Monday, May 11, 2009

It’s all about the money

A legislator sat beside the wife of a highly-touted “presidentiable” in the first seats of a flight bound for Bacolod the other week. After the usual pleasantries, the legislator asked the wife, “O, tatakbo na ba talaga si (name of husband)?” The reply was quick --- “Ay, oo.”

The legislator asked further: “E tatakbo yata si Erap, tutuloy pa rin ba siya?” The reply was just as quick as the first, “Oo naman, wala nang makakapigil”. And then she started explaining why.

“Alam mo kasi, ang tingin namin parang hulog ng langit ito sa amin.”, she began. “Kasi bago nagbagsakan ang stocks, naibenta ni (candidate’s nickname) ang kanyang IPO. Magaling talaga si (candidate). Katitingin niya sa Bloomberg, magaling siya mag-analyze ng market, naka-timing siya, kataasan pa ng presyo. E kung hindi siya naka-timing, ‘di ngayon mababa ang value nung stocks namin. Kaya ‘di ba, parang hulog talaga ng langit? We don’t have to worry about funding”, she explained.

“Naku, talaga palang ang swerte ninyo!”, the legislator gushed. Then she asked, “Magkano ba ang kinita niyo sa pagbenta nung inyong shares?”

The reply was quick, too matter-of-factly: “Ten billion”.

Did the lady whose husband lusts to be president say that --- so others would hear? Seated behind them were two media persons, one relatively unknown except to kapwa-media, and the other, in dark glasses because she had to catch up on sleep perhaps, was the gung-ho supporter of another legislator who wants to be president. I wonder if the presidentiable’s wife knew this newsperson was within hearing distance. O sadya bang ipinadidinig? Was she trying to shout before the whole world ---put up or shut up? It’s all about the money…period.

Such a small world indeed. The presidentiables and their ladies are falling all over each other!

* * *

Which brings me to the subject of money, lots of it. In the words of one presidentiable, “if you ain’t got a billion pesos (to start with), why even bother to run (for president)”. Pera-pera nga lang pala.

There’s the massive use of “paid” media. Strictly defined, “paid” means you pay for space (in print) or for air time (in broadcast). Thus far, Manny Villar with his billions has spent for several variations of his message. For a year now, his political commercials have been on the air --- as one concerned with the plight of OFW’s, and as Mr. Itik, helping out a duck raiser who ran into bad times. His charitable bent seems not to have any bounds. The lumpen cannot compute anyway, how much personal charity can achieve, incremental as it goes, against how much more good governance can achieve, for the OFW’s or all of the miserably poor. Then, there’s Mar Roxas and his Padyak. Before that there was his blurb about cheap medicines. For a brief period, Loren was seen walking around fetid urban slums, and saying her piece on corruption. Also for a brief period, Ping Lacson linked corruption to why life is so unfair to the poor of this country. “Patas na laban, para sa lahat”, he envisions in 30 seconds. Chiz has radio spots, mostly in the provinces, or so I am told. Binay has children and senior citizens gushing about how wonderful life is in his fabulous Makati, and ends up asking, why not in the entire country? Erap will soon come out with his own. There will be some comic touches, they tell me. “Tatakbo ba si Erap?” supposedly will be asked within a few weeks, and later, you will get the answer --- “Tumatakbo na si Erap”. Go figure.

On the openly pro-administration side (as distinguished from those in the “opposition” who would not have second thoughts about a “deal” with Gloria), there’s Noli de Castro and his “Murang Pabahay” program, paid for by Pag-ibig funds, part of their information campaign, they justify, with their boss as poster boy. Why ever not? Noli was after all, a news reader, and a product endorser. Then there’s BF with his pink-coloured tarpaulins, strewn all over the landscape. The guy still believes in outdoor advertising obviously. There’s Ephraim Genuino, who uses Pagcor money to fund an umpteenth anti-drug crusade. Whether he’s running for president, senator, or governor of Laguna, I don’t even care to know. The anti-illegal drugs issue has been beaten to death by so many politicians --- Boy Herrera, Tito Sotto, and God knows how many local politicos. And yet, queerly, drugs keep proliferating. He, he, he.

The latest kid on the block is Gilbert Teodoro, who made a smashing debut in the Pacquiao-Hatton fight. Pacquaio smashed Hatton in the second round, and in the process, smashed Gilbert’s ad to an afterthought. Instead of running in between fight rounds, it ran in between the anthems, on free TV, and bombed. Stung by adverse criticism, Gibo said he used the money of his friends, not public funds. But if the play on his surname was meant to save lives and provide disaster awareness and relief information, what could be wrong about using public funds? Communication, with the caveat that it ought to be “effective”, is an integral part of good governance. But does the commercial effectively communicate? I wonder. And then there’s the teaser trial balloon of “smart” Manny Pangilinan, another billionaire. When will Edu and Angel’s “Ako Mismo” point to Manny P?

There ought to be more, as election fever heats up, and by next year, reach swine flu pandemic proportions. This gets the goat of Tita de Villa of the PPCRV, the Catholic Church lay organization dedicated to free and honest polls. But Tita should be more worried, upright lady that she is, about “free” media.

Paid media is all about frequency and the right message, and frequency is of course a function of money. Clearly, Manny V, who has lots and lots of money, is tops in frequency. In the welter of pre-campaign ads, which will stand out as effective tools of communication? And why spend hundreds of millions now, in the case of the few front-loaders, and a few millions, in the case of the poor guys on the block (those who don’t have “ at least one billion”)? The answer lies in the surveys, the ultimate determinant of “fitness” to run for public office. Statistics, in this country of the benighted, where shallow thought passes as profundity, has become not just a tool, but be-all and end-all. And the operative strategy is --- 30 seconds multiplied lots and lots of times equals better numbers in SWS and Pulse Asia. Just be careful not to hire the progenitors of “Tol” or Pechay”.

And then there’s “free” media. Which strictly defined, is news, on paper or on the air. It’s supposed to be free, as in “truthful” and “balanced”. This is where Tita de Villa and most other concerned citizens should be most worried.

With money, lots and lots of it, useless pictures with no newsworthiness will get good page treatment, if the price is right. Or an inane interview on the air with a candidate who mouths arrant nonsense. For the right price, “bad” news about oneself can be blacked-out, while “bad” news about a political opponent can be highlighted and magnified. Never mind us opinion writers. The reason it is an opinion column and not a news report is we purvey our thoughts, including our biases. One has to take sides in political equations. One has to take a stand on issues, and persons behind the issues.

But when news reports are deliberately slanted, “angled” according to the pre-paid “spin”, buried in the inside pages, highlighted or obfuscated, worse, when news is unabashedly sold to the highest bidder --- that’s what Tita de Villa should be truly worried about. Because when information becomes a prostitute, then free elections become farce.

There is this news manager of a giant broadcast network, for instance, who went to the Christmas party hosted by a former network executive. It was an affair for media persons to bond together, under the auspices of a retired media mentor, a jolly good fellow. As usual, there were raffle prizes.

The jolly good fellow invited “presidentiables”, many of whom could not make it, but sent their media relations sachems to attend. One senator donated 10,000 pesos for the raffle pot. Jolly good fellow announces that senator so-and-so’s money would be the prize for a winning number.

Whereupon, the news manager of the giant network stood up, approached the media relations sachem of another senator, then got a bundle. Off he went to the stage, and himself announced, unabashedly, that he was donating 20,000 pesos for the raffle, courtesy of his senator-presidentiable. As he fished out the bundle of money, a thousand-peso bill fell off, and counting the bundle to be 20 grand, he said, “akin ito…” referring to the bill that fell off. As the ad says, “ako mismo”, as in --- hindi man lang nahiya.

The matter was reported to the boss of the network, but the news manager remains in place, as powerful as ever, as “protective” of his favourite as ever, and as zealous against those who would ruin his favourite’s chances in 2010. This is what “free” media is, as practiced in the benighted land.

That is why I keep repeating in this space and in small company, that saving this country, redeeming this land, and ennobling our people with the use of freedom as path towards prosperity --- are not possible under our wretched and corrupted system. For ours is not a democracy, as I keep saying. It is a feudal order.

Given the above, among other uses of money as key to power, we will always “elect” the least among us to lead us. The least in competence. The least in vision or purpose. The least in character. The D and E classes will be mesmerized by maximum money used “optimally” to buy ads, to buy media, to buy local politicians, to buy votes, and not to forget, to buy those who will count the votes, men or machine.

What a farce. And yes, what a country!