TEODORO C. BENIGNO: MEDIA MADE FPJ WHAT HE IS TODAY

MANILA, December 10, 2003  (STAR) HERE'S THE SCORE By Teodoro C. Benigno - Media made Fernando Poe Jr. what he is today. Very probably, he could be the next president of the Philippines if the May 2004 elections should take place. The same media will eventually indict, tear apart and destroy FPJ when and if Da King should glide into Malacańang to take over the mightiest post the Republic can bestow. I grew up in media, a tow-eared cub reporter when I started more than 50 years ago. But it’s only now that I realize media have grown into a monster, a Godzilla, lord and master of almost everything they touch.

I stand in awe and I stand in fear.

FPJ has hardly said a full or compound sentence ever since he declared just over two weeks ago he would run for the presidency. I do not know that he has appeared in any TV talk show, rolled his spoken prose in a radio program, projected his views lengthily in any newspaper. I just recall the face, the full hair and the full body thrust into the TV screen, uttering staccato snips as to just why he decided to run. Nothing memorable really. Nothing lofty, nothing that quivered in the air, nothing you could frame, nothing you could merchandise in the issue-oriented market place of politics.

And yet, FPJ has grabbed the lead in national surveys, jostling the frontliners aside. Now even Noli de Castro bites his dust, and so do Raul Roco, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Ping Lacson.

Although for a moment I did, I shouldn’t have really wondered at all. I instantly remembered the name Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). A name we have almost forgotten, and yet he wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century: Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man. McLuhan’s deathless dictum was The medium is the message. Social scientists disliked him, as did sociologists, economists and social-anthropologists. But his startling message stood the test of time. And all you have to do is look at FPJ and before him, Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

McLuhan’s message was simple. The medium through which information or communication is transmitted weighs heavily on the content and effect of the communication. If, for instance, FPJ, during the 30 years he was in business, had been communicated to the public in print, he wouldn’t have mattered much. If radio had been the medium, you couldn’t get the people swaying and swooning in the aisles. If he had been a comics character, FPJ would have withered and languished.

But FPJ communicated through the movies and – bingo! – he had the masses in his grip.

And what’s more, the FPJ movies flung him into the skies as a hero, a legend, a fighter for causes, a superb gunslinger, an even more superb populist redeemer with his explosive fists, utterly handsome at that, tall and towering for a Filipino, self-effacing, no braggadocio. He was a combination of Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood and the Lone Ranger. Another example of the medium being the message: Romeo and Juliet as a movie does not have the multi-dimensional, tension-coiled, actor-driven drama it has on a London or Broadway stage. A studio-recorded Barbara Streisand would not be the same Ms. Streisand performing vibrato and stupendo in open air. Get it?

For almost three decades, this format dominated Philippine movies. In the middle of it all was FPJ. The medium – the movies – was indeed the message. Eventually, Ronnie Poe symbolized the panday, another icon of the masses, and he was made. Not even Erap Estrada could beat his record. And at that, Erap para sa mahirap was a huge fraud. Erap was for Erap, who loved wine, women, song and gambling, not necessarily in that order, FPJ, they say, is a good man whose private life is an exemplary model except when he drinks.

The claim of some so-called political experts that FPJ is not relevant anymore because like Erap he has long twinkled out of the movies as a box office king, that Filipino voters of 40-45 and below – the vast majority – do not remember him anymore and therefore will not vote for him, is a lot of hot hoosh. As they voted for Estrada, who was a movie has-been, so will the Filipino in the boondocks vote for FPJ. Just go to the slums, the squatter areas. Take an informal vote, and very likely the name FPJ is on the lips of eight out of ten. FPJ has become a myth. And myths stay long in the people’s memory.

Ah, but the media can be very cruel too.

Once FPJ is in power – assuming he glides in triumph into Malacańang – they will pounce on Da King. Already even as they extol his extravagant popularity, some media sectors are already roasting him over the coals. How can a high school dropout take over as president at a time knowledge is the most essential tool in governing the nation? The answer of FPJ’s apologists that learned men and women who became presidents were a colossal failure does not assuage civil society. It is a false answer. It is a non-answer. It is reductio ad absurdum. Winnability alone does not make a good president.

There is the feeling, the fear even, that once FPJ takes over the presidential reins, he will bungle everything. He will sprawl all over the place like a Bowery bum because foreign affairs eludes him, as do Information Technology, ecology, demography, globalization, urban blight, the intricacies of the market, cyberspace, the shifting sands of international relations, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, nuclear missile shields, the fatal nodules of international terror.

All right, a traditional politician will bungle it. But, the reasoning goes, FPJ will bungle it faster. And the peso will disintegrate against the dollar faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But the masses will hardly listen to that. They don’t care a whit if geographically, FPJ cannot locate Romania or Zimbabwe on the map. Remember? The medium is the message. Three decades of FPJ on the silver screen have brainwashed Juan de la Cruz. The masses cannot differentiate the reel from the real, the shadow from the substance, the cuticles from the core.

FPJ is their man. They identify with him. They will vote for him.

And so it has been with the others. Media created Noli de Castro, Loren Legarda, to a certain extent Ping Lacson, Tito Sotto, Gringo Honasan, Joey Marquez, Lito Lapid. They rode media, the movies, television, the way they rode a roller-coaster, in full view of a cheering mass audience that didn’t know any better. That mass audience? That "ignorant", "illiterate", "uninformed" mass audience? That masang tanga? Hello. We too, all of us Filipinos, created them. Better still, unthinkingly willed them into existence. We did not educate them. We ignored them. We mired them even more into power.

And so in their political illiteracy, they will vote by the multitudes for FPJ, for that is what our misshapen democracy is all about. Poetic justice?

Media, particularly television, virtually control the electoral process. With the Left and the Right in our country greatly discredited, the "critical function" that matters is now the property of media which shapes public opinion and by itself is public opinion. Even the world of business kowtows to media, as does, however reluctantly, the Church, now reeling with all those sex scandals. Even the political center propitiates media. And media? They have never been on this thunderous roll. They are somewhat drunk with all this celebrity stuff. They wield tremendous power without knowing what power is really all about.

Like King Kong, media loom over the city. In this instance, media can make or unbreak Philippine society. Would that media eventually embrace wisdom and balance. For media too will crash if they don’t.

* * *

Okay, GMA does change her mind often. She is no different from a pendulum. She has mood swings and quite often you do not know where she stands. She went through the revolving door again when she decided to lift the moratorium on the death sentence. For this, she has been praised and pilloried, wetted with holy water and hit by a crowbar. I agree with her, and I hope she does not change her mind again on the issue.

I have always been for the death sentence for high and heinous crime.

Kidnap for ransom accompanied by bloodshed, statutory rape, always had this writer in high dudgeon. Drug lords and inveterate pushers also drove me to the wall. If convicted, they had to die. If they died, the world was minus some hardened criminals and that was okay by me. In Thailand, agents of the law exterminated over 2,500 drug criminals without due process and I wished this could also happen in our country. When the Chinese drug felon Lim Seng was executed at dawn by the dictatorship at the outset of martial law, a huge hush spread and after that cheers and huzzahs. For a while, the execution of Lim Seng deterred crime.

Go ahead, Mrs. President. You’re doing the right thing. Don’t waver.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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