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To comfort the afflicted.

A visiting former US work colleague told me she gets to read my column. "You're always complaining," she said, to my amusement.

Aren't opinion columns supposed to be always complaining?

Years ago, the editor of another daily that carried my column found me "preachy." Aren't opinion columnists supposed to be preachy?

Seriously, opinion columns exist to keep government officials on their toes. Media are supposed to be watchdogs of government, critics who point out what they perceive to be what's wrong with society in general and the work of public officials in particular.

Columnists exist to dig up the dirt in government and the abuse or excesses of politicians and other officials (including bureaucrats). Journalists, and commentators in particular, exist, to use the journalistic adage, to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Media, particularly editorial writers and columnists, should be at the forefront of keeping public officials honest. This is the role of media. A newspaper's op-ed section serves as the conscience of the publication.

Being a columnist, therefore, is a serious trade, an occupation laden with responsibility. Pundits like columnists must have integrity. They should be tough but fair.

Fairness is key. A serious columnist is expected to be hard on those who govern. Good critics and commentators are expected to excoriate those who abuse their positions and those who violate our laws.

But they must be fair. They must be truthful, they must be honest, they must be independent.

Fairness is not just being impartial and unbiased when criticizing those who do wrong. Fairness also means being fair to the audience, meaning that it should be clear to the readers where the opinion writer is coming from and what is his or her background.

The readers must know if the columnist is protecting certain interests or pushing a certain agenda - political, business, or whatever. That way the reader can discern if the columnist is pushing an overt or subliminal message in what he or she writes. That way, the reader can be wary of open or hidden bias in favor or against the column's subject.

Ideally, columnists must be impartial critics, not beholden to particular interests, or participants in a specific political, social or business activity. Ideally, columnists must have no particular attachments or associations with certain movements or organizations.

A commentator's credibility hangs in his or her impartiality. If a columnist is known, or even just perceived, to serve vested interests, his credibility suffers. Many times, readers are not aware of such connections. But discerning readers sooner or later can tell whom they can trust.

Columnists are indeed seen as complainers. But that's their work, to complain and point out what is, in their honest opinion, wrong in society. Actually, the more a commentator complains, the better. Because it means that he or she isn't beholden to any personality, organization or sector. It means he or she is free to criticize any and all public officials.

The government, public officials and personalities have budgets for press relations. They have their own spin doctors and PROs to sing their praises.

For that reason, columnists and other critics don't have to sing hosannas in praise of anyone, that's not their work. It's all right to give credit where it's due, but the main work and raison d'etre of critics/columnists/commentators is to keep government and public officials true to their oaths. And to give solace and comfort to society's downtrodden.

To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

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Title Annotation:Opinions and Editorials
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Date:Oct 11, 2015
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