“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” This is the song the world’s Big Corporate Media organisations should be coming together to sing. Maria Ressa, CEO of the Philippines’ “social news network” Rappler has, again, given the broadcast news industry a bad name. During this year’s so-called “Global Conference on Media Freedom” held in London on Wednesday, the 10th July, Ressa found herself foot-in-mouth after jumping in out of turn headlong into a question directed to Nishant Lalwani by Ezra Levant, “Rebel Commander” of The Rebel. Lalwani is Director of Investments, Independent Media for one of the Omidyar Group companies. The Omidyar Group is a known investor in Rappler which operates in the Philippines where foreign investment in media companies is banned.
Trouble started for Ressa and Omidyar when Lalwani confirmed that Omidyar “gave money to Rappler” after Levant challenged them with the assertion that everyone in the discussion panel was “on [Omidyar’s] payroll”.
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Levant had earlier raised a confronting point: How unbiased can a “media freedom” conference be given that the man behind it is billionaire media tycoon Pierre Omidyar? Ressa’s media organisation Rappler is a case-in-point. It is currently being charged by the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on violations of Constitutional restrictions on foreign funding.
The first mistake Ressa made was to label Levant a “proxy for [Philippine President] Duterte” — an absolutely unfounded assertion meant to cut Levant to a size that fits her narrative and allow her to control the conversation. Ressa used an utterly dishonest tactic that, interestingly enough, many of the very same authoritarian tyrants she rails against use to bulldoze crooked concepts over their audiences. No less than Adolf Hitler, for example, used the Jews and other minorities as proxies of the “problems” his constituents were suffering.
Having proved that she is unable to field an argument that has legs to stand on independent of her personal biases, Ressa then went further to discredit an esteemed Philippine Government institution — the SEC. Ressa first carried on about “parameters” she upholds to ensure that she and her staff “control” whatever content Rappler publishes regardless of who funds or are invested in their operations. The issue is simple, as Levant points out in an interjection. “The SEC disagrees.” More to the point, “Omidyar gave up his stock,” following the SEC ruling. Ressa simply didn’t know enough to quit while she was ahead. She proceeded to admit that Rappler had received “only” $4.5 million from Omidyar.
Because she, quite simply, couldn’t stop, Ressa had unwittingly proven a big point: Big Corporate Media can never be objective as news reporters as long as they are funded using current traditional methods. The message here in this “media freedom” conference has been made quite clear. Organisations funded by traditional investors using traditional investment channels can never ever be free to operate as credible reporters of unbiased news.
Indeed, unless Big Corporate Media find a new model for funding their “news” operations, they will never regain their lost credibility in that field. Perhaps, for now, the industry should be content just delivering entertainment. Entertaining an audience, after all, does not require objectivity. In light of this, the involvement of Big Corporate Media in the “activist” scene that champions “media freedom” becomes suspect. It is no secret that the profile Big Media once enjoyed in the business of news reporting is but a pale shadow of what it once was. This loss of a virtual monopoly over reporting “news” to a mass audience is forcing the more innovative companies in the industry to reform, change tact, and adapt. But there are evidently many who are still stuck in the denial phase of this upheaval.
Clearly, Maria Ressa is one of those who continue to stubbornly cling to an old order that is fast fading. To her credit, Ressa has succeeded at one thing: making herself and Rappler the news rather than just report it. If she truly believed in the power of “the truth”, she and Rappler should have stayed in the background and let the content they publish speak for itself and stand on its own in the face of their readers’ scrutiny. Worse, as can be seen in her behaviour in this instance, her first impulse is to assert control and attempt to dominate — ironic in a conference that espouses freedom.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.