Manny Rabacal, then with dyMF as station manager and anchor, got the scoop of his life when in 1985 he covered Rudy Maneja while the engineer-cult leader had himself doused with gasoline and burned to death at Plaza Independencia while a crowd of 3,000 people watched.
He and his radio station Bombo Radyo were criticized by other broadcasters for (1) inducing Maneja to torch himself, (2) not trying to stop it, and (3) sensationalizing the report on the suicide.
His peers who hurled the flak were handicapped by an apparent motive. They sounded like envious competitors who were not there when Cebu’s biggest local death story of the year broke. Only Rabacal as anchor and one of his reporters were. And add a note of contradiction: even as they flogged Manny for sensationalism, they themselves used the tape of Maneja in death throes (lifted from dyMF broadcasts) in their own programs to report and comment on the story.
“I suspected they lashed at me to justify the use of the sound clip that only our station had recorded.”
With or without the competition’s hostile reaction, would the replay of the dying man’s moaning, again and again on dyMF, be justified? Hardly, but we judge in our time, not in that time. Still, have values among broadcasters, especially on competition and survival, changed much since then?
When the Cebu broadcast association KBP grilled Rabacal, views were split. Thirty-two years after, faced with a similar incident, KBP might still disagree on how a broadcaster should grapple with the problem of choosing between saving a human life and aborting a big news story. KBP did not rule then on Manny’s and his station’s liability. In effect, they got off the hook. His boss even congratulated him for capturing the bigger audience for several days.
“I didn’t try to stop it. It was a religious ritual. And I could not have stopped it. His siblings and cult members didn’t allow anyone to go near him, not even after the body was reduced to embers. Police and fire fighters didn’t do anything except to watch.”
Journalists are supposed to have more skepticism in their bones than many other people. Did Rabacal seriously believe Maneja could summon a ball of fire from the sky, with which to strike down Catholic priests, as he threatened he would if they showed up at the plaza? Did Manny really think Maneja would survive a torching of his body or resurrect from ashes at 3 p.m.? Using common sense, Rabacal must have thought of Maneja as a religious man who was nuts but must still be respected for what he believed in.
“I truly believed and I still do that journalists or anyone else, a cop or a fireman, cannot stop a religious ritual.”
But consider the competitive spirit among most broadcasters, especially managers who also handled the news. And a strong sense of curiosity and self-interest: Manny is both a journalist and a business manager. And maybe some streak of naughtiness: another radio commentator, a lawyer, even offered to light Maneja up.
His colleagues judged Rabacal although the KBP board couldn’t resolve a deadlock of opinions and didn’t rule, as no formal complaint was filed. His case, which CJJ has revisited, may help newsroom decision-makers in responding to a similar ethical crisis in the future.
In the heat of deadline, made more intense by a round-the-clock news cycle, it’s the journalist—on scene, on board, or at gatekeeper’s desk—who ultimately must decide.
He’s most likely to keep in mind editorial policy and company goal. He may also recall the injunction that “every life is more than any story.” But could all that overwhelm the thought that his bosses want the kind of story that produces a powerful headline or click bait?
(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)