Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every other week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

Media’s role in subverting the electoral process

Our usual understanding of “subversion” is a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within, and we usually attribute the activity to a society’s underprivileged and malcontents as well to as militant ideologues. But the word actually applies as well to any effort to pervert or corrupt a society by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith, and I think it is in this broader context that we should view the acts of some moneyed presidential aspirants who at this very moment are brazenly defying the spirit of the law against premature election campaigning.

The law is clear: candidates should not campaign before the scheduled election campaign period. For the May 10, 2010 elections, it’s specifically not earlier than 90 days before election day for national candidates and not earlier than 45 days for local candidates. So why are all these presidential aspirants now running scores of self-aggrandizing TV commercials to the tune of almost P500,000 per 60-second primetime spot, making long radio endorsements for supposedly worthy causes for God knows how much per minute, and talking ad infinitum about themselves on open-air TV monitors along major city thoroughfares?

What were they thinking—that the people can’t see through their ploys to get around the ban on premature campaigning? That they can so easily circumvent the law by conveniently giving the excuse that they aren’t saying what they are really up to anyway—which, no doubt, is to lay their hands on and take possession of the highest position in the gift of the land? Where, people might ask, is the sense of morality of these putative “presidentiables” at this time when everybody—including themselves—is crying to high heavens for strong moral leadership in this politically blighted land of ours? Are they incapable of seeing the irony and duplicity in what they are doing? If they were truly honorable, they could have chosen the high moral ground for the lofty political position they are seeking, but they have taken the low ground instead to serve their self-interest and overweening ambition.

Still, it is undeniable that certain sectors of the mass media are themselves willing accomplices in this tawdry state of affairs. By accepting and allowing these premature election campaign advertising placements in their broadcast and print outlets, they have actually made themselves partners in crime, so to speak. Indeed, what they are doing could very well be compared to the fencing or selling of stolen goods. They could very well have taken the high moral ground themselves by simply refusing to accept and run the legally questionable TV and radio commercials and print ads. What a great boon to the spirit of democracy and morality it would be if the mass media would simply decide to come out clean in this sordid affair!

Way back in 2003, at about this same time when the country was priming up for a national election, I had occasion to express my great disappointment in the quality of the people seeking high office in our country and in the mass media’s complicity in the degradation of our country’s political life. That disappointment took the form of the following essay, “The Battle for Our Minds,” which I had hoped would help clarify the political picture for the people. But it pains me that far from improving, the situation has gone from bad to worse—with hardly any prospect of correction unless the people’s collective voice is raised loud and clear against this abuse of our democratic political process.

Click on the title below to read the essay.

The Battle For Our Minds

Once upon a time in our fledgling democracy, people who sought elective office assiduously cultivated a public life of honor, dignity, and excellence. The measures of social and political acceptance were intelligence, integrity, and achievement. The political firmament of the pre-Independence era thus filled up with such illustrious names as Quezon, Osmeña, Recto, Tañada, Roxas, and Laurel. They became larger-than-life presences because of their personal magnetism, eloquence, and deep understanding of the imperatives of politics and governance. But then that was the time when radio in our country was still an adolescent as a mass communication medium. That was the time when broadcast television was still an infant even in America, which had transplanted democracy on the largely unprepared Philippine soil at the turn of the 20th century. That was the time when the print media still held sway as the public information medium. The mechanisms of the democratic electoral process could still grow without getting badly distorted by media-induced manipulation.

When the Filipinos discovered TV and radio broadcasting, however, a monkey wrench was thrown on the country’s electoral process. They discovered that broadcast media appearance and noise could very well substitute for the assiduously cultivated public life. They discovered the politics of convenience, the politics of media-induced gloss and popularity. From then on, no one who wanted to enter politics needed to learn the art of politics and governance. All one had to do was to expose oneself on broadcast media, preferably television. The kind of exposure really didn’t matter—decent, indecent, whatever—so long as it was sustained exposure. Clowning or outright buffoonery or somersaults on TV was perfect. Reading the news or prattling on TV and radio with half-baked opinions was just fine. Anchoring talk shows or quiz shows was just great. And yes, doing 30-second TV or radio endorsements for any product that needs heavy advertising was even much better! Pitch multivitamins, rum, brandy, anything—and voila! one can be sure to be rated highly by the statistical pollsters and run for election. The greater the broadcast exposure, the higher the level of public office one could aspire for. So why bother learning the art of management, leadership, and governance? After all, the simple media-exposure formula had wonderfully sent entertainers of all stripes to Congress as well as to provincial capitols and city halls—film actors, clowns, sit-com talents, martial-arts performers, talk-show hosts, and newsreaders. At one time, the same formula even sent one of their kind to the highest post in the gift of the land!

There may be some exceptions to the rule, but look at what Philippine democracy has produced for us: politicians without political platform or ideology, elective officials who do little on top of preparing themselves for the next elections, individuals who have no true constituency or principle to stand for and fight for. Repudiating the marketing axiom so clearly enunciated by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book, Positioning—that anyone or anything that must battle for our mind must clearly “position” or define itself in the marketplace—these people have not even taken the trouble to position themselves. They stand for nothing. They belong to a political party largely for convenience. Only a paltry few have shown a gift for leadership and governance, fewer still those with a clear vision of their role as public servants. Many have just capitalized on their media-induced popularity to attract moneyed backers or well-financed politicians who were unsure of their grip of the public mind. Some, in fact, have evidently become touts or politicians for hire.

The sad thing is that the Philippine mass media have actually abetted this state of affairs. They have allowed not only politicians but their very own broadcast or editorial personnel to ruthlessly exploit the power of media to advance their political interests. (Of course, it is entirely possible, too, that the media owners were the ones exploiting their former wards all along for their own vested interests.) We thus see the embarrassing spectacle of  (1) TV newscasts whose newsreaders are also the commercial endorsers of products advertised on these newscasts, (2) broadcast personalities already in high public office still shamelessly extracting media exposure for themselves by keeping their old broadcast programs (as if nothing has changed in their professional lives), and (3) officials in high elective office callously acting as commercial product endorsers on all forms of media to perpetually keep themselves in the public eye.

When will this cult of media-abetted popularity end? I am afraid it will not—unless the Filipinos realize that the quality of their governance will only be as good as the quality of the people they put into public office, and unless they recognize the harm that this reign of entertainers in politics is doing to them and act in concert to end it. Until then, to expect any real progress in this country will remain an altogether ridiculous notion.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 15, 2003 issue © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured Essay:

The Grammar of Manners

“Mind” is a very tricky English word, probably as deceptive as the statistical practice of equating popularity with fitness for the presidency. My dictionary defines “mind” in so many ways. As a noun it is “the seat of awareness, thought, and feeling”; “the intellect”; “memory and remembrance”; “one’s opinion”; and “the focus of one’s thoughts and desires.” As an intransitive verb, it means “to object to”, “to remember,” “to take care of,” “to take charge temporarily,” “to apply or concern oneself with something,” “to be obedient to,” and “to take heed or notice.” With such a profusion of meanings, it is no wonder that “mind” is among the most misused of English words.

The most embarrassing misuse of “mind,” I think, happens in the grammar of manners. I remember long ago my abysmal ignorance about this when I attended a party in Manila for the first time, one hosted by an English professor. I was the last to enter her living room among a batch of adolescent guests, and as I did so she called out with quintessential sophistication: “Mr. Carillo, do you mind closing the door? The wind and flies outside are so bothersome.” The remark was so incomprehensible to me that I could only stare at her for several pulse-pounding seconds. Finally I stammered: “Yes, of course, Mrs. Reyes!” And with that I gingerly closed the door.

Then, as I walked towards her to pay my courtesies, I noticed her staring at me as if she had seen a ghost. But she regained her composure quickly and became her professorial self. “Mr. Carillo,” she began gently, “You didn’t answer me right. You should have replied, ‘No, Ms. Reyes, not at all!’ That’s the polite and cultured way of saying that you didn’t object to my request for you to close the door. You see, the verb ‘mind’ in ‘Do you mind closing the door?’ doesn’t mean ‘please.’ It means ‘object,’ as in ‘Do you object to the idea of closing the door?’ It’s not the same as “Could you, please?’, which you can politely answer with a ‘Yes.’ Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mrs. Reyes, I understand,” I said, and made a motion to leave.

“Don’t you go yet, Mr. Carillo,” she said, gently taking hold of my wrist, “I’d like to give you a few more lessons in the grammar of manners. The food can wait. When I said that ‘No, not at all’ is the polite reply to ‘Do you mind?’, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to say ‘Yes.’ For instance, if I asked, ‘Do you mind not staring at me?’, you actually have the option of saying ‘Yes, I do mind, because I just love staring at you,’ but of course that would be impolite—not the answer, but the act of staring at me. If I asked, ‘Do you mind if I light my cigar?’, you can politely tell me, ‘Yes, Mrs. Reyes, I mind very much—I am terribly allergic to cigar smoke, and I don’t like women who smoke cigars.’ Of course, if the idea of cigar smoke or women doesn’t bother you, you can readily tell me, ‘No, not at all’ or ‘Go right ahead.’ Do you get the drift?”

“Yes, Miss Reyes, I do.”  

“Great, Mr. Carillo! That means we’re off to a good start. You may go now and join the guests for dinner.”  

That terribly humiliating lesson in the grammar of manners sent me on a weeklong search for the other meanings of the treacherous word. In fact, I was to discover so many other slippery idioms using “mind” and set out to internalize all of them: (1) “We’re of the same mind” means we share the same feeling or opinion; (2) “They can’t fool around with me if I just put my mind to it” means they can’t do any hanky-panky if I firmly don’t allow them; (3) “We’re not in our right minds if we elect overtly deceptive people” means we are crazy to do that; (4) “Mind to think out clearly who to trust” means we should remember not to trust the untrustworthy; (5) “Mind to figure out why these politicians are suddenly all over media endorsing commercial products” means we should find out what they really are up to; and finally, (6) “Mind what our conscience tells us” means to obey what we know to be true, ethical, and just.

Now that we have looked closely at the various meanings of “mind,” I’ll ask this question: Do we mind that some pollsters are foisting on us the deceptive art of equating popularity with fitness for the highest post in the gift of the nation? I pray that the answer is “Yes, we do mind and we’ll tell them to go practice their modern witchcraft elsewhere!” I do hope this is our answer, or else God help us all! (July 3, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 3, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

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