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Red herring

Herbie Gomez .

IT’S handicapped arguing when a person who wishes to refute a point resorts to red herring. This underhanded tactic comes into play when the one who wishes to overthrow an assertion is incapable of presenting a decent argument to free himself from a difficult situation where he is confronted by tough and serious questions.

I wish I can shorten this so that columnist Ben Contreras will not think that I am “very angry” as he speculated in his Saturday column. Honestly, this is the first time in my entire career to have encountered a man who equates the length of written materials to the degree of human emotions. Based on this line of thinking, the length of editorials is indicative of the degree of emotions instead of substance. So, are we to say now that an author who writes a series of commentary about a particular subject is among the angriest people on the planet? So, the shorter the written material is, the less angry one is? And what if the commentary comes in the form of books similar to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Age of Reason? The thicker the book is, the angrier the author is? Is that it? That is simply ridiculous.

Anyways, Ben imagined that I was “very angry” because I wrote a lengthy commentary about his account of a supposed phone conversation with an influential peddler from Manila who told the columnist that he could fix the problem of the governor of Misamis Oriental during the Estrada administration for a whopping P25 million.

My commentary, which Ben took as an expression of anger, was aimed at testing the veracity of his own account based on what he wrote in his column two Saturdays ago. So that we would not lose track of the points I raised, this, again, is exactly Ben’s narrative in his own words: “For example, during the time of Erap, somebody called me from Manila if I know the governor of Misamis Oriental. I said, ‘Yes, what about it?’ Then he said, ‘I know somebody from COA who could fix his problem for P25 million.’”

Note that I did not make up this anecdote. Whether the story is true or not, it did not come out of thin air. It is a disclosure of what took place by a self-confessed participant to the supposed phone conversation. It came straight from the horse’s mouth.

Is there a way for us to test the veracity of this claim? Yes, there is because the one who has made such a claim is in front of all of us and should be in the position to give more details and answer questions about his own story.

To test the anecdote, to see if the claim would stand public scrutiny, was the purpose of my commentary last Monday. Ben failed the test if we are to base it on his response on Saturday because of what looks like a desperate attempt to deflect from questions aimed at testing his narrative. Rather than taking the bull by the horns, he unleashed about a dozen more tales as spurious as his phone-conversation claim, many of which are not of public interest in the first place. While it was entertaining to readers, none of what he wrote was about the anecdote pertaining to this mysterious phone pal. The deflection was crystal clear.

There is even a reference in Ben’s response about what a dead writer would love to do (to me?) if he were alive. That is preposterous, Ben. This I can say without fear of contradiction: Things that people did not do when they were alive cannot be done by them when they are dead. And how is it humanly possible for someone like Ben to know what’s going on in the seat of emotions and mind of dead people? Was that a claim of supernatural powers? And, again, how do we validate this claim? We can’t. If we allow that, then I can also make up a similar story about what dead people would love to do to Ben if they were alive. But I will not make such a claim so as not to invite public ridicule, and out of respect for the memory of the dead. That is bad taste.

I pointed out that based on his own public disclosure, Ben is in the position to identify the morally bankrupt fixer he only referred to as “somebody” because he called the columnist up and they talked to each other. And so, I asked Ben to name the influential peddler so that the corrupt person would be unmasked in public. Such act would only be consistent with Ben’s call to action for good men to stand up and do their part in ridding society of evil. I stated that if the influential peddler is not identified by Ben who is in the position to give a name because he claims to have firsthand information, the fixer would likely get away with it and would continue offering similar multimillion-peso proposals to officials in trouble with the audit commission. That should also give Ben the opportunity to prove to his readers that he did not make up the story about the phone conversation and that this anecdote is not an illusory idea which he repeated over and over again in his mind until he convinced himself that it was a fact. The moment columnists start talking to imaginary friends on imaginary phones, we have to raise the red flag. And what is worse than having imaginary friends is if they have imaginary enemies, too.

If Ben wants to overthrow the points I raised in my column last week, all he has to do is refute them rather than introduce topics, including gossips, that don’t have anything to do with the supposed phone conversation he had with the influential peddler. That is muddling the public discussion on his narrative. And if he can convince us that the phone conversation really took place, then we end the public discussion on the anecdote. Yet it seems to me that Ben doesn’t want his ideas and claims to be questioned and tested, and sees anyone who does to be a “very angry” reader that has launched a personal attack.

So why won’t Ben name this Mr. Somebody? In his response on Saturday, he presented a concoction of out-of-context anecdotes, half-truths, lies and exaggerations that are, more or less, similar to his tale about this mysterious and morally bankrupt phone pal. If I respond to all of that, then we will lose track of what made me write my commentary in the first place.

Nice try, Ben, but I have been through this many times already, and it would take you more firepower to make me lose focus and keep off the track. Besides, exposing about a dozen half-truths, exaggerations, lies and out-of-this-world innuendoes dished out by Ben just so he could escape from a situation he created for himself would mean lengthier commentaries on my part even on things that are not of public interest, and I worry that he would misconstrue that as extreme anger.

The tale of this mysterious phone conversation is not my own making, and it didn’t come from nothing. That is Ben’s firsthand narrative of what allegedly took place.

So, why the deflection? There are only two possibilities: 1) The mysterious phone pal does not exist and the phone conversation is a made-up story; or 2) Ben just doesn’t want to give a name for reasons only known to him. If the reason is the latter, doesn’t he owe all of us an explanation on why he cannot or won’t identify this corrupt person?

And, based on what Ben implied, why is my previous commentary aimed at protecting the governor of Misamis Oriental who served during the Estrada administration? Estrada assumed the presidency in 1998 and was ousted in 2001. The only governor during that period is Antonio Calingin who, the last time I checked, has moved to a far-away place outside Mindanao. If someone inquires if the then governor subsequently became a participant and about the extent of his participation, if he did become one, why is that “protection”? Since when did requiring more details and inquiries about allegations of wrongdoing become protection?

If a chit-chat dinner in a very public place that took place in the distant past long before or after a politician has served as governor is evidence that the former official is enjoying some sort of protection, then wouldn’t it be safe to say that Ben is protecting everyone he has dinner with? But it really doesn’t follow. C’mon, Ben, seriously? Breakfasts, lunches and dinners are what normal people do in a civilized society.

In my commentary, I asked if Ben relayed the information to the then governor (in this case, Calingin). If he did, how did the then governor respond? If Calingin was told about it, did he reject or accept the offer? Did he pay up or haggle over the price with the influential peddler who had an offer to fix his problem with the audit commission? What exactly was Calingin’s problem and what was the outcome?

Fairness dictates that these questions should be asked because the reputation of a man, although unnamed but clearly identifiable, was dragged into this anecdote by Ben. I have pointed out that a non-participant cannot be asked questions about that supposed phone conversation especially if he is unaware that it took place. But since it was Ben who made this public disclosure, then he may be asked for more details and questions. Extraordinary claims simply require extraordinary evidence.

In the strictest sense, I have never been Ben’s mentor; he is many years my senior. That claim gave me more goosebumps. All these years, not once has he spent eight hours with me in the newsroom or during fieldwork. I never taught him to invent anecdotes. He is not a reporter. He is not a journalist. He is his own man. And so, when he claimed that I mentored him, that is an exaggeration. But I have critiqued his opinion pieces just as I have just critiqued his work now about this phone-conversation narrative. Editing and critiquing are what editors do aside from trying to make sentences coherent and libel-case proof.

It is true that he has sought my advice on certain subjects in his column, and even on personal matters that have nothing to do with column writing, the type of which are confidential. My advices were mere advices, and never dictation. One of the column writing-related advices I repeatedly gave him was on how to be careful in using sources because a columnist may not state that “somebody said that another somebody is like this or that” or that “somebody texted me” or that “somebody promised to give me documents” without ever showing any page. No, columnists may not do that and be allowed to get away with it by their readers.

Extra care is used in dealing with anonymous sources and in rare cases when this is allowed, editors are told about who these information sources are so that credibility and motivations can be assessed. Ben simply has no idea about how many stories that used information provided by sources who requested anonymity ended up in the newsroom’s trash bin. In the case of this phone-conversation narrative, only Ben knows who his information source is. And since he has rejected the advice and went on with this questionable practice, we might as well bring this to full public view so that, in the end, he would be accountable to his readers. That is fair enough.

Where was I when Ben was told by a fellow media practitioner that he might as well stop writing a column after he stated and generalized that the news media are crooked or something to that effect? The context of “stop” was on why he was still writing a column when, with sweeping accusations, he was belittling and smearing mainstream media, including the very paper that provides him space, and why, time and again, he claims to represent this sector even on official functions without any authorization? The answer to his question on where I was when he was given this in-your-face response over his attacks on the mainstream media is this:  Well, I was editing his columns, including one that was meant to slander me, and protecting him and the entire news organization from potential libel suits arising from his columns and his freedom to state even the most stupidest things.

Not once did he complain or asked for an erratum. Or, he could have written an erratum himself as what most columnists do if there were mistakes. Based on my recollection, that never happened. And so, it baffles me that after all these years of writing an opinion column, he is unhappy. Yet the fact that he continues to write his opinion pieces betrays whatever it is he is trying to imply because normally, a person with a complaint like this would simply stop to protest a wrongdoing. And so, that is another underhanded attempt by him to evade questions about his phone-conversation claim.

This reminds me of how comedian Joey de Leon wrecked Rico J. Puno’s Tagalog version of the song “The Way We Were” in one of his gang’s “Tough Hits” albums. In the parody, de Leon narrated his experience with his sweetheart while they were “namamasyal sa Luneta” at a time when the singer, I suppose, was having a concert there. In the end, he introduced his date to Puno, and then his date left him for the singer. And then de Leon asked something like “Eh, bakit nakikinig pa rin ako sa kanta ni Rico Puno? Eh di, g*go ako.”

Going back — exactly which part of what I wrote last Monday does Ben wish to overthrow because he strongly disagrees with it?

What’s up, Mr. Somebody? You can’t handle a decent public conversation? It looks to me like Ben, behaving like a child in a grown-up’s body, attempted a deflection by throwing everything on his path against the one who is testing his anecdote because he cannot argue intelligently and wiggle out of the situation he is in now. This awkward situation Ben is in right now — his inability to identify the caller or prove that the phone conversation really took place — is his own doing. What childish tantrum is this?

The lesson here is simple: Do not invent or fabricate or exaggerate anecdotes especially when these can’t be substantiated because the moment a reader asks you to tell the whole story and provide the details, magkapakapa ka, and soon, you’ll end up telling more fairy tales just to save face. Pastilan.


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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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