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Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Columnist's Woes

09.2007, Gurupress

She didn’t mean to be mean; she only meant to be frank. She was just being faithful to her character; she was only for freedom of self-expression bursting forth from her “ascerbic wit.”

This sums up (now ex-) Manila Standard columnist Malou Fernandez’ response to some of her readers’ reaction to her controversial article. Her statements of defense only whipped up some more waves of criticisms against her, though. So short of saying “Peace be still!” she apologized and resigned from the paper. But the waves continued to rage.

Having read the readers’ responses before getting the chance to skim over Malou’s write up, I first wondered what the hullabaloo was all about. The ABS-CBN report didn’t tell the whole story, so I had to surf the Net and download the columnist’s lines that got the goat chiefly of Mid-east OFWs.

There, tucked in her article, “From Boracay to Greece!” were these travelogue notes:

…I heaved a sigh, popped my sleeping pills and dozed off to the sounds of gum chewing and endless yelling of “HOY! Kumusta ka na? At taga saan ka? Domestic helper ka rin ba?” Translation: “Hey there! Where are you from? Are you a domestic helper as well?” I thought I had died and God had sent me to my very own private hell.

… I had to bravely take the economy flight once more. This time I had already resigned myself to being trapped like a sardine in a sardine can with all these OFWs smelling of AXE and Charlie cologne while my Jo Malone evaporated into thin air.

The first quote is part of her accoudubai-uae-map.gifnt of her trip to Greece with a fellow jetsetter in a cramped economy class UAE plane. The second is a remark on her return trip.

As it turned out, her passing remarks did not pass the approval of many readers who took them as yet another bourgeoise’ condescending jab at the lower classes.

Most of the print and online articles relative to this issue have substantially dealt with the charge of elitism and bigotry in media and the spirited reactions of our OFWs. In this essay, I will content myself with musing on (rambling about, my good, old – LOL – journalist friend Bani Asbucan might be tempted to say) the pleasures and perils of column-writing, or of writing in general.

The Pleasure. Writing as an art allows one to explore the limits of language, develop a pattern of communication that may at times reasonably challenge conventions of grammar and style, create images of personal thoughts in the public’s consciousness, carve out a niche in the readers’ hearts, and hopefully contribute to the betterment of society.

In other words, choosing writing for a career can be a way of satisfying the upper three levels of needs according to the oft-cited Psychologist Abraham Maslow: Social Needs, Esteem Needs, and Self-Actualization.

Forget the first two levels, Physiological Needs and Safety Needs – at least judging from my father’s writing career, anyway. He made a name for himself in his time as a newspaper guy, but he was never able to make for himself and his family a steel box loaded with as many jewels as one can name. Also, he got mugged once due to a report he made in a local paper.

Which leads us to the other side of a writer’s life.

The Peril. Few can be more horrifying to columnists than seeing their own articles riddled with typographical errors, grammatical slips, wrong information, logical inconsistencies and undeniably silly opinions – either due to the writer’s carelessness, the encoder’s mistake, the editor’s oversight, or even technology’s glitches. These blunders may not cost writers their lives, but may cost them their pride or reputation.

But yes, choosing to write about what others dare to speak only in whispers for fear of the powers-that-be can mean signing one’s death warrant. Or scribbling one’s epitaph, if you please: the past decades have been witness to the fact that bullets are indeed quicker than pens in writing epitaphs for journalists who would have wanted to “write 30” in the natural course of things.

The picture would have been different were writers as privileged as some Senators and Congressmen who could easily hide under the cloak of parliamentary immunity or behind a phalanx of bodyguards after delivering speeches riddled with inanities and falsehoods or tirades against their enemies.

Notwithstanding the risk, writers who are worth their salt cannot be beholden to anyone. Facts must see print, and truth must find voice with the pen as its megaphone.

Needless to say, this freedom of expression must be coupled with responsibility and accountability. Freedom, paradoxically, has its restraints. Lord Acton once observed that “absolute power corrupts absolutely; well, it’s the same for freedom — absolute freedom is absolute anarchy.

That’s why for those engaged in print, broadcast, and internet media, there is such a thing as a “Journalist’s Code of Ethics” to subscribe to. That’s why this Code says, among others, that a journalist “may not in any manner ridicule, cast aspersions on, or degrade any person by reason of sex, creed, religious belief, political conviction, cultural and ethnic origin.”

Easy to say, hard to do? You bet. For even the most realistic and fair appraisal of the goings-on in our communities may come across readers, especially those who have an axe to grind, as meant to ridicule, cast aspersions on and degrade others.

Writers like me can only hope that as we dress up our thoughts with printed words, we can make the picture of reality more real and beautiful. Or reveal without malice sensitive matters which should be brought to the open.

Or make readers more appreciative of our artistry. Or more forgiving of our lack thereof.

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