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On Editorial Courage and Cowardice

October 13, 2012

There is one thing I like about the controversial and highly disparaged editorial of the UST Varsitarian that describes Ateneo and La Salle academics who support the contentious Reproductive Health bill as “lemons and cowards”. It’s the publication’s ‘editorial courage’.

Since a news publication exists to inform the people, or even to shape or misshape public opinion, it has to make a judgment call no matter what most people or polls say. Right or wrong, a publication, through its editorial board, has to judge or critique issues, or even controversial people, according to their merits. This is actually the reason why publications exist in the first place. Editorial courage is what actually makes successful news organizations these days.

A news organization cannot be crudely neutral or morally agnostic in analyzing or judging socio-political events. What could have happened if the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other underground press refused to make a judgment call and stayed morally neutral and agnostic during the Marcosian martial law? And what would happen if every news organization in these parts simply dogmatically refused to pass judgment on any critical issue for fear of offending or disrespecting other people’s feelings and beliefs.

Editorial cowardice is an act of moral abnegation; it is one’s failure or refusal to make a value judgment because of one’s distorted, warped belief that there are no two sides– right and wrong– to every issue; there are only opinions. It is a by-product of political correctness and moral agnosticism. In the realm of politics and public opinion, ‘editorial’ or ‘moral’ cowardice is a moral disease.

I think this is exactly the type of moral disease that the La Sallian and other campus and professional news organizations have been inflicted with.

In responding to the Varsitarian’s scathing editorial, the La Sallian says it “did not release an official stand on House Bill no. 4244” simply because they “respected, and we continue to respect, every person’s right to have his or her own informed opinion, including our individual editors and staffers.”

Instead of judging the RH bill issue according to its merits, the La Sallian simply stands for “the process of discernment” and “for one’s personal stand and conviction to surface from rigorous research, contemplation, and discourse, before pursuing determined action.”

The school publication further states (emphasis not mine):

We did not feel the need to impose any stance to support or refuse a bill that would blatantly disregard the stances of some of our editors and staffers.

In this publication, we believe in independent thought, and we encourage our staffers to go against any norms in public opinion and rightfully deconstruct, and discern their own beliefs through issue-oriented critical thinking, if and only if it is what they believe in, and for as long as they too would respect the rights of others to voice an opinion contrary to their own.

The article was posted by a Facebook friend. I made the following comment: “Now that’s the definition of cowardice. There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”

That comment was strong enough that it led to a lengthy Facebook debate/discussion with a DLSU alumni. Let’s just call this DLSU guy “Billy”.

Here’s Billy’s response to my comment: “That is YOUR definition of cowardice. Respecting the right of others to have their own opinion by not imposing one’s belief’s on others or making it appear that one’s stand is the stand of everybody, is, in MY dictionary, never a form of cowardice.”

Here’s the actual debate/discussion. 

Vincenton Post: “Courage is when you make a decision or take a position and stand by it no matter what other people say. Cowardice is when you simply take a neutral, or middle, position for fear of hurting or disrespecting other people’s positions or beliefs.”

Billy: “Again those are YOUR definitions of courage and cowardice. Those are YOUR ideas of courage and cowardice. As there may be a fine line between YOUR idea of cowardice and MY ideas of objectivity and being considerate to others’ opinions, I believe that at times there can also be a very thin line separating YOUR idea of courage from subjectivity, impulsiveness, and irrationality.”

Vincenton Post: “I don’t think they’re just my definitions. If one is afraid or unwilling to make his position public or to present his/her position just because he/she doesn’t want to offend or disrespect other people, then that’s cowardice. A courageous person is someone who’s not afraid to make a judgment call even if the same be against other people’s beliefs or value judgments.”

Billy: “According to YOUR idea, what you described is already cowardice. But to some people, including myself, it MAY be cowardice, or it COULD be consideration and respect of other people and their opinion. Or perhaps an exercise of objectivity. Since what you seem to be implying as cowards are the staffers of The LaSallian (as represented by the one who wrote the statement) just because they “did not release an official stand on House Bill no. 4244” because they “respected” and “continue to respect every person’s right to have his or her own informed opinion”, have you at least tried looking at it as possibly an attempt to practice responsible journalism? The LaSallian, as the official student publication of DLSU-M, in my opinion, is doing its best to be responsible in presenting news and views that are of concern to students. If, for the sake of argument, The LaSallian were to issue a single official stand (either a pro-RH or an anti-RH stand), do you think it would be proper considering that any journalistic publication should ideally be free even from its own biases as much as it can? As diverse as the opinions are of Filipinos concerning the RH Bill are the opinions of the La Sallian community regarding the same issue. There are pro-RH sentiments, there are also anti-RH sentiments. Where would a publication’s objectivity be if it were to issue a single stand only? You seemed to have focused only on that part of the write-up that you quoted, while seemingly overlooking other statements, particularly the one in the following excerp:

“In this publication, we believe in independent thought, and we encourage our staffers to go against any norms in public opinion and rightfully deconstruct, and discern their own beliefs through issue-oriented critical thinking, if and only if it is what they believe in, and for as long as they too would respect the rights of others to voice an opinion contrary to their own.”

“The individual staffers, particularly those that write some of the columns, have actually expressed their individual opinions regarding the issue. You just probably don’t know because it appears you based your judgment just on the paragraph you quoted. If you are from DLSU-M and regularly get a copy of the LaSallian since the RH Bill became a hot topic, then you know what I’m talking about, and what the excerpt I quoted above is implying.”

Vincenton Post: “I was a former campus editor, too, of the largest student organ in the Philippines. Do you think a school organ should not make a stand or issue its own position on this matter? I believe that the editorial board should make a stand, and stand up for what it believes.”

Billy: “In my opinion, if a school organ intends to maintain its integrity as a publication that represents and caters to the entire studentry, it should remain objective as a whole. It should encourage critical thinking rather than serve as a medium for propaganda.

“Each member of the editorial board may have his/her own stand on an issue. In that case commentaries expressing individual opinions can be published under the board members’ columns. That’s what columns are for, right? If all members of the editorial board have a common opinion on an issue, then I guess they can choose to publish it as an “official stand”, but in the process they should ensure that it is done with all due respect to others, especially the audience that they cater primarily to (the students) who may not necessarily agree with them. They should not make it appear that their “official stand” is the general opinion of everyone the board deems should be on their side.

“If an editorial board’s members have diverse stands, and they choose to respect each other’s opinions, I wouldn’t consider it cowardice if the editorial board as a whole would not release an “official stand”. The best thing the editor-in-chief or the publisher can do in this case would be to encourage critical, thought-provoking discourse.

“Consider this hypothetical scenario: If 6 members of an editorial board were pro-RH, 4 members were anti-RH, and 1 member is still in the process of critically weighing facts before coming up with his/her own informed opinion, what “official stand” do you think should the editorial board release to the publication’s audience? Should it be pro-RH or should it be anti-RH?”

Vincenton Post: “That’s not how school organs should work or function.

You said: “It should remain objective as a whole.”

“Of course, it should remain objective, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to make a stand. A publication has to make a stand, and defend it by all cost. I disagree with some of the points and arguments made by the Varsitarian, but at least it has the courage to make a stand. Whether that stand or position be right or wrong what is important is that it has the courage to make a judgment call.

“You said: “Each member of the editorial board may have his/her own stand on an issue.”

“Of course! But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to judge certain issues according to their merits. Like I said, there are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.

” May I add, if you’re a publication and if you don’t have a stand on any issue, then you’re simply NOTHING. An editorial represents the stand of a publication. Make a stand and let the people decide.” https://fvdb.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/when-uaap-meets-the-rh-bill-it-means-more-than-academic-tension/

Billy: “That is YOUR idea of what a publication should be doing, probably because that’s what you have been used to. That’s what you were probably indoctrinated with. But again, considering the hypothetical situation I gave in my previous comment, what do you suppose should the “official stand” of the publication be? Should it be pro-RH or anti-RH?

“And may I also add that I completely agree with you that if you want to have your stand known by others, let it be known by others and let them decide if they agree with you or not. It’s easy if there’s a single stand of an individual or of a group in consensus that has to be known. But if it’s a group of people with diverse opinions on a single issue that we’re talking about, I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as picking only one side of the fence so that the group isn’t labeled “evil” or “coward”.”

Vincenton Post: “LOL! Billy, that’s not just my idea of publication. That’s the usual practice. I should be the one to say: That’s your idea of publication, and that’s what you were indoctrinated with. You have the guts and gall to say that when you don’t even know the usual journalism practice. Right or wrong, editors or the editorial board must make and offer its own position on every crucial social/political issue. If you hesitate you make a judgment call, then that’s a sign of cowardice.

“Of course, the editor or the editorial board has to respect the views or opinions of his/its staff. But it has to issue its own judgment or opinion on every important issue. That’s not just the usual practice; that’s a must. And to inform you further, that’s not a result of what you call “indoctrination”. That’s the result of a time-tested practice in journalism. Show me a single publication that is morally ‘agnostic’ on every issue for fear of offending or disrespecting people’s beliefs. At the end of the day, publications or school organs have to make a judgment call.

“Yes, it should be pro or anti. That’s because an editorial board or a publication cannot make a ‘neutral’ position. It may be possible that you’re in favor with the bill but you’re against some of its controversial provisions. That’s possible. But at least you stand for something else.”

“Also, it seems that you’re confusing an editorial, which sums up or represent the official position of the editorial board or publication, with a news article or even a columnist’s opinion piece. It is possible that a columnist’s op-ed contradicts the the official stand of the editorial board. That’s actually a usual journalism practice. For instance, Inquirer appears to be in favor of the bill while some of its columnists and staffers are against it. If the EB issues its own ‘editorial’ judgment call, that doesn’t mean it is already non-objective or disrespectful of the beliefs or views of its staff. The EB has to respect the views of its staff, vice versa.”

Billy: “Vincenton Post: You still have yet to answer my question. Should the hypothetical board’s stand be pro-RH? Or anti-RH?

“You implied that the stand should be either of the two, but which should it be? And upon whose opinion should it be based?

“I have to apologize for not being very clear about what I wrote regarding “YOUR idea of what a publication should be doing, because that’s what you have been used to.” I wrote that in response to the idea that “if you’re a publication and if you don’t have a stand on any issue, then you’re simply NOTHING.” If it’s the judgment call of a publication’s editorial board to present arguments representing both sides of an issue so that the readers can, by themselves, make their own informed opinion/decision, rather than release an “official stand”, in my opinion it is too much to call the publication “NOTHING”. If the editorial board stands by its respect of everybody’s informed opinion and decides not to issue an editorial that reflects an “official stand” but rather one that encourages healthy discussions regarding the issue for critical thinking by its readers, in my opinion it is not cowardice.

Vincenton Post: “Billy: “Should the hypothetical board’s stand be pro-RH? Or anti-RH?”

“I answered it. I said: “Yes, it should be pro or anti. That’s because an editorial board or a publication cannot make a ‘neutral’ position. It may be possible that you’re in favor with the bill but you’re against some of its controversial provisions. That’s possible. But at least you stand for something else.”

“FYI, an editorial board is a publication’s or media outlet’s governing entity. It has a separate and distinct personality and function from that of its staff. Usually it is composed of the publication’s high-ranking editors. But most of the time the editorial board’s position is made by the editor-in-chief or the publisher.

“Making or issuing a position/view on any issue is NOT tantamount to disrespecting the views of the publication’s staff. The publication should be objective in presenting facts and in treating its news and opinions. The principle of objectivity means you can and should make a judgment call, but such a judgment must be supported by facts and evidence without arbitrary, biased distortion or manipulation of the same.

“You said: “You implied that the stand should be either of the two, but which should it be? And upon whose opinion should it be based?”

“Moral agnosticism means there is no right and wrong in any issue. In regard to the RH bill issue, there are only two sides or positions: It’s either you’re pro or against. But like I said, it is possible an EB may be in favor of the proposal while against some of the bill’s provisions. That’s very much possible. Also, it’s possible that an EB may be against the proposal due to some ethical and legal grounds.

“Now you asked: “upon whose opinion should it be based?” Like I said above, an EB is the governing, decision-making body of the publication composed of high-ranking senior editors. You should understand that every organization or entity, be it private or public, has its decision-making body tasked with promulgating important decisions. Thus, the main function of an EB is to direct the publication’s editorial policy, and part of that policy is to issue the publication’s positions or views on critical issues.

“Billy, I think you need to understand the nature and function of a publication and well as the function of an editorial board. A news publication exists either to provide news to its consumers or to shape the people’s opinions. Of course, its purpose highly depends upon the EB’s editorial policy.

“I’d like you to understand that every publication or media entity is HIGHLY HIERARCHICAL. Before your article or opinion piece gets published, it has to go through a series of reviews, checks and edits to be conducted by the publication’s senior editors. Also in most cases, important opinion pieces must conform to the publication’s editorial policy promulgated by the editorial board. I don’t usually refer to Wikipedia but I think this link shows the basic functions of an EB. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Editorial_board

“Since an EB is the highest governing entity in a publication’s or news organization’s organizational structure, one of its most important functions is to make crucial editorial decisions. Part of that editorial practice is to make the organization’s position on every important social or political issue. So, the organization’s position cannot simply be influenced by any staff or publication member. It has to be made by the EB members. In practice, the EB’s position is usually made by the editor-in-chief or the publisher.

Billy: “Everything regarding how an editorial board works as you have explained thus far is clear. However, I still want to know if it should be a pro-RH or an anti-RH stand that the editorial board should release if, like 60% of the members are pro-RH, 40% of the members are anti-RH, and 10% undecided. Should it be a definite pro-RH stand (following the majority rule?)?

“By the way, thank you very much for engaging with me in what I find to be a very stimulating discussion.

Vincenton Post“You asked: “However, I still want to know if it should be a pro-RH or an anti-RH stand that the editorial board should release if, like 60% of the members are pro-RH, 40% of the members are anti-RH, and 10% undecided.”

“Is it still unclear? If it wants to poll all its members, fine! But usually, the EB’s position is made by the EIC. That’s the function of the EIC. Publication staff usually refer to the EIC as the “dictator”. It is the EIC that makes all the decisions. However, if the EB wants a democratic process, it can always ask the staffers’ opinions/views on every issue. But it has to issue its definitive stand on any issue.”

Billy: “Ah, so in the end it’s really the call of the editor-in-chief or the publisher. If, for instance, the editor-in-chief happens to be part of the minority in the EB when it comes to the RH bill issue, even if majority of the members are pro-RH, should the EIC issue an anti-RH stand, then I guess (based on your explanations) that will be the EB’s and, in effect, the publication’s lone “official stand”?”

Vincenton Post: “An EIC will only be part of the minority if decisions are made thru votation/election. But that’s not the usual practice in all professional news organizations, not even in most school organs. I am familiar with UST’s editorial policy. They are hierarchical. When I was EIC of our school organ, the editorial policy mandates that all important editorial decisions should be made by the editor-in-chief alone. Why is this the case? Because that’s the basic function of the EIC. He’s the chief editor for god’s sake! 

“Why is it important for a publication to make a stand? Because it’s a news and opinion organization. It cannot be crudely neutral on any issue. It has to serve as a social guide to its readers. Right or wrong, it has to make a decision and then let the people decide.

“There is a big danger in going thru votation process simply to set an agenda. How does a publication treat its news? How does it decide on what stories should be front-page material or not? These tasks are given to the EB. And the editor-in-chief, being the CEO, has to make or even suggest important decisions. These things cannot be delegated to all lower-ranking staff thru votation process.

“This is why a publication’s editorial has to be made by the organization’s most senior staff (e.g., the publisher or EIC). And this is why a news organization has to make a judgment call, which should not be crudely neutral or morally agnostic.”

Billy: “I completely agree with you that indeed the usual editorial functions cannot be delegated to lower-ranking staff. However, in my opinion, it may not be that simple when it comes to a critical issue which members of the editorial board themselves may have starkly diverse stands on. I’m not saying that it should be resolved through a votation process, and I agree with you that such would be a very unusual process. The reason why I gave that hypothetical scenario was to verify if nowadays EBs could resort to the rule of the majority when it comes to a divisive issue (it has been very many years already since I was in an editorial board).

“Since you mentioned a while ago that it all boils down to the most senior staff’s judgment call, should the publisher or the EIC decide to suspend issuing the publication’s “official stand” and instead choose to encourage more discussions and healthy debates on the issue (with much consideration to the diversity of opinions not only among the EB, the staff, but also among the community to which the publication caters), is the publisher or the EIC being a coward in that sense?”

Vincenton Post: “You said: “However, in my opinion, it may not be that simple when it comes to a critical issue which members of the editorial board themselves may have starkly diverse stands on.”

“It is not simple if you fear public backlash. It is not that simple if you’re afraid to make a definitive judgment call. It is not simple if you’re morally agnostic. It is not simple if you don’t have the courage to call things by their name and judge issues according to their merits. That’s your opinion. The fact of the matter is, all professional news organizations that simply want to survive competition do not agree with your view. Right or wrong, professional news organizations have the courage to make their own position and stand by it no matter what polls and people say.

“A news organization cannot be crudely neutral or morally agnostic in analyzing or judging socio-political events. What could have happened if the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other underground press refused to make a judgment call and stayed morally neutral and agnostic during the Marcosian martial law? And what would happen if every news organization in these parts simply dogmatically refused to judge a ‘critical issue’ for fear of offending other people’s feelings?”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. GabbyD permalink
    October 13, 2012 3:38

    ” “Now that’s the definition of cowardice. There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.””

    why is the middle evil? if the other is “wrong”, assuming thats right, isnt what is wrong, “evil”.

    is being wrong better than being evil?

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