excellent opportunity for Marcos to re-gear and retool Philippine media from its American orientation (predominantly entertainment) to Western European which relies heavily on documentaries.

Such a reorientation of a people’s media habits can only happen in a controlled media environment and for a prolonged period like an entire decade. A controlled media environment that is undertaken for a short period will be prone to backsliding when there is freedom to return to entertainment-oriented programming of lesser value.

This is not to say that we are endorsing and justifying a media clampdown under whatever circumstances. Even if the objective is to reorient our mass media to become more developmental, that does not justify a media clampdown.

But under those conditions we were in already under martial law for close to 14 years - it would have allowed the reorientation of our mass media to one that would have promoted a better informed people. It was a bad thing that we at least found a way to make some good of. It could have spurred national development by elevating our people’s information level.

Developmental programming is antithetical to the propagation of an authoritarian regime which tends to promote cults and myths about the dictator. The promotion of cults and myths about the dictator who is bent on ruling forever and ever requires the ‘idiotization’ of a people so that they cannot intellectually challenge the lies being fed to them.

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