For the most part of my writing for Pinoy Weekly, I have been hounded by two things. One, by a perception that I can be most effective as a writer in English. My mother, an English teacher, and my two sisters – an elder one who wrote novelettas in high school, and an younger one who speaks and writes not only excellent English, but also German – are proof enough of that. Plus, the fact that I sucked in Pilipino subjects in high school, dreading every moment of Noli and Fili reading sessions. I tried to console myself by the fact that Filipino is not my native language, but this does not make me feel any better. After all, neither is English. My theory is that television, particularly cartoons and those early evening cop shows during the 80s, taught me English. I did not have the benefit of watching Batibot as a kid – a grand total of one channel was on TV in Legazpi, and it showed shows a week late. And instead of Batibot, we had that eerily elitist children’s show, Uncle Bob’s Lucky Seven Club.
The other reason for my apprehensions – you might say insecurity – is my initial inability to reconcile my politics with the demands of what was supposedly a “mainstream” reportage.
I guess it was not so much timidity as some thinly veilled revulsion of everything that the institution stood for that made me hate my stint as a beat reporter in Malacañang. It was fine, even thrilling at first, being in the seat of power, being so close to those people who, frankly, had made life in this country much more miserable. Covering Malacañang sure had its highs. I was there when Oakwood happened. Gloria presented to the media Antonio Trillanes’ mother, who pleaded to her son to surrender to the authorities. I was there when the US government declared war on Iraq and Gloria called a press conference to profess her undying support for that really stupid and tragic invasion.
I remember being at the Palace when US President George W. Bush made a stop there and thinking, well, more than writing about it, maybe I can make a statement against US imperialism. A simple pinch in the nose would have made headlines worldwide. I was that close – I even shook his hand. But the worst part of it was that for that very brief moment, I was a little honored, not realizing outright that I was shaking the hand of someone who would eventually be labelled as the worst US president in history. I guess, being in the presence of those kind of people does that to you. It makes you feel privileged to be breathing the same air as they do, to be seing them up close, pimples and all. It does a lot to your self-confidence, that you can rub elbows with Ignacio Bunye. I understand now why some journalists are such airheads – they get to make chika with the politicians and get to call the latter buddies and invite them to be ninong to their kids, even as they go home every night to some shanty worlds apart from the glitter of the Palace.
Not that there is anything wrong with what beat reporters routinely do. In fact, I think they provide some very invaluable public service, taking notes and pictures of public pronouncements, asking questions, or just being there. Its just that I did not find myself, and by extension, the paper, effective by aping reporters from the dailies, trying to get that elusive scoop of the day. Investigative journalists have pointed out that the beat system tends to discourage independent investigative work. And if you’re someone with an activist background and comes from a paper that may be lesser known than the dailies but has clear-cut advocacies and constituencies, writing news stories based on press releases can be a very, very depressing task.
But it’s all part of the territory, I guess. The institutions of power, however corrupt and oppressive, are there to be confronted and challenged. Journalists have to cover wherever it is that needs covering. But we also need to be effective in our tasks. And in covering the seats of power, I found useful something that Norman Mailer wrote when he covered the 1964 Republican primaries – an awful place and time to be in if you’re a liberal like Mailer:
“Unless one knows him well, or has done a sizable work of preparation, it is next to useless to interview a politician. He has a mind which is accostomed to political questions. By the time he decides to run for President, he may have answered a million. Or at least this is true if he has been in politics for twenty years and has replied to an average of one hundred-fifty such queries a day, no uncharacteristic amount. To surprise a skillful politician with a question is then approximately equal in difficulty to hitting a professional boxer with a barroom hook. One cannot therefore tell a great deal from interviews with a candidate. His teeth are bound to be white, his manner mild and pleasant, his presence attractive, and his ability to slide off the question and return with an answer is as implicit in the work of his jaws as the ability to bite a piece of meat. Interviewing a candidate is about as intimate as catching him on television. Therefore it is sometimes easier to pick up the truth of his campaign by studying the outriggers of his activity.”