Black ops and the nature of the 2010 campaigns - Maria A. Ressa

By Maria A. Ressa, ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs Head and ANC Managing Director

Posted at Apr 11 2010 11:14 PM | Updated as of Apr 15 2010 09:27 PM

Black ops and the nature of the 2010 campaigns - Maria A. Ressa 1TELLING IT LIKE IT IS

On the morning of Thursday, April 8, I called a meeting of our top editorial minds to discuss a potentially explosive document given to us by a source from the Nacionalista Party. It was a report allegedly done by Ateneo’s Psychology Department on Sen. Benigno Aquino III signed by Fr. Carmelo Caluag.

If true, it could spell the end of Sen. Aquino’s campaign.

If we didn’t pursue the story, we could give our source reason to say we are biased. If we did, we could potentially wade into a morass of ethical issues dealing with the mental health of the frontrunner for the presidency.

True or false, we decided to do the story and air it in the coming days. We didn’t believe there was any rush because we thought our source had given us a headstart. That proved a wrong assumption.

A short time later, we received the same document from another source connected to the Nacionalista Party.

At 1:45 pm, we received the first of a series of email messages asking us if this document is authentic. This was particularly interesting because it came from a multilateral financial institution. When I scrolled down, it had been forwarded numerous times, already spreading virally on email.

Around 2:30 pm, we received text messages giving potentially damaging details about Sen. Aquino’s mental health under this heading “A1 Info – Psychiatric Evaluation Form of Benigno Aquino III.”

Is it true? Given how fast it was spreading, we rushed to verify. We believed it best to go to the two people named in the document: the subject, Sen Aquino, and the signatory, Fr. Carmelo “Tito” Caluag. (If we had gone to others first, they may alert those involved and trigger an organized reaction).

I called Fr. Caluag, and he denied the report, saying he wasn’t a psychologist or psychiatrist and that his signature was lifted from other documents.

Ces Orena-Drilon, on the campaign trail with Sen. Aquino, showed him the document and his initial reaction, she said, was to laugh. He spoke openly - no PR spin, no consultations - and denied the document’s authenticity.

At that point, TV Patrol World was about to start. It was a stretch to make it to air, but we did - an anchor read followed by a live report from Drilon. We outlined the events of the day, key points of the three-page report circulating on email and text, and – most importantly - the denials of Fr. Caluag and Sen. Aquino.

It was the first public denial of a salacious document masquerading as fact. By disclosing our sources without naming names, we gave our viewers a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes.

That is why this story is important. Events are never isolated so context defines the story’s value.

Three days earlier, the Nacionalista Party used the word “topak” to describe Aquino.

“Ano yung TOPAK ni Noynoy? Ito po yung Trapo, Oportunista at Kamaganak Inc na pumapaligid kay Noynoy Aquino,” said Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, secretary-general of the Nacionalista Party. This statement echoed earlier remarks by Villar spokesman Gilbert Remulla on ANC.

The context of this fake document story seems to show an NP campaign to question Sen. Aquino’s mental health, something its standard-bearer, Sen. Manuel Villar publicly did on DZMM on Saturday, April 10.

The Nacionalista Party denied they gave the documents to ABS-CBN and challenged us to name our sources. They publicly declared we are biased for Sen. Aquino.

Yet, earlier, party representatives thanked us for airing our exclusive video of Baby James Yap saying "Villar" at a campaign rally of about 15,000 people. That video has since been replayed by another network and spread online by Sen. Villar’s supporters. (Airing that video ruffled feathers within the Liberal Party and our own network).

Nacionalista Party representatives also thanked us for disclosing two weeks ago that sources from the Liberal party gave ABS-CBN the documents questioning Sen. Villar’s ad campaign. Although the documents are authentic, the intent to demolish is the same. The Liberal Party also denied giving those documents to ABS-CBN.

Frankly, it’s shocking to see such blatant distortions of the truth. Oh, how I wish we could disclose our sources, but those are the standards we live by.

In other nations, news organizations routinely report on demolition teams and black ops as part of the election landscape. Negative advertising is part of the game. When candidates use this, they are transparent and accept the risk that it could backfire against them.

In our country, candidates prefer to hide behind – and manipulate - journalists.

To the political parties, we do not write stories because we are for or against you. We aim to tell it like it is. After all, how you run your campaigns gives us an idea of how you will run our nation.