Journalism: Some Kinda Ugly

What drives an individual to seek–and report on–the truth, no matter how risky? Joel Pablo Salud on the rewarding vexation that is journalism

by Juan Pablo Salud

You can crush the flowers, but you cannot stop the spring. ~ Chilean poet Pablo Neruda

 

Blame it on the bossa nova. The cheap whisky, too. Or maybe the explosions that rocked Davao City and Quiapo weeks back. Martial law in Mindanao helps little, if at all, in forming any opinion to what the future may hold for Philippine journalism.

 

One thing is certain: Philippine journalism will thrive, survive, not dive, come hell or Digong, in these days of whines and poses.

 

After 33 years of writing professionally, 15 of them dedicated to the craft of print journalism, my experience has come down to this: Journalism is some kinda ugly.

 

This profession, which has become risqué for the unscrupulous, had proven too risky for the more idealistic. Much too risky these days that I had to scar my university journalism lectures with calls for pre-graduates to abandon all thoughts of joining the newsroom ranks.

It’s not without reason.

 

First, it’s only fair to warn them that journalism is not a crack at the red carpet. I once had the pleasure of sending off three on-the-job trainees back to their university an hour after my initial pep talk. When I asked one of them why she wanted to be a journalist, she said, without even blinking, “I think, sir, that it’s my best chance at being famous. I want to be on TV. I really want to be a ramp model.”

 

Judging by their flimsy but stylish clothes, heels too precipitous they needed mountain gear to wear them, I felt it wise to hold up the “No Social Climbing” sign.

 

Likewise, assassinations of journalists, wholesale murders, corruption in high office, corporate politics, wars, tyranny’s abuses, let alone rapes, home invasions, sexual crimes: these are stuff you don’t want to drag around as your best memories of life on Earth. Our children deserve more than raw reality.

 

I’m not encouraging that we lie to them. I think we’ve had enough of government press statements to build a cottage industry made out of fibs and slurs.

 

Our beloved graduates can extend a helping hand through other professions. One can be a doctor, a social media psychiatrist (that’s a first), or an engineer. Get a crack at being an entrepreneur who’d resist the urge to sell fakes from China.

 

When I asked one of them why she wanted to be a journalist, she said, without even blinking, “I think, sir, that it’s my best chance at being famous. I want to be on TV. I really want to be a ramp model.”

 

Dream even bigger and who knows? One might end up as a senator of the republic—“Another pezzonovante,” as Michael Corleone describe it in Mario Puzo’s masterpiece—but way outside the “celebrity” cone witless lawmakers love to flaunt.

 

Reality for a journalist is too unfeigned for comfort, like one raw wound that refuses to heal. Let’s not even go to a young alumnus’ thirst for being a war correspondent for that extra spice in his drink.

 

Let’s take the interview alone. Yes, right here within the safety of Imperial Manila.

 

Here you are, looking all slick and dapper for that one- or two-hour exclusive with a cabinet member, or worse, the President. I once interviewed a former secretary of finance who, after having me wait for half an hour, began imposing his ideas even before I shot a question. As his babbling leaped from one topic to the other, I noticed a certain pattern in his sentences. It was somehow polished, much too linear to use in regular conversation.

 

After the interview I checked the press kit. I was right. Suffice it that about 80 percent of the recorded interview was lifted from the press kit—verbatim, errors and all. The least he could’ve done was check his subject-verb agreement.

 

When interviewing the President, the situation is almost always desperate. Refuse the temptation to expect anything invigorating to come out of the discussion, with the exception of the final selfie.

If lucky, a journalist could end up with the official spiel, all boxed and wrapped in cute ribbons. Otherwise, 50 percent will begin and end with “off the record.”

 

If you happen to interview a President who displays a fondness for allegories, like the slumber party administration we had last time, you can look forward to someday losing your marbles, if not your job right after the interview. All because there was nothing worth publishing.

 

That, believe me, is on a good day. On worse occasions, patience pays off.

 

When interviewing the President, the situation is almost always desperate. Refuse the temptation to expect anything invigorating to come out of the discussion, with the exception of the final selfie.

 

Let’s go to the Strongman President. Two-and-a-half hours late, as I earlier anticipated. Unwilling to explain himself, he arrived with his own set of questions. “I’ve been a mayor for more than two decades. What interest can Manila have in me?”

 

“Word on the street, sir, is that you’re a killer.” That took the breath right off his lungs.

 

I had another mayor from Manila asking me the very same thing years back. “Been a politician for decades. What else can you ask me that I have not answered?”

 

“How’s your son? The alleged drug addict?”

 

To ease the sudden jolt, the mayor motioned for his assistant to fetch him a fruit plate. It took him 15 minutes to finish a quarter of a watermelon, scout’s honor.

 

But here’s the lowdown: what I thought would end quite abruptly that day—my life, that is—extended to a two-and-a-half-hour interview. Apparently, the dodgy situations I always find myself in had proven favorable to the profession.

 

The interview with the Strongman President ended up garnering 37,767 shares on Facebook. As for the mayor of Manila with a drug dependent for a son, I was the first to write his son’s story. Unabridged, curses and all, as was his request.

 

Alas, the situation today had tipped from being precarious to being outright perilous. If this is true for everyone, it is more so for the journalist.

 

I have always believed that to topple a democracy, truth must first suffer a crisis in credibility.

 

Not that this hasn’t happened before. Government, by nature, is secretive. Lies were employed as a matter of underground policy.

 

Today, however, there seems to be a concerted effort to not only twist the message, but in so doing, discredit the messengers themselves. Social media, with its memes and invalidated information, has been turned into a minefield.

 

A journalist with less than credible training and sense of caution on how to spot “fake news” could end up a casualty in this virtual “genocide.”

 

Fake news is but one of many other attacks aimed at maiming the truth. Smart-shaming is much a part of the blitzkrieg as the murders of reporters and editors. Online trolls call them “armchair warriors,” a derogatory term for journalists or writers with allegedly little or no experience in the physical arena of battle.

 

In the world of social media where journalists engage their readers, typically on the level of ideas, their “Ivory Tower” air works as much in their favor as it could against them.

 

Unknown to many, these journalists and writers are themselves activists in some form or the other. In cases where government had failed in its mandate to protect the people, as in the Kidapawan Massacre and the Ampatuan Massacre, for example, these newsroom hound dogs had taken the matter to the streets. They believe as Thucydides believed, that “[The] society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools” (History of the Peloponnesian War, ca 410 BCE).

 

In the campaign for hearts and minds, battles are first won in the mind. To the wielder of ideas and stories, the word is as powerful as automatic gunfire. As such, journalists are first on the scene.

 

This brings me to the point of my essay: young people should know better than to choose journalism half-heartedly. Yes, there’s a future for young folks in Philippine newsrooms. And what better future to have than to enjoy a front row seat in light of these interesting times.

 

But one must want it bad enough in order for the would-be journalist to survive the gauntlet. Anything less than an intellectual’s savoir-faire and a soldier’s dedication could land the would-be journalist in a drainage pipe. Bloody, if not dead.

 

The political pendulum has swung to the extreme right. Acts of terror have become daily breakfast fare. Governments have found their long sought-after excuse. Journalism is being dragged into a vortex of lies and counter-lies that, if you look closely, the elbowroom to write freely is being gobbled up, slowly thinning.

 

Democracy is at a crossroads.

 

The bright side is: this now poses a serious challenge to both young and seasoned journalists. Must we settle for past achievements, or should we move on by raising the level of discussion? Should we simply rely on stories bereft of context, or must we expand our writing to include the bigger picture?

 

Hardly noticeable is some journalist’s propensity to miss the point of his one and only calling: to be fiercely, unimpeachably accurate. Break a story, go right ahead. But I suggest we all break a leg, too. Go the extra mile in culling details, names, places, and context—the stories behind the story.

 

Accuracy trumps a scoop anytime. And in this era where an honest mistake—an honest mistake!—can push anyone into the jaws of an online lynch mob, journalists must always think twice before hitting the enter button. It doesn’t hurt to steal a handful of seconds, stretch the deadline a bit. An erroneous scoop is as damaging to the reader as lying for a few filched bucks is to the writer.

 

This year, I received the odd distinction (I call it odd because I did not expect it) of being the recipient of a journalism fellowship granted by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism. I was one of five journalists that vied for the prestigious Marshall McLuhan Fellowship.

 

Of course I didn’t get it. I had to beg off earlier due to the load of work. It was enough honor for me to be in the company of four other journalists I highly respect. These are people who give journalism a good name.

 

With democracy at the crossways, you can bet your fingers that journalism itself will be wrangling for ways to redefine itself. And it should, if it wants to retain its good name. The path ahead is steep, the tunnel dark. Those date nights sparkling with single malt after a day’s work don’t seem to cut it anymore.

 

A graffiti of President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao City, where he resided prior to winning the elections. Duterte vowed to end drugs in six months, but asked for an extension of another half year, saying he hadn’t expected the gravity of the situation.

 

There is, however, a catch to all this. Our country’s revolutionary history tells me that while we have suffered much as a nation, it was the poet, novelist, and the journalist who took the cudgels for us if only to set our eyes on grander schemes than our current reality. The Philippines is perhaps one of few nations whose list of heroes includes not only the soldier, but the journalist. Is this destiny, or sheer chance?

 

Whatever it is, this much is true: to speak truthfully is to live dangerously. It is journalism’s greatest good and greatest flaw. Thus, journalists thrive in the line of fire. It is, as one activist said, the place of honor. While I believe no story is worth one’s life, the stories good journalists tell are worth the lives of several generations.

 

Call it mindless idealism. I call it one hell of a ride.

 

This article was originally published in the Slant section of Rogue, June 2017.