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Lesson Of Philippines: Clout Of Public Opinion

February 28, 1986|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) told delegates to the National Governors Assn. Sunday that it was a shame they couldn't be home watching television, for they were missing fascinating coverage of the Philippine rebellion.

Indeed, in recent days Americans have seen a rare video docudrama, a revolution.

Since last November, both sides in the Philippines have played out their conflict on the evening news in the United States, on morning talk shows and on late-night programs.

The new Philippine president, Corazon Aquino, seemed to be concentrating on settling doubts about her ability and her loyalty to the United States. For former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who spent $950,000 on a Washington media consultant in an attempt to demonstrate good health, reasonableness and political control, the media strategy backfired.

As some in this country see it, the level and nature of TV coverage has raised new questions about media influence in political affairs--abroad as well as at home. One critic has even charged that ABC commentator and columnist George Will "baited" Marcos into calling an election in the first place.

But much evidence suggests that the U.S. media's coverage of the Philippines illustrates another lesson: the inevitable influence of American public and official opinion on the affairs of satellite states.

"This election was unique in the degree to which it was conducted with an eye toward America," said William P. Bundy, former editor of the quarterly Foreign Affairs.

Stephen R. Shalom, an authority on U.S.-Philippines relations and a teacher at William Paterson College of New Jersey, said: "If anything, the U.S. government had undue influence in this election, and one of the things it used was the American press."

The presence of American media in the Philippine crisis was particularly evident in Marcos' final days. On Sunday, the two rebel leaders, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, explained their cause to all three morning network interview programs from their armed stronghold.

Although Marcos was then isolated in his palace, his troops unwilling to attack the rebel stronghold at Camp Crame and Enrile refusing to answer his phone calls, the president had a chance to respond directly to the rebels through "Meet the Press" host Marvin Kalb.

ABC has devoted 11 programs to the Philippines in the past five weeks; NBC, four, and CBS, three, plus nightly and early-morning coverage. Marcos granted the networks and Cable News Network more than 10 special interviews and Aquino granted slightly fewer.

The closest Marcos and Aquino came to debating was on American, not Philippine, television. The two agreed to same-day interviews for ABC's "Nightline" and their remarks were edited into a back-and-forth discussion. When word of this stirred anger in Manila, Marcos challenged Aquino to debate on Philippine TV, but she refused because Marcos controlled TV there.

"It is a national disgrace that we have to rely on a foreign TV network to provide a neutral TV forum," she said.

All this has again raised concern about the American media's role in the conflict. ABC newsman Ted Koppell concluded Tuesday evening that the media and the Philippine public, not Philippine military rebels, forced the timing of Marcos' fall.

And Thursday morning on the "Today Show," President Aquino expressed her gratitude to the media for their accurate depiction of events.

A Washington Post television critic, calling what transpired in the Philippines a revolution in "the form of a serialized talk show," said that columnist Will baited Marcos into having elections in the course of an interview Nov. 3 on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."

Is it true? "It is always very difficult to answer whether television is influencing events" or merely reflecting them, said Jeanee von Essen, vice president for foreign news at Cable News Network.

However, much evidence suggests that the press coverage of the Philippine crisis illustrates the pervasive influence overseas of American public opinion and policy rather than U.S. media.

Transcripts of Marcos announcing his decision to hold elections, for instance, strongly suggest that it was Marcos who did the manipulating, choosing American television to announce the elections amid mounting skepticism in the U.S. as well as at home about his mandate.

"I understand the opposition has been asking for an election," Marcos said. "In answer to their request, I announce that I am ready to call a snap election. . . ."

"He was playing to the American gallery," Bundy said, dismissing the assertion that a man as shrewd as Marcos was tricked by a journalist into holding an election.

By the time of that broadcast, Marcos in fact had already hired a high-powered Washington media consulting firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, to handle the campaign.

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