Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bad News, Good News

“WHEN A dog bites a man, that is not news... but when a man bites a dog, that is news.” My Journalism 101 professor of three decades ago declared, pushing her eyeglasses up snug the bridge of her ridiculously humongous nose, like she’d just concluded a malevolent oration of “The Gettysburg Address.” Then, as she tried to repeat it, making sure that we, clueless little souls, may not forget, “When a dog bites a man, that is not news... but when a man...” I interrupted, “Madam!” She eyed me with piercing suspicion that burns the flesh like coal, a-la Judge Judy, “What, Mr Pascua?” I cleared my throat and, with a super-confident girth that is only, usually attributed to either Beavis or Butthead, I asked, “What if a man eats a dog, is that news, Madam?” (Well, what do I expect, I got kicked out of the classroom again... what else’s new?)
But, hey, that was the good ole days when NEWS meant Watergate and “Nine Dead in Ohio!” or “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” The days before supermarket tabloid juice becomes front page banner, before a trio of macho losers fighting over millions that could be squeezed out of the corpse of one Anna Nicole Smith becomes the most “important” news of the month, before countdown of wartime body bags becomes a most numbing prozac pill against a sorry generation of utter disconnect, before news got swallowed and devoured by reality-tv escapism.
News... until now, many years since I kind of hanged up my gloves (or newsroom typewriter?), the mystery behind that insatiable thirst for a story that’s unique, uncommon, weird, shocking, revolting — remains dark and cold, unexplainable and distant. Or, in the context of the present times, ridiculously strange.

LIKE AN obedient soldier who gallantly went to war in pursuit of something that I can’t really define or physicalize, I headed out onto life and living’s open range littered with volatile substances such as society, government, politics, and pop culture – endlessly, tirelessly looking for my almighty scoop. But why? What’s up, what’s behind the story? “Damnit! You don’t justify your story. Just state the facts, that’s it!” My editor would roar from across the hallway as he mercilessly tossed my piece straight down into the dead-cold trashbin. Rejected again, I bit my lips like an orphan urchin who just lost his slice of leftover bread...
“When a man bites a dog...” I kept on repeating—day in, day out—so I may not forget. It evolved to be my little life’s “battle mantra.”
Until one summer’s weekend, in a tribal village up north of Manila, called Ifugao, I found my “man bites dog” story. I covered animist rituals of warriors and hunters who frantically sucked fresh blood oozing from wild canines’ bloody skulls as cure for respiratory ailments. In a way, I wondered out loud, that could pass as a “men biting dogs” story—true to my little hack reporter’s mission’s quest... Alas, though—the most that I could bargain for at the City Desk was page 16 of the Provincial Section, in tiny 8 almost unreadable font types. Ah!
Then one day, during a campaign trail by a wealthy society matron who was running for Governorship of a southern province, I got my front page story. But, ironically, it was a “dog bites man” story—but since it went with a bizarre twist, I thought, it could probably be a “good” piece of news. The “scoop”? A tiny, malnourished dog bit the magnificent butt of a bejeweled prima donna as she strode by a half-flooded barrio, wooing votes like a sequined vulture pecking ice cream icings amidst a mosquito-infested swampland. Her awestruck coterie of umbrella-hoisting alilas (nannies) and armalite-wielding alalays (bodyguards) didn’t see the coming of the irate dog as it lunged at the politica’s massive behind.
NEWS! Dog bites (wo)man. Front page.
And so it became clearer and clearer to me what “news” was all about... Three decades hence, the story remains the same.

THERE IS another angle to the “news” story though...
The surreal contradictions of news-gathering. The hunger for blood—splattered all over creasy note pads... echoes of tormented souls’ voices imprisoned in stacks and stacks of cassette tapes. Without the hellish stench and the gruesome ruin, news was bland... a reporter’s “day in the life.” We wanted more dark, more cold—without these, we were failures, like soldiers ready for war but there were no enemies at all. Boring.
Then somewhere, sometime—I covered the monstrous aftermath of a landslide that killed close to 5,000 villagers in the coastal city of Ormoc in the Philippines in 1991. Dead human flesh, rotting cavaders have caked with mud and rocks... words were insufficient to describe the horror. I had to gulp in two bottles of gin, threw up for almost two hours, before I could muster the energy and courage to file my story. Forget the “drama,” I just had to file a story.
Five thousand impoverished human beings got wasted. Illegal logging was the obvious culprit, hence illegal loggers—but the Governor of the province rejected that “theory.” That “fact” wasn’t going to get to newsroom. That wasn’t news enough to get the newspaper to live longer... That subtle deduction pierced like bullet to the head. “Men can always bite dogs”—but, this time out, we weren’t allowed to report, “Why.” Somehow, within and around the miserable journey of a journalist—a willing witness to life’s doom and dirt—I wanted to be a “superhero” and save humanity from further negotiating life’s road to ruin with just the quiet glory of a newspaper’s weekend edition. I had to fight to deliver that “news” that says “why”? By knowing “why dogs bite men,” we could probably fix the situation and live happily ever after.
Alas, life is no fairytale. I had/have to live with the dark side. Take it or leave it, do it or die.

TWO WEEKS before deadline, a chartered bus bound for Atlanta crashed, killing several high school baseball players from Boston. The aggrieved, tormented faces of the young survivors were flashed on national TV, for several minutes—over and over and over again. But we never get details of the story, “Why? What really happened? Why did the driver take that deadly turn?” We may never know, maybe we know, maybe the reporters knew—it’s just that the network gods don’t see any point in having us know why. Advertising sponsors want three hours more of Anna Nicole Smith’s soap opera... That “news” is sure to save more network hours, more advertising sponsorships—hence the news station lives longer.
There are times when we simply get so tired by what we hear. But then we can’t close our eyes—we live in this world, this is our life’s residential address, there’s no subway ride or American Airlines flight to Uranus or Jupiter yet.
There are people who don’t want to have TV, avoid media, and so they stay up in the perch of their “peaceful world,” musing “What do I see on TV, anyway? It’s all lies, it’s all bad news, it’s all bullshit. I’d like to protect myself from the evils of this world...” So they hide up there or down there and change their names to Starlight Dancer or Ocean Blue and then they utter “peace” and “love” to the wind and the rain, and then declare themselves The Immaculate Souls of Humanity.
But is that what life’s all about? It’s sad that the world is so bad sometimes, but this is our earth and we are living in it—with all its trials and tribulations, lies and stuff. Living a life is our gig, so it follows that we gotta know what’s going on with our little piece of existence to be able to breathe and carry on.
Watching the news is part of my role as a writer, as a human being—I can’t close my eyes and choose my reading materials, I can’t go out there and choose my company and then say, “I gotta write something, this is what I choose to write, only this!” What is there to write? The things that I don’t see or touch, or the spirits that inhabit my tortured soul? Who cares. The world at-large, wounded and wounding (not the “world inside my crude lump of brain tissues”) is the diesel and fire, hurricane and sunshine that make me get up, write, and rock `n roll. With that, I am alive as love and hate, joy and pain.

THE DAILY circulation of the Soviet newspaper Trud exceeded 21,500,000 in 1990, while the Soviet weekly Argumenty i fakty boasted the circulation of 33,500,000 in 1991. Meantime, Japan’s three daily papers —the Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun— have circulations well above 4 million. Germany’s Bild, with a circulation of 4.5 million, was the only other paper in that category. In the UK, The Sun is the top seller, with around 3.2 million copies distributed daily (late-2004).
In India, The Times of India is the largest English newspaper, with 2.14 million copies daily. According to the 2006 National Readership Study, the Dainik Jagran is the most-read, local-language (Hindi) newspaper, with 21.2 million readers. In the U.S., USA Today has a daily circulation of approximately 2 million, making it the most widely distributed paper in America.
Imagine all these volumes and volumes of paper that we writers consume to write our news. Does it matter whether the news is written via the internet or delivered by way of New York Times? If Internet is better, more environmentally-sensitive/politically-correct, then we can start counting the barrels and barrels of oil that we consume so we can have electric power to keep our Dells and IMacs “alive” 24 hours a day... Whatever we do, whatever we use to physicalize whatever we do, we consume them.
I digress...
The internet technology is a body of electronic bits and pieces that should offer a credible, truthful, and honest sets of information—in the same way do newspapers. Web-based publishing vs. traditional publishing, does it really matter?
Everybody seems to be more concerned with profit than news these days. In the past, newspapers have often been owned by so-called press barons, and were used either as a rich man’s toy, or a political tool. More recently in the United States, a greater number of newspapers (and all of the largest ones) are being run by large media corporations such as Gannett (the largest in the United States), The McClatchy Company, Cox, LandMark, Morris Corp., The Tribune Company, etc. Many industry watchers have “concerns” that the growing need for profit growth natural to corporations will have a negative impact on the overall quality of journalism. “Concerns”?
Let’s face it, despite these conjectures, news has become more entertainment, fodder to a numbed human psyche, nothing significant. We still chase the “man bites dog” story but after we’ve splashed that eerie rage in man’s fang burying deep down a “dog’s neck”... it’s all over. We don’t care. It’s entertainment. It’s better than Vicodin or bourbon, at least.

A LONG TIME ago, I dreamed about an Ernest Hemingway who covered the war as journalist and took home shrapnel wounds and morphine needles deep inside his mind, I amused myself with a Hunter S. Thompson who juggled BS and reportage like a stoned sorcerer... I have dreamed of covering Beirut, digging in bat caves in Peru, scrounging through brushes in Myanmar, hiking foothills in Tibet. I have dreamed of invading those seemingly private or forbidden rooms of humanity’s soul—via my pen and notepad. Until the dream got exhausted, and here I am just a beaten man.
A beaten man, still wondering why did the “man bit the dog.” What happened, really.
Ah, news! It seemed simple sometimes... Simple premise, like—what’s going on inside an average family’s house in America? I think we know why funk seeps through the failing winter heating... We have spent a total of $100.60 for every $100of our take-home-pay this past six months almost. That gives us an idea about what’s going on with national debt situation while the trillion-dollar war in Iraq rages. It seemed so easy to ask ourselves why, if only to console us that, yes, there is hope that change is gonna come. At least, we know.
At least we know that the value of annual production of marijuana in the US outclasses the country’s other cash crops. The total value of all the pot grown annually has been calculated to be just less than $36 billion—compared with $23 billion for corn, $18 billion for soybeans, and $12 billion for hay. This raw data gives us an idea how life flows and ebbs these days, these make us question, “Why? How come?” These valuable figments of truths that a grainy shot of Britney Spears’ hoohah at YouTube or Ms Smith’s boob-tube soap only blur and trivialize.
We want to know why a news becomes news—why a bus jumps out of the wrong Exit turn, why debt-ridden youths sign up for war tour of duty, why Nike factory jobs are all flown to Indonesia, why the “dog bit the man.”
Do you know? You tell me... Paris Hilton’s skinny butt has just been bitten by her Chihuahua? I bet, you wanna know more. Come on! That’s news?!

FIRST PUBLISHED IN The Indie; Loved by the Buffalo Publications. 2006 (Asheville, North Carolina). Edited August 2010.

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