By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
Among the elements Philippine viewers noticed during the recent Presidential elections in the United States was the absence of a central body overseeing and tabulating the vote.
Even during the local US Embassy’s public-held election watch events here on November 7, there seemed to be no other source of election results than the news media.
At one such gathering in a mall in Quezon City, the center of attraction was a giant LED screen which, in between intermissions and speeches, showed CNN’s marathon election night coverage.
As a time zone of precincts closed each hour, the network anchors would sift through exit poll and survey numbers to gauge how the voters would choose.
Minutes later, CNN would call which states would be won by either Pres. Barack Obama of the Democratic Party or his Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney.
A cheer later arose from the crowd assembled at the mall when CNN began to project a substantial increase in state votes that would bring President Obama closer to re-election.
From CNN’s live shots, the scene in Manila mimicked those all over the US. Party supporters and spectators at public spaces monitored big displays of telecasts from CNN, FOX, NBC, and other US networks.
All of the news organizations had separate means and resources for collating the popular vote. Yet somehow, their final calls matched up—President Obama had won four more years.
It wasn’t long after the unified projections that Mitt Romney conceded his defeat.
In the Philippines, the influx of numbers would still have been called “partial and unofficial.” And the local news media would still have taken their cue from the Commission on Elections before declaring any candidate as the winner.
This prompt resolution of the vote prompted local humor blogger @I_amHolo to tweet: “In the US, CNN is Comelec.”
Indeed, the US elections have been opportunities for Filipinos to compare the workings of their democracy with that of the country that introduced this system to their shores.
And now with globalization and a ubiquitous, 24/7 media, the similarities and differences have become much more highlighted.
In 2012, Philippine-based watchers not only noticed how the elections were conducted, but also how the US media covered the polls.
That the US Presidential race was called in a matter of hours–and by no less than the TV networks–was just one of those observations.
And with our own elections around the corner, seeing the US media’s election coverage also provided Filipinos with some expectations and wish lists for the local poll coverage in 2013 and, more so, in 2016.
The US election fever also hit the local press, which infrequently devotes front-page or primetime space to foreign shifts of power.
Obama hogged the headlines of the broadsheets and many tabloids as he won his second term. The elections were top story material on local TV–leading the newscast lineups for at least 10 minutes, even longer.
The extended TV coverage here came from local news channels like the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC), which also aired live the presidential and vice-presidential debates. On November 7, ANC devoted continuous special programming on election night with breaking updates from the US.
Solar News simulcast US network NBC’s live election coverage.
Then again, the entire world pays attention when there’s a pending change of the guard in the United States, still considered the world’s most influential country.
Global interest had heightened during the 2008 vote, when Barack Obama first ran for the White House.
“The number of foreign media (in the US) increased about ten times in the 2008 elections,” said ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs head Ging Reyes. As former North America Bureau Chief, she covered the elections in 2004 and 2008.
Reyes said the victory of an African-American in the top post of the US had resonated with people who considered themselves minorities, and inspired people around the world.
“But the historical significance of the 2008 campaign was not evident this year,” Reyes said. “America’s economy was weak, over 12 million are jobless, the budget deficit was over $1 trillion. The magic of Obama’s victory in 2008 was all but gone.”
Nonetheless, the last elections afforded some comparisons with emerging world power China, which was also undergoing a once-a-decade turnover within the ruling Communist Party.
Many ordinary Chinese unavoidably compared the noisy, public character of the US polls with their regime’s secretive selection process. The (at times) rowdy US media found its contrast in China’s state-controlled press.
But the Chinese leadership transition merited mere footnotes in the Philippine primetime newscasts.
Between the US and China, it is clear which holds the attention of Filipinos.
For Cheryl Favila, head of ABS-CBN News Production and supervising producer of Channel 2 newscasts TV Patrol and Bandila, the Filipino interest in the US elections is highly personal.
“Many Filipinos are based in America,” Favila said in Filipino. “And relatives here want to know which candidate will best benefit their relatives working there.”
“That means what benefits our Overseas Filipinos in North America will also likely benefit their relatives here in the Philippines, since most of them send money or sustain families here,” she said.
China has a foothold on Philippine politics with its warring claim with the country over territories in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.
But aside from the inaccessible nature of Chinese politics, the long-standing ties of the Philippines to the United States weigh more.
Favila noted: “Pinoys have a mindset that since we are allied with America politically, it would greatly benefit us if whoever wins is friendly to our President or to us as a nation.”
Thus, Philippine coverage of the US elections are incomplete without context assessing its effects on our BPO or business process outsourcing industry, as well as on US military presence in the country.
Reviewing the local press’s coverage of the 2008 US polls, Hector Bryant Macale of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility noted the lack of in-depth stories on election-related issues affecting Filipinos.
This year, there were attempts to address that in the newscasts.
Many Philippine news organizations flew correspondents to the United States for election night.
ABS-CBN maximized the resources of its North America bureau, led by Reyes’s successor Nadia Trinidad. Its reporters were already there for the party primaries and conventions.
For audiences in the Philippines, Trinidad produced reports explaining the US political system—the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, and the electoral college.
Other news groups also explained the curious mechanics of a foreign democratic exercise using tools like augmented reality.
As before, all got the main updates and videos of the campaign and voting from foreign news services like CNN, Reuters, and the Associated Press.
“(We) cannot trail behind other news networks in US poll reportage,” said Francis Toral, news manager of ANC. “This means we never missed a thing. What the world had, ANC had too.”
Still, only a few stories delved into the significance of an Obama or Romney presidency for the Philippines.
The original content of local orgs centered on the election’s direct effects on Filipinos in the US.
“We extensively covered the concerns of (Filipino-Americans) in terms of immigration reform, the economy, and healthcare,” Trinidad said.
Immigration was a key issue in the 2012 elections that struck at the heart of Filipinos in the United States.
The bureau produced its own town-hall type debate between Fil-Am Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
It also conducted an online poll for its daily newscast Balitang America asking viewers for their stand on issues dividing party lines like same-sex marriage, abortion, and government spending on social services.
Trinidad said they specifically looked for Filipino supporters at the final leg of the campaign “to get their two cents on why they’re supporting the candidates.”
“Our journalists told stories of kababayans who lost their jobs and are looking to the Republican candidate to turn the economy around,” Ging Reyes said.
“But we also found Democrats among Fil-Ams who believed that Obama was taking the country in the right direction.”
The focus on issues, even among Philippine organizations covering the US polls, is another observation by those who compare the polls with ours. If the US can go issue-centric, then why not us?