Emil Guillermo: Remembering Ninoy Aquino while saying farewell to CNN's "Reliable Sources"
I remember Sunday, August 21, 1983 well. It was the day Benigno Aquino, Jr., the man Filipinos called “Ninoy,” was gunned down at the Manila airport after flying home from exile in the U.S.
I was a television reporter on the NBC station in San Francisco. With around 250,000 Filipinos in the Bay Area at the time, including Aquino’s sisters, it was treated as a local story. And on this story, the sisters were my reliable sources. I just remember going over and over that video of Aquino walking off the plane and the Tagalog phrase “Eto na,” or, “here he is” as shots were fired.
It’s like a loop in my brain.
If you don’t remember Aquino, he was the main rival of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino was returning in the hope of leading the fight against Marcos’ autocratic rule under martial law. He never got past the tarmac.
Most still suspect Marcos ordered the assassination, although a group of military officials was tried, then acquitted, during Marcos’ tenure. A number of them were retried and convicted when the People Power government of Cory Aquino, Benigno’s widow, took over.
But there’s never really been a sense of justice or closure. So imagine the open wound now, 39 years later, when irony of ironies, Marcos’ son Bongbong is the Philippines’ new president, after six years of human rights abuses by former president Rodrigo Duterte, the political rehabilitator of the Marcos clan.
It’s not just a return to power of an autocratic family, but a real example of the pendulum swing of democracy all around the world since the 1980s. Democracy has weakened as strong men rise. Even here in the U.S., with the lingering presence of the disgraced FPOTUS (Former President of the United States), the erosion is evident in our democratic institutions from the courts to congress to journalism.
I thought about all that as I watched the final show of CNN’s Reliable Sources with host Brian Stelter. As a journalist, I’ve watched the show for the last 30 years, and I mourn its end. Need I say, a show about the media is necessary now more than ever.
From what I surmise, the show was seen as biased against Trump, which is a ridiculous notion if you look at all the cockamamie things Trump did while in office. From the vulgarity of “s*hole” nations to racist Muslim travel bans to an anti-immigrant drive that included an obsession over building a wall, to tearing away mothers from their babies. And this doesn’t even include the impeachable offenses.
On the last show, Stelter’s guests helped give a sense of where journalism is these days. Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame once again talked about how he’s always trying for the “best obtainable version of the truth,” meaning it’s subject to change. But he added, “Truth is not neutral.” It suggests that important information comes with some context and a perspective that journalism provides to help people understand the facts. Just the facts alone won’t lead to insight.
I tend to agree with Bernstein–truth isn’t neutral, but I think there are different perspectives on the same facts. And those perspectives must be presented and clearly labeled as news or commentary. Is there an Asian American or BIPOC view? Of course. Do you ever see it mentioned in the mainstream media? Very rarely. More on that in a sec.
Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief at The Atlantic, chimed in that media was at first reluctant to be so honest about Trump. Journalists, for the most part, refused to call Trump a liar or even a racist in spite of evidence. Journalists pulled their punches until they understood that speaking as plainly and directly as Trump himself was the only way to communicate truth not just to power but to all the people.
But the most insightful guest on the last show was the NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, the only BIPOC person on the show, who pointed out the most obvious thing missing in the media.
It’s almost too exclusively all-white. Still.
As America gets browner and more colorful according to the Census, the news is no more diverse now than when I was on TV and radio. Thank goodness for Deggans’ input. There were no Asians, no Hispanics on this last show. As a mainstream journalist who has also worked in Asian, Filipino, and Black media, I know diversity remains the blind spot even for shows like “Reliable Sources.” There was a 30-second reference to Maria Ressa, the Filipino American journalist in Manila who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for intrepid reporting despite harassment from the Philippine government. But that was it.
The show ended with Stelter thanking CNN for letting him say goodbye, which wasn’t all that daring on the corporate’s part. The fact is, Stelter, a young thirty-something, is too inside to be as effective a media critic as he could be. He’s too beholden to say anything truly dangerous or insightful about any of the corporate media to make a real difference. You can bite the hand that feeds you until they stop calling you a critic and start calling you a cannibal. Then they mumble something about ratings, and you’re gone. On exit, Stelter’s victory lap was a hurrah for CNN. So, yes, in the age of social media, we are all journalists now, and it’s up to us to advocate for journalism, said Stelter as he wished CNN well. He’s rooting for it. Of course. He wants to work again. And he will. He has a following.
It would be different if he were like Liz Cheney, who exited her job last week because she refused to buckle to Trump. She’s on her crusade. Stelter’s nice finale assures he’ll fall up. That’s what happens when you choose to play the game.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.