A ‘Witch’ Bothered and Bewildered
On being an editor in interesting times
A ‘witch’ bothered and bewildered
By Inday Espina Varona
JOINED a national daily’s news desk in 1987, when Philippine media was giddy with new-found freedom but already facing the inces-sant tug-of-war among contending political and economic interests.
There were built-in disadvantages. I was a woman, a young woman, a very small young woman.
On the first day of work at the now defunct Evening Star, I faced a gaggle of toughies from Dad’s generation; one reporter quipped that he’d last seen me in panties.
I came in as a desk person but was soon coordinating the national correspondent network. It may have been due to my own background as provincial correspondent, covering an entire island for a wire agency and a national daily.
Correspondents don’t know the word “beat.” They are supposed to cover anything of importance from conflicts to local governances, to business and lifestyle.
How they cover it is often their problem; logistics and finance issues are settled later, if at all.
Ethics and reality
I left journalism for eight years and came back to discover that stiff competition had worsened work conditions. I soon became the bane of the human resources and accounting staff for hounding them on correspondents’ fees. Once, a general manager graciously offered to “advance” fees as payment for stories that were half-a-year old!
What do editors do when these things happen? Other than rage and write memos, they dig into their pockets to tide over folk who often cover life-or-death issues that are the stuff of headlines and front pages. At The Manila Times, then editor-in-chief Cip Roxas was feared for his growls, but he was a softie whenever we’d pass the hat around for a correspondent.
This is a subject that gets me on the soapbox. Editors frequently ask correspondents to wade into dangerous territory, work round the clock when crises erupt. Correspondents are practically regular employees, except for very vital matters like benefits and social services. It baffles me that publishers can pontificate about ethics and professional conduct when they treat these people like sacada.
On the editing side, there’s a natural tension between correspondents and reporters on one hand and editors on the other. The gatekeepers often do not share their reporters’ worldview. That’s to be expected. Reporters see the trees. Editors are expected to see the forest and then highlight specific trees for a snapshot.
But it’s not an editor’s job to over-turn copy unilaterally. Cavalier editing could endanger your reporter, especially in the provinces.
Some staffers can’t write to save their lives but have an unerring nose for news and a dedication to getting the facts right. Some serve up perfect grammar and hot air. I’ll choose the former anytime.
Manipulation of news
But copy is really the least of an editor’s worry.
More insidious is the manipulation of news. It’s a given that many owners of national dailies are involved in big business or politics or both. They have interests to protect. Or they have patrons they need to humor and rivals and enemies to demolish.
We may all memorize the code of ethics in journalism and swear fealty to objectivity and fairness but reality is a different story.
When Mark Jimenez took over the Times from Regis Romero, the reporters realized that “independent” was no longer an adjective for the newspaper. I had been spared in the massacre of editors because, as Cip quipped, the Times needed “a resident leftist.” Fired colleagues urged me to stay on to take care of the troops.
On the second day, I got a call from our Malacañang reporter.
“Ma’am, should we just not file negative stories? They won’t get used anyway, will they?” the reporter asked.
To their credit, Cip and then managing editor Ernie Tolentino sent back this message: “A reporter’s job is to get the news, period. Let us worry about getting the news out.”
And lots of times, we did just that. There were no neat solutions; we just fought it out daily.
It was Chavit Singson’s exposè on a plot to kill him that sparked a crisis at the Times.
Killing a story
I’d directed the reporter on the story and wrapped it up, expecting front-page if not banner treatment. Mr. Jimenez ordered it killed.
The senior editors and the publisher, Adrian Cristobal, pleaded, to no avail. I cried and almost resigned.
Adrian dissuaded me; he said it was the last time and that we’d definitely run Sen. Teofisto Guingona’s planned diatribe in the next issue. He gave me the advance copy. I don’t know what Adrian said to our employer but he kept his word and I kept my job. I do recall Ernie reminding Mr. Jimenez that a credible paper would be his best protection “when Erap is gone.”
The Times owner didn’t seem convinced, but we kept pushing and he eventually stopped going to our Ermita office so he could pretend obliviousness about the next day’s issue.
Mr. Jimenez, of course, represents the worst of media employers, keeping his staff unpaid for two to three months while he spent millions of pesos in his congressional campaign. Staff also worked for free in that campaign. It wasn’t until a threatened walkout that he paid, but only after giving some novel consolation to chief graphics artist Mario Galapate, who came to negotiate with us in a car filled with the odds and ends of a family in danger of eviction.
“Boy, masuwerte ka,” Mr. Jimenez told Mario. “Mawalan ka man ng bahay, may trabaho ka pa. Kung mag walk-out kayo, wala ka na ring trabaho.” We told Mr. Jimenez we would walk, thank you.
Reason and lack of it
Not all owners are alike. Ambassador Antonio Cabangon Chua, owner of the Philippine Graphic, is close to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel. But he limited his intervention to friendly chats post-issue about calls from his military friends or officials in government. He had a standard line about giving his editors a free hand and he often did, except to request a cover story now and then for a friend.
What grief I had from the Philippine Graphic came from advertising and marketing, a natural offshoot of the need for revenues. The ambassador and his son, Anton, our publisher, had issued a no-cover-for-sale rule but that didn’t stop the ad-vertising section from devising creative storylines to justify one for a client.
I hated being the wicked witch; those revenues paid for our salaries. I just kept fending off the weirder proposals. When a subject was almost worthy of a cover, the editorial department would ask for a free hand with the story. Anything that needed a client’s veto would be marked “special feature” to designate it as a glorified advertisement. I almost resigned when some smart account executive chose to “borrow” the proofs of one cover story and faxed it to her client, who thought he was being given carte blanche. He deleted a few paragraphs but they were very important to the topic and, I thought, hardly inflammatory. When we went home, someone tried to do a last-minute change.
By then, we were looking at massive loss-of-face issues both ways. The client was important and a long-term patron. I removed the bylines from the story, placed a special feature designation, and staged a major tantrum. Down came a formal memo from the owners and for the rest of my time, the Graphic walked a pretty straight path.
I’m now officially a bum, having resigned in March from the Times. It was a good, brief run of four months.
I will say this much: until the day I walked from the Times, the newspaper kept to the conditions agreed on for my return. And I’m sure it wasn’t an easy time for its owners.
I’ve been asked about surviving in papers known for their owners’ closeness to the powers that be. There’s only one answer. Journalism’s no picnic. You try to see where the other half’s coming from, slug it out from day to day, and try to leave with grace when you’ve hit a dead end. n
Inday Espina Varona was editor in chief of Philippine Graphic magazine and former executive editor of The Manila Times. She is now starting an interactive media firm, Dateline Manila.