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Lessons after 10 years and a day

By Joel Pablo Salud

I didn’t get to spend 10 years working as editor for the country’s longest-running news and literary magazine without a harvest of lessons here and there. Lessons that had kept my feet on the ground regardless of where I’ve set my sights. Bittersweet lessons. Bitter because they jog my memory for the sole purpose of reminding me of my humble beginnings; sweet because they serve as the life line that they have always been.

This morning, I was at a loss at how to celebrate my 10th anniversary at the Aliw Media Group, nine of which as editor-in-chief of the Philippines Graphic magazine. A bacchanalian bash wouldn’t seem appropriate, not for a man in his mid-fifties suffering acid reflux and the loss of his bums. Engaging in juvenile frolic while the wife is away on a week-long writing workshop will, no doubt, put me in grave danger, what with her talent for knowing everything, including where to shop for shovels.

Left with little choice but to do either one of two things: sleep off the cobwebs in my head or share tidbits of what I have learned all these years, I opted for the latter. Not that I believe that such lessons are fail-safe or set in stone. On the contrary, there’s a fluidity to the profession which can’t be found in its rulebook, hence these can only be learned in the course of its practice.

While journalism is, in and by itself, governed by rules and strict ethical standards, at once inflexible and firm, one’s experience in the newsroom or the field may vary extensively from one journalist to the other, leaving the newshound with more than enough legroom to move about.

Three extremely important things I’d like to share: first, that a journalist needs stamina.

The irony is too obvious to deny. What I mean by this is simple: the curiosity that leads a journalist’s feet to brave society’s underbelly may pave the way for his or her ruin if the journalist does not have the stomach and the mettle for it.

I have learned more about myself in the course of a decade in the profession than all the public issues I’ve faced each day. I’ve learned that instead of stamina, all I ever got to nurture was a growing susceptibility to either rage or being shocked. Even worse, jadedness.

I have to admit the last few years had been particularly difficult because I felt a certain level of ennui breach my journalistic detachment, or whatever’s left of it. All that raging and ranting and study left me exhausted, in some cases, irascible beyond belief.

Soon enough I fell victim to what I call ‘the oubliette of incuriosity,’ that nagging distaste for political engagement which, by and large, is the result of the continued bombardment of information and images depicting murder, corruption, and the total disregard for human dignity by powerful and unscrupulous people.

This is why I have only the highest esteem for colleagues whose display of courage and stamina outweighs the onrush of those who’d wish this country harm. These champions of the profession are a different breed of Filipinos, dead-set at facing the assault no matter the cost.

To get back on my feet, I took the battle elsewhere, not in the street, not on social media, not even in the field, but that arena where, as a young wannabe writer decades ago, I had once dreamed of fighting my battles: in the hearts and minds of the people.

And so, by this, I took a leap of faith to write books­­—the one place trolls can never reach me.

By doing this, I felt my strength return. Instead of engaging the enemy, I engaged the public in discussion of the issues. I took the only weapon and fortification I know and armed the public with it, hewed in the form and shape of ideas. This way those who are wont to spread their lies may find a staunch and unyielding fortress ‘round those whom they wish to lead astray.

If you are a journalist of some experience, it pays to share what you know to the younger batch of colleagues found on campus. This is the second most important lesson.

For the last six years, I have been doing the rounds of our universities and colleges to lecture on Journalism Ethics and other subjects. It’s the least I can do to reach out and equip the next generation of young Filipinos with the necessary weapons for their survival.

I’m of the opinion that in order for us to defeat those who wish to raise hell, we must raise a new army of journalists who, with sufficient knowledge, could snuff out the fire before it can even spread.

The history of journalism in this country is, by and large, not the most encouraging. Let’s not kid ourselves more than we have to. People have reason to be critical of some journalists, what with all the flaws and weaknesses that have tainted its practice through the years.

Journalism is not perfect, it never will be. Shit happens to the best of us. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should turn a blind eye to unscrupulous individuals posing as journalists each time they weigh the profession down with their incompetence and corruption.

The profession is only as honorable and relevant as the people whose honor and relevance remain as their most prized possessions. Not the newest tablet or laptop. Not the cash in the envelope. Not the damn loot bag.

We cannot undo what has already been done. However, by teaching a younger generation the fundamentals of what it is and what it takes to be a journalist, regardless of its inherent difficulties, then perhaps we can look into the future with a larger measure of hope than when we first started to witness its flaws.

The third and last lesson is fiercely personal: journalists must ever be mindful of the power they wield.

Of the myriad and sundry things this country is ignorant of, the most damning is the way it handles power. This, above all, is our real curse. Not poverty. Not hunger. Not unemployment. If you think about it, it’s not even the abuse and near annihilation of our people.

This nation, looked upon by the world as small and insignificant, has through the centuries survived poverty, pillage, plunder, pandemic, the rape of its people, world wars, massacres, invasions, lies, betrayal, catastrophes and apocalypse.

Divided by the sea, and left to fend for itself in the cold, Filipinos remain undaunted in the face of all these. Our poverty, in fact, has taught us to survive under any condition, with the exception of that singular menace that almost always leads us to our doom: power.

What has this got to do with journalists, you ask? The words and ideas at our swift and easy disposal are an even greater power than wealth can ever bring. Used wisely, it is a weapon for good. Used to further self-interest, it could spell our destruction.

Which is why I think of the freedom to manage and divulge information is not simply a right, but a gift­—one that we can wield freely, no doubt, but never own and take credit for.

Journalists cannot become the story, more so the celebrity, without risking who and what we are in the scheme of things. We are our nation’s storytellers, the mouth and ears of a people entrusted to cast its light into the shadows. In order to do one, you must neglect the other.

Prestige, even after all the consolations it offers the overwrought newshound, is our Pandora’s box. Suffice it that to confuse prestige as the journalist’s just reward is no different from mistaking cyanide for almonds.

The care and passion we put into the practice of our profession may seem draconian to some. In the end, the ethical standards which safeguard our journey into the future will likewise safeguard journalism as a pillar this nation cannot do without.

The lessons I have learned as editor, and more besides, after 10 years and a day, did not come just by being a witness to history and current events, but by taking the time to look deep within. As human beings, we have our natures and circumstance to contend with. If the bitter pills of criticism work to put government and society in check, then the same should work for us, too.

For all those who spent time and resources in support of the Philippines Graphic, thank you. G

 

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