Ethics

The Tulfo Franchise: The Media as Messiah
POSTED BY || 26 October 2011

By Bryant L. Macale
(Published in the September-October 2011 issue of the PJR Reports)

Ang pinakamaangas na programa sa balat ng telebisyon (The most arrogant program on the face of television).”

With these words does “T3″ describe itself”: “T3” is shorthand for Tulfo Three, referring to its three hosts. T3 is one of the newest “public service” programs of TV5, which has been challenging local television’s behemoths ABS-CBN 2 and GMA-7 in the ratings game with an array of programs it describes as innovative and relevant.

Hosted by Tulfo brothers Ben, Raffy, and Erwin, T3 is true to its promise to address public complaints. However, the program is characterized by the egregious display of media power at the expense of responsible journalism, which among others demands respect for the practitioner’s stewardship function.

The Tulfos’ confrontational—and in most cases unfair—treatment of suspects through colorful and even insulting language; the inability to provide the context on why such problems as it tries to address exist in the Philippines; its band-aid solutions to the complaints; and media’s assuming the role the government is supposed to be playing in addressing public issues characterize this loud show from TV5.

These characteristics contribute to the public sense that the media are nothing more than vehicles for insulting officials and for providing the illusion that the basic infirmities of society, of which such problems as abuse of power and criminal behavior are mere symptoms, are being addressed. They taint and ultimately poison the well of information on which the public has to depend for enlightenment on public issues.

Loud and dramatic

T3 uses a tried and tested template for public service programs that has long been a staple in Philippine radio. Reacting to and acting on text or phone complaints from listeners, the program host addresses public grievances, which may include being asked for bribes by a government or police official, lack of access to such basic facilities as water and electricity, or being physically abused by a drunk spouse, among others. The host then calls the government agency or suspect involved, accosts him for the alleged wrongdoing, and demands immediate action. There will be immediate action, the template promises, within the program’s airtime limit.

Such template crossovers in Philippine TV are not rare. Hoy! Gising, the ABS-CBN show that heckled public officials and ridiculed suspects in the 90s, was probably among the first, pioneering public service programs to use the template after EDSA 1. Hit “undercover” public service programs such as GMA’s Imbestigador and ABS-CBN’s XXX also bear some of the template’s elements, primarily those of the program’s acting on public complaints, the use of hidden cameras, anonymous informants, and colorful Filipino street language.

“With glaring pictures of abuse and neglect, we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. We must act on it now,” TV5’s news head Luchi Cruz-Valdes said in a press statement explaining the network’s focus on T3.

“Every single day, our public service units receive tons of complaints from our kababayans (countrymen) involving abuse of authority by different public officers. We also hear stories of women and children being severely treated. More than one year after the elections, we still see public officials who don’t deliver on their promises and duties.”

And who better to confront wrongdoers but the Tulfo brothers, who have long been known for similar “public service”/“investigative” programs in radio and television? The three Tulfos, or T3—Ben, Erwin, and Raffy— confront public officials alleged to be corrupt or accused of committing crimes. T3 also has other segments, including citing outstanding professionals and officials and providing support, such as medicine, to the needy.

As if the template weren’t disturbing enough, with its promise to deliver quick action as it hectors supposedly erring individuals, T3 is showing that it can be one of its network’s top rating front-runners. Aired from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.—just before the coveted primetime block in local television—T3‘s first episode received a 25.7-percent audience share in Mega Manila, according to a company statement. Based on Nielsen’s Media Research data, TV5 said that T3’s audience share was higher than what its rival ABS-CBN program got (24.4 percent), and was not far from GMA-7’s show in the same time slot (30.3 percent).

PJR Reports reviewed the coverage of T3’s first two weeks for this story.

At the Nation’s Helm?

T3 showcases—it flaunts—its use of colorful and insulting language to entice viewers. After all, the program is, in its own words: “Tagapagtanggol. Tagapagligtas. Timon ng Bayan (Defender. Savior. At the Nation’s Helm).” “Ang bumangga, giba (Go against us, and be destroyed)!” roar the three Tulfos, who, according to their program’s opening credits, will fight graft (“katiwalian”), evil (“kasamaan”), and mischief (“kalokohan”).

The Tulfos accost—in some cases shout at—public officials and anyone who’s being complained about.

Regular—and most likely desensitized—viewers and listeners of public service programs probably don’t find some of the words the Tulfos use disturbing. In the program’s Sept. 5 episode, when T3 was trying but failed to interview a barangay captain accused of coddling illegal cockfighting and video karera games in his community, Raffy ventured the opinion that the captain was unavailable because he was having a “manicure and a pedicure” the better to play heads or tails. (“Baka naman sir, nag-manicure at nagpapa-pedicure sa cara y cruz, para maganda ang pitik ng mga kuko niya.”)

Last Sept. 6, T3 reported an alleged bus ticket selling scam. The program’s host described the alleged syndicate as idiotic (“ungas”) and as animals (“hinayupak”).

Some insults and graphics were as personal as they were cruel. A teacher accused of prohibiting students to use the toilet if they hadn’t paid their school fees was featured on Sept. 5. The teacher was described as “bobo” (dumb), “tanga” (stupid), “damuho” (savage), “master ng katarantaduhan” (stupid), and was advised to hide in the toilet because he might not survive T3’s “resbak” (retaliation).

Apparently not contented with insults, a T3 graphic also showed the teacher’s face inside a toilet cubicle beside exploding bombs.

Trial by publicity

While the accused individuals may indeed be guilty of the offenses they were being accused of, many of those at the receiving end of the Tulfos’ verbal assaults were not given any chance to air their side. Those who did get a chance to defend themselves on air were harangued by the three brothers who seem more than willing to take up the multiple roles of journalist, police investigator, litigator, judge, and jury all at the same time.

For example, a barangay captain accused of being a coddler of illegal gambling last Sept. 5, Erwin claimed, was guilty because “Hindi naman irereklamo ang (barangay captain) kung walang basehan ang reklamo.” (We don’t complain about anyone without any basis.) But aside from a hidden camera footage of the area where the alleged gambling operations were taking place and an unknown informant, T3 did not provide additional evidence to prove its case against the barangay captain.

The entire Bocaue police was maligned in the Sept. 7 episode, when somebody complained about additional fees being imposed for police clearances in that town. One of the T3 hosts asked: “Ano ito pambili ng mga meryenda ng buwayang pulis? Susmaryosep!” (What is this, money to buy snacks with?) Nobody from the Bocaue police was interviewed by T3.

Those who preferred not to give their side to T3 were rebuked and called names. A complaint against another barangay captain was aired Sept. 7. A minor complained to T3 that the official physically assaulted him. T3 told viewers that it tried to get the side of the barangay capatain, who didn’t want to respond to the accusation. T3 referred to him as “Kapitan Hambog (Captain Arrogant)”, “a pedophile” and “sira-ulo (crazy).”

An allegedly erring village official was featured on Sept. 13. “Anak ng baka. Kagawad, magtago ka na” (You better hide)!” shouted one of the hosts. Unable to get his side, one of the Tulfos remarked, “nabahag ang buntot ng kagawad (He was scared).”

The alleged case of a teacher accused of molesting a student was reported on Sept. 13. His face was shown on air. T3 said it tried getting his side but that he did not answer on cam. He was called a rapist (“gahasero”) and a pedophile. Raffy added: “Very clear na pedophile at bading (gay) ang taong ito.”

On-air confrontations

To say that the Tulfos’ on-air confrontation with the suspects are heated and attention-grabbing is an understatement. The on-air confrontations in T3 are a presumed gold mine, a display of verbal fireworks and hostile gestures replete with drama and action a la soap opera intended to boost ratings and the show’s advertising income.

For example, T3 interviewed in the studio a woman who was allegedly hit with a vacuum flask containing hot water by her live-in partner. The woman showed the scars on her face as a result of the incident. The suspect was then placed on air. “’Di ba LPG negosyo mo? Kung LPG tangke kaya ihampas ko sa iyo?” (Suppose I hit you with a liquefied petroleum gas tank?) Raffy began, and asked if the man has been taking illegal drugs. “May berdugo kang makakasalubong na susunog sa mukha mo (You will meet an executioner who will burn your face),” Ben added. All three Tulfos said that even if the suspect and the woman decide to settle the issue, the man would still go to jail because the police can still file a case against him. Ben said the suspect, in anticipation of his imprisonment, should prepare pomade and lubricant, to which Erwin responded: “Mabuti sana kung may KY Jelly available, paano kung kutsara isaksak dyan.” The two Tulfos then chimed in, saying that the man could expect even a fork or a wooden paddle.
If there would ever be a chance for the suspect to post bail, Ben, in what can be deemed as a threat to those who know police parlance, said: “Pwede ko na lang bang ipasyal (eliminate) siya? Iikot ko na lang siya sa EDSA.”

Another case of media arrogance was the Sept. 15 confrontation between the Tulfos and Cavite City Mayor Ohmee Ramos on alleged prostitution in the latter’s area. After a few minutes of questioning the mayor, Erwin asked him if, as a favor to the Tulfos, he can stop the prostitution. When Ramos said he would try to stop it, Erwin pounded the script he had on hand on the desk; Ben shouted “Gawin n’yo na lang (Just do it)!”; and Raffy shouted “ano ka ba!” while pounding the table with his right fist and threatening to throw his cup at the camera. They simmered down only when the mayor said—probably just to end the verbal attack—that he would stop prostitution in his area.

Band-aid solutions

It is not surprising to see the likes of T3 on air, or that they rate well, because they tap into Filipino discontent with the failure to address the everyday problems they face and the ineptness of government in assuring them a just, orderly, and prosperous society.

But can T3 solve the country’s myriad problems? Sure, T3 gives the public the perception that a complaint can be speedily resolved. More often than not, government officials are usually available for T3 and promptly respond to complaints. But once T3’s cameras have gone, will the root causes of the problem have been addressed or has a merely band-aid solution dolled up for TV been passed off as a meaningful solution?

Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility