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50 years a journalist

50 years a journalist

WHILE journalists at this time of the year may be scouring the past year’s headlines to come up with a year-ender that’s juicier than anybody else’s, I’m in my little cell, in front of a crucifix and a burning candle, reviewing half a century’s work as a journalist.

Yes, it’s been that long—in 2018 I’m celebrating my 50th year as a journalist, and it’s such a humbling exercise.  “Humbling” because, looking at the big picture now, I see that in spite of all my best intentions and passion in pursuing the truth, I haven’t accomplished anything—anything at all!

Within my first year of employment as a feature writer in The Manila Times (under Chino Roces’ watch), I took assignments tackling social problems: squatters, beggars, illegal recruitment, sidewalk vendors, women’s issues, clogged esteros, the price of galunggong, etc.  As a journalist in my mid-20s I wanted to “leave the world a better place than when I found it,” to “bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots” through objective, non-judgmental writing.  I avoided partisan politics, because I never saw politics or politicians as providing solutions to humanity’s problems. 

Early enough I learned to “rub assess with the masses.”  I said I wouldn’t be a butterfly covering chi-chi parties for the society page—I wanted to get to the nitty-gritty of things.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed I even asked to cover the Vietnam War but the editor said, “One, Manila Times may be Number One but we have no budget for that; two you’re a woman; three you’re a wife and mother.”  End of fantasy.

My first assignment was joining a raid into a cheap prostitution den in Sampaloc, Manila—the only girl among two carloads of armed, undercover policemen, reporters and photographers.  The experience taught me the importance of disguise in the newspaper business—you know, like when reporter Rod Reyes disguised as a heroin user “penetrated a dope den” and got a scoop.  So, on the way to the precinct, the cops tipped me on how to deal with the apprehended sex workers in the van with us. “Pretend you’re a social worker out to help them; don’t tell them you’re a journalist, otherwise they’ll never talk to you.”

Long before they institutionalized “investigative journalism”, the desire to investigate was already burning in my bones.  Specializing on human interest stories I immersed myself, like a chameleon, in the daily affairs of the “masa”, shop-talking with vendors in Baclaran and Divisoria, befriending beggars who approached me, chit-chatting with “turo-turo” attendants, hob-nobbing with farmers and activists, hoping to write stories that spoke of the human condition, and that would, well—“leave the world a better place than when I found it,” and “bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

To unearth facts I even carried my disguises with me abroad.  Upon being tipped by the Philippine Consulate in New York that a certain bar in midtown Manhattan was exploiting women from Asia with expired passports, I went and applied as a “hospitality girl” (now they’re called GROs, Guest Relations Officers) and was hired on the spot, beginning work that very night.  Of course, in the name of Truth and Justice, and with an eye towards an expose.  I played the part, shielding myself from the men who felt entitled to grope me because they were paying for my drinks, and “chancing upon” the poor women in the ladies’ room to nose about their exploited situations.  Pretending to be an ordinary tourist in Bogota (Colombia) I extracted from a cab driver first hand information about the “gamines” that their own social workers would never divulge to me. Oh, what would I not do to get to the truth!

Imagine decades spent on a dogged pursuit of truth, only to realize now, after 50 years, that nothing has changed—and that I had changed nothing, despite the awards, the trophies, plaques, et al honoring my “exemplary service” blah-blah as a journalist.  The social problems I’d written about are still there—only worse.  Beggar syndicates are still thriving, renting babies out to “professional beggars” for a quick tax-free buck.  Street children continue to populate the city streets, taking motorists’ alms and squandering it on cara y cruz and rugby.  Illegal recruiters still victimize hopeful OFWs in growing numbers.“Informal settlers” (formerly “squatters”) keep on descending upon the metropolis, shanty after shanty. Ambulant vendors defiantly choke our sidewalks; esteros remain clogged, as they did 50 years ago.

It’s a bit sad, and for a fleeting moment I thought—might I have done more for my country or humanity if I’d accepted a mind-boggling offer to work at the ILO?  (“Take your pick—International Labour Organization, in New York or in Geneva, and name your price.”)  Or an almost irresistible package just to be a popular politician’s spokesperson?  I either left or turned down lucrative positions because I’m a sucker for service.  I don’t mind a meager pay as long as I’m allowed to be creative and passionate about my work.  And yet, after 50 years, what have I accomplished?  Nothing.

After 50 years in journalism—with the last 25 of those as a secular Carmelite—a paradoxical sense of triumphant defeat now envelops me like a fog.  When the Truth confronts me, does it even matter that I have not accomplished anything in my eyes?  No, it doesn’t matter.  I am thankful, however, that in those 50 years, no one could buy me—never sold my soul to the devil, because at the instant I realized I could write, I vowed that my pen would serve God—and I kept my vow even through my turbulent years as an agnostic.

True, my writing may not have made the world a better place—but after walking through Cambodia’s Killing Fields, and shuddering at the sight of the Nazi instruments of torture at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel—I asked myself what could one little pen do in the face of man’s inhumanity to man?  Heroes have come and gone.  Now you can’t even separate heroes from villains, thanks to the inventor of Fake News.  Millennials who today are thumping their chests and gung ho over saving the world will in 2050 throw in the towel as they come to realize that human brilliance and lofty intentions alone are a waste of time—a pure waste of time.  Only Love can save us from ourselves.  Love, and only Love.  And that’s the truth.