SINCE when did a government official’s graduate degree become an issue to the press and the public at large?

Since Chief Justice Renato Corona became the subject of President Aquino’s ire and since a newly-formed online news organization decided to make much ado about Corona’s Ph.D. from UST in order to hog online traffic and cash in on it.

For its inaugural edition last Dec. 22, the new online media agency Rappler bannered the report of journalist Marites Vitug that questioned the doctorate degree with summa cum laude conferred by the University to Corona.

Rappler in its headline said UST “broke” it own rules when it allowed Corona to graduate without a doctoral dissertation and despite overstaying in the Graduate School. The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) several days later adopted the Rappler report and made it its New Year’s Day banner without getting UST’s side.

In a statement to the Inquirer later, UST explained that Corona had enrolled in the Ph.D. program and attended classes and earned the requisite points. It added that instead of a dissertation, he delivered a “scholarly treatise” in a public forum that was later published in a scholarly journal, a practice that has evolved recently in higher education and which UST employs by virtue of its autonomous status and its academic freedom.

It added that Corona graduated within the residency requirement which it could just as well modify because of its academic freedom and autonomy. Moreover, his weighted average qualified him for Latin honors.

Perhaps because its ignorance of academic freedom and UST’s institutional autonomy was exposed, Rappler hit back by saying that UST “bended” the rules to favor Corona, in effect contradicting itself when it said earlier that UST had broken the rules.

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Moreover, it published in the space of 24 hours a series of articles attacking UST, one of them with the scurrilous title, “Who’s Lying: UST or Corona?” Rappler editors, one of whom claims to be an expert on terrorism, have kept up the attack through Twitter and Facebook.

In its statement, UST said it did not reply to Rappler because it was “at a loss” on how to deal with online news and online journalists. It questioned the financiers behind Rappler and whether it practiced gate-keeping like the mainstream press.

With Rappler’s obsessive attacks against UST, the University’s reservations about online media have been confirmed. With the online assault, the University has been denied the sense of balance it expects from traditional journalism, the objectivity and the fairness. Does Rappler practice online journalism or online terrorism?

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) has sided with Rappler and commended the Inquirer for publishing the several-day-old online report even without UST’s side. It also took UST to task for allegedly declaring the Corona Ph.D. issue was an internal matter.

But UST never made such a declaration. It’s true however that UST believes it should not be subjected to Rappler’s pretensions. UST does not consider itself accountable to an online news agency with its sensationalist and lynch-mob tendencies. UST allows itself to be subjected to public scrutiny through the legitimate press; that’s why it gave its rejoinder to the Inquirer, not to Rappler.

UST knows its accountability—before its students, the Ched and the Church. But it appears that by its sensationalist and abusive journalism, Rappler, which rhymes with robber, views itself as accountable only to online commerce.

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In this day and age when “citizen’s journalism” has more and more intruded into professional journalism activities, the press must always take care that reports should be well-researched; they should be objective and fair. The press should shun the sensationalism that often betrays partisan passions.

In the case of Corona’s Ph.D., the issue has obviously been sensationalized because of his impeachment by the House of Representatives dominated by members of Aquino’s coalition. Since impeachment is a numbers game, and is politically charged, it is lamentable that the press, wittingly or unwittingly, has not only been showing its political colors but also abetting the politicization of the trial, which risks becoming a kangaroo court.

Dean Lilian Sison of the UST Graduate School is correct. No amount of explanation would satisfy Corona’s detractors. And UST is a mere “collateral damage,” a euphemism and journalistic shorthand for “innocent victim,” in the partisan media’s campaign to destroy the Chief Justice.

The damage has been done. While UST should review how it handled online press inquiries about the Corona issue, the online world, as well as media watchdogs like CMFR, should not be cavalier about the concerns raised by UST about the ownership, funding, practices and standards of the online press. In addition, the press should reflect on its own practices and whether it needs to check its own partisan prejudices in the heat of political passions, lest those passions unfairly damage the reputation of academic institutions like UST, which should be insulated from politics and politicking.

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