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Opinion

Reform the country's 'paper of record'


The Philippine Daily Inquirer matters.  As the country’s top-selling newspaper and de facto “paper of record” for historians like myself, it is the best representation of the media as fourth estate. And although online platforms like this website are becoming more influential, it will take time for the gravitas of ink on paper news to fade.
 
The Inquirer’s influence is evident during its best moments. The publication is a product of the anti-dictatorship movement, tracing its origins to the crusading weekly Mr. and Ms. In its early years, the paper attracted some of the most influential Filipino thinkers, including—one of my personal heroes—the intellectual polymath Salvador P. Lopez. The liberal, democratic heritage of the paper has, for the most part, allowed middle class—mostly Manileño—Filipinos to chart the contradictions of post-authoritarian politics. The publication is committed to protecting our democracy, and you can be assured that no Marcos apologist will be given a column on its op-ed pages.
 
The Inquirer is also braver than its competitor broadsheets—most of which have traditionally been mouthpieces of their owners. When Joseph Estrada intimidated other papers, The Inquirer continued to publish articles critical of the president, even when Malacañang tried to block its ad revenue. Without The Inquirer and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, EDSA Dos would have been impossible.
 
This distinguished history only makes it more painful to say that the paper is starting to suck. The most obvious evidence for this are the gaffes the paper has committed on its front page. On April 28—the day of Barack Obama’s visit—it plastered an inane infographic of the American President on its front page. Scanning his body from top to bottom, it claimed that the US president was “walking tall” at 6’1; that in “his gut” was a “love for Philippine bananas;” and that “no way Jose” was he going to “shoot from the hip.” The graphic had the maturity level of a high school Araling Panlipunan skit.
 
But if this recent front page was laughable, a photo caption from two years ago was simply offensive. On May 9, 2012 the lead-in caption for a headline photo of a Muslim woman wearing a niqab in Malacañang asked if she was a “security threat.” Of course, the woman—the wife of a leading ARMM official close to President Aquino—was far from that. More importantly, the faux pas belied insensitivity to cultural differences. 
 
To its credit, the Inquirer apologized for the incident, and people seem to have forgiven its editors. And since it happened two years ago, maybe things have changed since (although not by much if the Obama front page is any indication).
 
But if childish can define the front page, an almost antonym for the word best describes the op-ed: old. Since Patricia Evangelista stopped writing for the paper in 2012, its Opinion section has been bereft of a youth voice. I could not find the ages of all the regular columnists, but none of them seem to be younger than 45, maybe even 50.
 
We have listened to some of the paper’s columnists ad nauseam for decades. Surely someone who wrote his best work in the '60s, whose notion of “analysis” is to declare anything the President does incorrect, who—despite being a doyen of Pinoy journalism—plagiarized a reporter from a competing newspaper, can make way for new voices.
 
The youth is the hope of the nation… which is why they get the tokenistic Youngblood column, allowing their lolas to frame newspaper clips for their kumadres. Or they get the Lifestyle section—some parts of which they can, if they’re lucky, edit (mostly because it’s idiotic to have old people edit youth sections). I often hear the complaint that young people are becoming apolitical. This will be the case for as long as periodicals like the Inquirer exclude them from political conversations.
 
The Inquirer has ossified and become resistant to change. Its current editor, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, has held her post for 23 years. No doubt Jimenez-Magsanoc is one of the most important figures in the history of Philippine journalism. But even the best editors of the best newspapers make way. The average tenure of a New York Times executive editor since the 1960s, for example, has been five years.
 
So how do great publications remain dynamic? They continually infuse new blood, and they hire outsiders to top positions. In 2009, Australia’s The Monthly (the country’s equivalent of The New Yorker) appointed 23-year-old Ben Naparstek its EIC. When The Paris Review needed a new EIC in 2003, they asked The New York Review’s Rob Silvers to head the selection committee. To the chagrin of the staff, Silvers selected an outsider to head the publication. For local examples of new blood leading the way, we only need to remember that La Solidaridad was run by writers in their twenties and thirties.
 
The Inquirer does not need to be as radical as these publications to change things. All it needs to do is prove that it will not be dominated by the same EDSA-era baby boomers who have lorded over our intellectual landscape for at least three decades. A national newspaper must reflect changes in the intellectual climate, especially those brought about by the emergence of a new generation of thinkers and writers.
 
Despite my indignation, I am far from giving up on the Inquirer. Outsiders like myself can complain all we want, but it is still the most widely read and influential broadsheet around. Its responsibility to the public is immense. I want changes in The Inquirer, because like many Filipinos who grew up on it, I want it to stay relevant for me.
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Leloy Claudio is a researcher at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ateneo de Manila, and occasional writer for GMA News Online. The opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of GMA News.
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