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Probing Cheche Lazaro

“Journalists should do what they say, and say what they do.”

You may not be looking at the television set but you hear her voice and you instantly recognize it is her: that deep, somewhat husky voice, forceful yet moderate, compassionate yet striking. She changed the landscape of Philippine journalism with her stories about rebels, suicide, children, Jose Rizal, love, impeachment, among so many other issues, and has been known to stand up for the truth, always. Here are 10 things you should know about Cheche Lazaro.

1. When she started in news, women were not main anchors and were only given light stories. The question to her was, “If you had to do an NPA story, will your husband allow you?” Her answer: “Why do I have to ask my husband?”

The eldest of six children, Cecilia “Cheche” Aldaba-Lim, was born to an engineer father and a psychologist mother. She was born in the US but decided to give up her US citizenship and chose to be legally Filipino when she applied for a scholarship for a master’s degree in radio and television from the University of Michigan. Her fascination with journalism began when she was in high school. She read a series of articles by Rod Reyes, in which he posed as a drug addict and experienced what it is like being in a drug den around so many real addicts. “Ganito pala kumuha ng storya, I thought you just write it, but to go through all of this, this is really interesting! I want to do this,” she recalls. She remembers reading another story by an American journalist who had injections to change the color of his skin to get into the Ku Klux Klan in order to report what it’s like to be inside the group. The sense of adventure, the risk, the consequences if found out — this was all very exciting for Cheche.

Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she was fascinated by the early years of television in the Philippines. “I was fascinated: ‘How come people are moving inside that box? I want to make stories for that box,’” she shares. After coming home after getting her master’s, as much as she wanted to start her career in journalism, martial law had been proclaimed, and so she became a professor of broadcast journalism at University of the Philippines for around 20 years. When ABS-CBN reopened after martial law, she was determined to equal the men and prove women could do hard-hitting stories too. “If there’s a story and it’s worth it, of course I will go,” she says. After producing entertainment programs that had singers and dancers, she was able to pursue her passion when was appointed head of Public Affairs.

2. On Probe Productions’ run since they started in 1988: “Now when I think about some of the stories we’ve done, what? Crazy! Sobrang daring! You ask me to do it again, I’m not sure I’m going to do it!

“When you’re young, you’re foolish and crazy and you think you can do everything, you want to stretch your limits,” she explains. Cheche was already in her 40s when she became a full-fledged journalist, and colleagues who were part of Probe would say she did everything they did, from trekking for hours to carrying bags and tripods. “I deluded myself into thinking I was also 20,” she jokes. 

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Her dream is to go on an ancient civilizations tour with an actual historian who can piece together the stories. Photos by JUN MENDOZA

She was a big fan of the US program 60 Minutes and liked the idea that they were not only reporting news, they were explaining it. She wanted to do a similar show and pitched the concept of Probe to ABS-CBN. Since that was also the time that Carmi Martin was the biggest star, she remembers one of the bosses telling her, “Bakit, si Cheche magta-tanga din ba yan?” No, she didn’t wear a tanga but she gives due respect to ABS-CBN for giving Probe a chance to do several episodes, which included President Cory Aquino’s visit to Singapore and Indonesia. Along with Maria Ressa, Luchi Cruz-Valdez, Angie Ramos and a whole bunch of determined, young reporters, Probe was producing shows out of a small office in the compound. “We always just made enough money to pay salaries and buy new equipment if we needed. People in Probe will tell you that we didn’t pay the best salaries, but they will tell you they had the best training with us so that when they moved out, they could demand the salaries they wanted.”

When ABS-CBN proposed that Probe only air when they have a story, Cheche disagreed, saying that to grow a program you have to be there consistently, and that there would always be stories. ABS-CBN and Probe separated on good terms, and GMA-7 offered them a weekly timeslot. In 2003, Probe was set to air an episode of a lifestyle check of then-PAGCOR chairman Ephraim Genuino, and GMA-7 felt it maligned his reputation. “Everything was fully documented, we called him seven times, he didn’t want to give an interview, we went to the SEC four times, we had our facts straight.” At that point, GMA-7 pre-terminated the show’s contract. They moved to then-ABC5 for a while, before moving back to ABS-CBN. When asked where this fearlessness in challenging networks comes from, Cheche says: “Kayabangan siguro? Maybe we were crazy? I don’t know what you can call it. I think we valued being fiercely independent. You cannot impose on us a topic. We have to like the story, and we have to do it on our own.” They had a strict policy that no one is allowed to get paid for a story, and once caught, you can look for another job no matter how valuable you are. “We will only accept meals; if we’re fed, we will eat, because we like food,” she says in jest.

3. Cheche and her husband Delfin were college sweethearts. They have been married 43 years. 

They met in UP, she ran for councilor of Arts and Sciences and he ran for university councilor. They both won. Cheche recalls her relatives would tell her that the best place to meet your husband is on campus. “Because that’s the time when you are stripped of any title, money, position, all of you are poor, none of you have any accomplishments yet, so you are not blinded by unnecessary things. And sure enough,” she smiles. They got married in their early 20s and moved to the US for a while for his master’s degree, while she was a full-time housewife. When she fulfilled her dream of becoming a journalist, she says her businessman husband was the most supportive. There was even a point when Probe had no office and no equipment, so Cheche used a bit of their dollar savings to buy a camera and an editing kit, and their son’s room was used as an editing room. When Del became former President Fidel Ramos’ Energy Secretary, all other media agencies were interviewing him, except the Probe group, to avoid conflict of interest. “That was the time brownouts were terrible, and we didn’t have a generator because he wanted to lead by example. If you’re suffering eight hours of brownout, we would too,” she recalls. 

So how does a marriage last 43 years? “With difficulty,” she says laughing. “Marriage is not easy, it’s a question of give and take, and the adjustment continues, it doesn’t end,” she smiles.

4. The role she enjoys the most now is being a lola.

The originals: Tony Velasquez, Luchi Cruz-Valdez, Olivia Villafuerte, and Cheche Lazaro

Del and Cheche have two children, Lisa and Charlie. They have one grandchild through Lisa, two-and-a-half-year-old Jack. “I consider it a privilege to see a miracle grow, such a tiny person to be so perfect and bring so much joy. What a gift from God,” she shares. “My husband and I, ang wish lang namin is we live long enough to mark the important things in his life.” She is on Skype with Jack as much as possible (they live in New Hampshire), and Cheche says she loves the cute things he says and every little expression he makes.

5. She has a passion for one particular hobby: scrapbooking. 

She has 300 scrapbooks to date, all neatly filed on shelves with a separate book that is a catalogue of all 300, and a very organized workstation with colored paper, stickers, lace, pens, the works. “It started because I like documenting and I like keepsakes,” she shares. She started collecting little tickets and posters when she was in high school, and to this day journals on a daily basis (“dati, sulat, ngayon computer na.”) It helps her remember every detail about trips and family events, and with each page a mix of photos, write-ups and decorations, she says: “It’s like producing a television show!”

Cheche’s scrapbooking tips:

• Aside from the photos you take, when you travel, have a pouch for all your keepsakes. 

• Use acid-free albums. (She now has a hard drive where the first few albums have been scanned, to preserve the pages.)

• Do a few pages at a time until you finish the album.

6. The most effective Filipino political leaders in her opinion:

She names Jesse Robredo and Bayani Fernando’s mayoral run in Naga and Marikina respectively for getting things done in their area. (This interview was done a week before the passing of Secretary Jesse, and she later on shares that she actually saw him the day before the accident. “There is a deep sense of loss to our country. A good man. I think that, in essence, was his core.”)

Cheche Lazaro is fascinated with Japanese culture and things Japanese.

“I admire the public service record of former Budget Secretary Emy Boncodin, Dr. Milwida Guevarra who was with the Department of Finance, and my very biased choice of my husband Delfin Lazaro, who served as Energy Secretary.” She also names former President Fidel Ramos for the reforms and the programs he put in place. 

One of the truths she and her husband discovered about government is that there are many good and capable people but we don’t know them as much because they are seldom involved in scandalous news. “They are quiet, ,” she says about those she admires in public office. 

7. Cheche Lazaro in numbers:

1: Total number of libel case filed against her. This was by the Fish Exporters of the Philippines, when Probe did a story on dynamite fishing.

30: Number of Filipino costumes in her collection. She makes it a point to buy one in the different provinces she travels to.

70: Number of houses (wall replicas) in her collection. “Like an Argentinean bar where tango was born, ulog from the Mountain Province, Canal palaces of Venice, all on walls in a little resthouse in Baguio.”

257: People that have passed through Probe Productions, Inc.

111: Total number of awards received by all shows under Probe.

8. Two core values she made sure her students in UP and journalists at Probe learned: “Integrity, and walking your talk.”

 She specifically recalls the three times that groups tried to bribe her and the Probe group. One was during the end of an interview, and the interviewee thanked her while tapping her knee with an envelope under his hand. “Merienda money,” he said. “Pina-merienda mo na po kami, salamat,” she answered. Her only regret is that despite previous instructions to keep the camera rolling (“after the interview, that’s when the bribe comes”), the crew had already packed up. Second time was in an out-of-the-country shoot, where the producer handed out envelopes to everyone. Quietly, she gathered all the envelopes and gave them back. “No, that’s shopping money,” they said. “We appreciate it, but I have to return it otherwise we will lose our jobs,” Cheche answered. When the producer said they didn’t have to tell their bosses, Cheche answered, “Our boss will know.” Third time, somebody had money sent with a thank you note, and she simply sent it back with a note saying, “You’re most welcome, it was a pleasure doing the story.”

She goes on to say journalists should do what they say, and say what they do. “It’s hard! It’s easier said than done. I don’t think I even follow that myself. Masarap mag-lecture pag ikaw ang teacher,” she jokes.

9. She only learned how to report and write fluently in Tagalog during her Probe days. In fact, she once got a 76 in Filipino on her report card.

“When people hear me speak Tagalog now they think I’m so good. No way! Hirap na hirap ako,” Cheche exclaims. She was in high school in Philippine Women’s University when she got an almost failing grade in Filipino, and shares that her average grades were in the 80s. “You think I’m a bright girl? I was just average. College I did better.”

It was when the Probe team had to switch to Tagalog (“For 15 years we were in English”) to be able to reach more viewers that Cheche had to master Tagalog. She shares that one of the antiquities in the Probe office is an English-Tagalog dictionary with the pages falling out, and everyone wrote their scripts in English, translated it to Tagalog, and had it checked by the most knowledgeable Tagalog writer in the bunch. “I had to do scripts in Tagalog, I had to do interviews in Tagalog, which was a pain! A royal pain in the beginning,” she recalls. “Sa Probe talaga ako nahasa.”

Cheche has 300 scrapbooks to date, all neatly filed on shelves.

10. She and her husband Del love to travel. Macchu Picchu in Peru, the Galapagos islands, and the small towns of Japan have been checked off her bucket list.

She is fascinated with Japanese culture and things Japanese. “I just want to look at nature, we’ve done that, and I want to do it some more,” she says of Japan. For Probe, she has jumped from a helicopter, and has even gone swimming in Tubbataha and the Great Barrier Reef.

They have been to Rome, Greece and Egypt separately, but her dream is to go on an ancient civilizations tour with an actual historian who can piece together the stories. She wants to go trailer camping in Redwood forest for a total nature trip. “Mount Everest, but I think I’m much too old to go trekking there,” she laughs. “I love the Philippines, to go around the Philippines is still number one for me.”

* * *

We start the interview with her interviewing me, asking about my work. “Yes, when you’re young, that’s when you burn your candles at both ends,” she says. She is never selfish with advice or sharing little tips and tricks, and it is awe-inspiring to see how she is open to the modern and the new, never acting as though she is above or better than anyone or any idea. She may not work late hours anymore or carry heavy bags like she used to, but really, now in her mid-60s, Cheche Lazaro’s incredibly sunny disposition and go-getter attitude can easily beat that of a 20- or 30-something any time of day.  

* * *

E-mail me at askiamsuperbianca@yahoo.com or tweet me <@iamsuperbianca>.

 

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