Thursday, February 9, 2006

``Wowowee’’ Pied Piper-ed the poor

Here are some of the quotes I remember well in the aftermath of the ABS-CBN ``Wowowee’’ stampede last Saturday that killed more than 70 persons and injured hundreds.

``I was not even aware that ``Wowowee’’ was having its first anniversary.’’-Gina Lopez, head of ABS-CBN’s Bantay Bata Foundation, speaking as guest at ABS-CBN’s ``Straight Talk with Cito Beltran’’

``Ayan, namatayan ako ng anak.’’ (There, now I have lost a child.) –a father, after finding out that his young only daughter whom his wife insisted on taking along, was crushed to death

``Nagkanya-kanya, basta maka-una lang.’’ (It was each man for himself, trying to get ahead.) –Sen. Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine National Red Cross

`` I saw something very wrong, very, very wrong’’ - Police superintendent Vidal Querol, his voice almost cracking, after he saw people stepping over the dead and clamoring for raffle tickets.

``Gusto lang namin sila mapasaya.’’ (We just wanted to make them happy.) -``Wowowee’’ host Willie Revillame.

``Even with all the dead around, many people were still asking for raffle tickets.’’ –a paraphrase of what TV producer Marilou Almaden told the fact-finding committee investigating the tragedy

Sure, there was a lot of compassion and generosity that burst out of people’s hearts after the tragedy, but before that the worst had to take center stage. And the worst thing of all was that this had to happen among the mostly poor and the innocents who were there for the thrill.

Watching the fact-finding committee’s investigation, I couldn’t help noticing that the line of questioning focused mainly on where, when and how the tragedy happened, the security lapses, the physical layout of the place, the numbers. It was all about crowd control.

No one was asking about the nature and essence of the ``Wowowee’’ show, its history, purpose, sponsors, audience. Did the show even remotely realize that it was playing Pied Pier and might be leading innocents to a tragic end? For the investigators it seemed enough that they knew that it was some kind of daily game show that raffled off oodles of prizes in cash and in kind.

If a senate hearing is going to be conducted ``in aid of legislation’’ I hope the parties concerned would look into the nature of TV shows. This is not in order to curtail media freedom, but so that the interest of viewers and the live participating public could be protected.

For TV networks it is no longer just a ratings game. It is also a crowd drawing game, with the crowd size, queue length and shrieking decibel used as gauge of the affair’s popularity, the better for advertisers to notice. And who to draw in to the queue if not the masa? They who have simple dreams and simple joys, they who seek momentary relief from life’s travails, so easy to please, so easy to satisfy.

But must poverty always be the scapegoat? Those who keep pointing to the people’s poverty and nothing else as the cause of tragedies such this recent one are also using the poor. They are not very different from those who use and entertain the poor for marketing gimmicks. It’s as if the poor have nothing else except their hunger, not unlike infants that must be made to thrive on baby food. To underestimate the poor is to sin against the poor.

Sure, many survivors of the tragedy who were interviewed pointed to their poverty and hopelessness as having pushed them to try their luck in ``Wowowee’’. But of course, because there was a creation named ``Wowowee’’. Remember the saying from the movie ``Field of Dreams’’--``If you build it they will come.’’ And so they came, made like innocents marching to the mesmerizing music of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

But what made the ``Wowowee’’ crowd different from a Pied Piper-ed throng was that when the crunch came the throng did not act as one organic mob. It was, as Gordon said, each one for him/herself. Survival of the fittest. But this was not even about survival, as in, say, a sinking overloaded ship (which the Philippines has had lots of). This was about getting ahead of the other person, of getting first crack at the raffle tickets that might not even turn out to be lucky ones. Even as bodies lay limp and lifeless. Even as screams of pain were being heard. This was the ugliest thing that emerged from this much-invoked, over-blamed poverty. Blame poverty? Blame the money a rich network wanted to throw in order to make more money and higher ratings for themselves.

You have to know the nature of the crowd, Querol kept stressing. The Pope’s visit, the SEA games, Pacquiao’s homecoming, mammoth protest rallies, the Black Nazarene procession—each one is a security nightmare unto itself. You make a master plan for contingencies--earthquakes, cyclones, bomb threats, hostage crises, among them.

ABS-CBN’s Bantay Bata (which works for the welfare of children as well as tax deduction for the Lopezes) should have known about the presence of children in the ``Wowowee’’ throng. ABS-CBN might pay much in taxes, but this did not mean the police would have to baby-sit their guests for several days, and were expected to call the shots when the crowd ballooned to 30,000 just before the stampede at the gate. And don’t expect security guards to learn crowd control right there and then either. There has to be planning and coordination. Sadly…

There will be a lot of blame-throwing in the days ahead. It behooves those whose money-making job it was to work up the crowd, to listen and not project the pa-awa feeling that the entire weight of the tragedy is being hurled on them for their destruction. They should be brave and take some on the chin.

best lessons are the most painful.