EXPLAINER: The Jessica Soho presidential interviews. What featured Leni, Ping, Manny, Isko and no-show Bongbong gained or lost. 7 takeaways from Jan. 22 forum.

·5 min read

AIRED on GMA Network last January 22, the Jessia Soho Presidential Interviews gathered in one television program the front-running candidates for the May 9 elections: Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo, Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson, Senator Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquiao Sr., and Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso.

Absent, a no-show, was former governor and former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. His refusal to appear with his rivals because of the alleged bias of host Jessica Soho started fireworks even days before the special program.

[1] SOHO'S 'BIAS, NEGATIVITY.' Bongbong Marcos's camp justified his rejection by alleging "bias" of the host, saying she'd just raise "negative" things. Critics said that meant Bongbong didn't want tough questions. The reply from supporters: "A tough job requires tough questions." GMA, Soho's network, said Jessica Soho has been known and recognized, as affirmed by prestigious awards, of being a fair and competent broadcaster.

Demonizing the host might not be a strong excuse as it ignored Soho's journalism record and experience and the fact that in such a high-profile show, it would've been easy to spot a host's favoritism or prejudice.

[2] INTERVIEWS BUT STILL A CONTEST. It was not a debate. An online commentator said it was first planned to be a debate but redesigned into a cluster of interviews when two candidates balked at the idea. It's not known if the shift was finally decided after Bongbong Marcos rejected the invitation.

Though it was not a debate, not even a no-decision debate, it was still a competition. Each candidate had to give answers that tell the public one is (a) more fit for the high office and (b) more qualified and deserving than the others. One competes with the other four on knowledge, wit and being presidential under pressure of time and scrutiny of a nationwide audience.

The public had the chance to make a comparison of the front-running aspirants. That's how the Soho interviews last Saturday would differ from other interviews, different even from the scheduled Boy Abunda interviews (January 24 to 28) where one show is allocated to only one candidate.

In the Soho interviews, the five-minus-one frontrunners were on the same forum -- three of whom were in the studio, the fourth by Zoom -- which generally gives an audience basis for comparison, an immediacy not spaced by different setting or time.

[3] OTHER STRENGTHS OF SOHO FORMAT. Aside from being in one package and one setting -- which is convenient for busy people and those with short attention span -- the Jessica Soho Presidential Interviews had the benefit of extensive research. The range of the subjects and issues was wide and broad enough to confront each candidate and tell the public, like "here's what we need to tell in his or her face." And hope the answers will let us know better about the man or woman who wants to be president.

As good television -- or any show on any screen for that matter -- must now be, the Soho special news production was fast, snappy and at times riveting.

[4] A BIG HANDICAP was the shortness of time for the answer, particularly on issues against the candidate, and for the necessary follow-up/s if the answer dodges, confuses, or misleads.

A blast from the past, like the Kuratong Baleleng issue involving Senator Panfilo Lacson, quickly slammed, just as quickly answered, and then was left for other topics. People missed the exchanges in the 2016 presidential debates when answers were challenged, refuted with fact and logic or stood despite the battering.

At least though, the Soho interviews provided candidates and their rivals tips on what issues to pursue during the campaign, and insights into character they didn't see or had forgotten about these persons who want to be president.

[5] BONGBONG'S RIGHT TO REFUSE. Bongbong Marcos had the right to refuse the invitation of GMA 7 to appear in its show. Just as GMA 7, a news media company, had the right to invite him.

That right of the broadcast network even became an obligation of sorts -- ethically and commercially -- when the concept was to have the front-runners appear in one and the same forum. Not inviting Bongbong would've been condemned by the same people that condemned Bongbong's refusal.

[6] OTHER REASONS FOR SAYING NO. Bongbong Marcos reportedly had other reasons for shunning the Soho show but didn't raise them publicly: (a) it was not necessary as he was leading in the popularity surveys, he'd win if the elections were held today; (b) it would only risk losing votes from a lapse or error in what he'd say; and (c) he'd be merely giving his rivals an occasion to bring him down. In sum, to him it was good political strategy.

For that move, he and his handlers must have anticipated the response, particularly from hostile quarters: being a "duwag" or coward and citing his past performances, the fear of being exposed for his alleged inadequacy for the highest post of the land.

Fair game in the unfair setting of politics during the election season, with a new media that often condemns before it hears all or the most part, and slanders with little or no thinking.

[7] WHAT EACH GAINED - OR LOST. It's uncertain what the presence and performance of contenders Vice President Leni, Senator Ping, Senator Manny, and Manila Mayor Isko in the Soho interviews gained or lost for each of them -- or what the absence of former senator Bongbong gained or lost for himself.

The four did what they did and one didn't because they all wanted to boost their individual chances of winning.

A survey with a question on the specific impact of the show on new ratings may help tell who got it right.

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