Maria Ressa: The best is yet to come

- Almond N. Aguila -
Hers was the kind of life that was unreal. She lived every broadcaster’s dream on CNN for 18 years – covering every election, revolution, natural disaster and political unrest in Asia. Literally, she had courtside, season tickets to the unraveling of world history. Maria Ressa became such a household name that one forgets she even has a first name.

Ironically, that same familiar face with that same familiar voice seems so unfamiliarly friendly in person. When she smiles, pleasantly and not forcibly, it takes you aback.

"I feel like I’m able to touch more people,"admits ABS-CBN’s new head of the News and Current Events Group. "You’re not doing things by remote control anymore."

Those "things" now include holding workshops and seminars for the editorial and production staff of her assigned departments. Her shift from international to local broadcasting has been self-gratifying but quite taxing. She swears she clocks in more hours now than she used to as CNN’s Jakarta Bureau chief and Asian correspondent.

"My friends call me up and are surprised to hear I’m still at work. They tell me I’m crazy!" Maria says with crisp laughter over lunch at the posh 9501 Club Restaurant.

Curiously, she takes no offense at being called crazy. Her parents said the same thing to her in the late ’80s. Back then, the Philippine-born but American-bred Maria decided to make a go of a local career in broadcasting. What sounded crazy was the fact that she had accepted a low-paying job despite an enormous debt she had to settle in the US. But, perhaps, they expected as much from a daughter who chose an English Literature major over a pre-med course in Molecular Biology. Smart and headstrong, she graduated cum laude from Princeton University. It left her with a decade-long student loan to pay. Crazy could also best describe foregoing law school for a Fulbright Scholarship in Political Theater in, of all places in the world, the Philippines.

"I came here looking for roots," she explains what she calls her reversed Fulbright Scholarship. "What does being Filipino mean? I couldn’t really speak the language although I could understand it. In the States, I really didn’t feel like I was American. I was born here and lived here until I was 10. I knew I wasn’t American yet my parents never came back here. I came here in 1986. I was only supposed to be here for a year. I worked with PETA. I went to UP for my master’s degree. I wanted to learn about the Philippines but I didn’t want to be a tourist."

Maria could have been a lot of things had she chosen to go "home" to the US. As a college student, she already had a foot in American broadcasting. One of the three part-time jobs she took to support herself through school was as a production assistant for 60 Minutes on CBS. She was assigned to do research for the multi-awarded program. Theater was a field in which she also excelled. Her production thesis entitled Sagittarius, a political allegory about Philippine politics, won the 1987 American Multicultural Playwrights’ Festival in Seattle, Washington. It was likewise staged in Canada and Scotland. Sagittarius became instrumental in earning her a Fulbright Scholarship. Still, Maria did not see herself pursuing theater or broadcasting in the US.

Her immersion in the Philippines, meant only to last a year, was not only sentimental but quite momentous. Maria arrived in Manila a few months after the EDSA Revolution. "It was amazing!," she gushes. "So I saw how journalists were like. They were really traumatized. The systems that they were used to were really ripped open. It was great! I was a young kid. It was the best time to be a Filipino, di ba?"

Instead of going full-blast into Philippine theater, Maria found herself dabbling in Philippine television. She visited PTV 4’s studio one day to pick up childhood friend Twink Macaraig who was then a news anchor. On the way to their casual lunch, she was offered a job. Maria couldn’t help sharing her opinions on how to improve the station’s news coverage. Her ideas so impressed the station manager that she was immediately hired as news program director and news consultant.

And, as her American boyfriend predicted, Maria never quite got around to actually returning from her trip to the Philippines. She continues, "At the time I was ready to leave the Philippines, Che-Che (Lazaro) hired me for ABS-CBN. It was the beginning of 1987. I was halfway through my fellowship. It really actually changed my life. I never went back! My things from college are still packed in boxes in my parents’ home. It’s really a bizarre thing. But that’s what I think about Filipinos who grew up overseas coming back. I think it’s a great time to come back ’coz you do your own technology transfer."

Maria infused her technology transfer into The Probe Team, a cutting-edge investigative program produced by a small but fierce production team that did a David on a Goliath of an industry. She was a member of the Probe Productions triumvirate composed of Che-Che Lazaro and Luchi Cruz-Valdez. The show changed the direction of Philippine TV by refusing to compromise its principles. To date, it has received several local and international awards.

"I always worked behind the camera before CNN," she explains. "I crafted the look of the show, the writing style, the editing style. What we did with Probe was to mix the essence of being Filipino with the analysis of what was happening in the Philippines. Luchi and Che-Che were on camera. I never went on camera because, back then, I had a much stronger American accent. But I took the influences I grew up with and injected them into the show – faster editing, snappier writing, sound bites, tighter shots, the elements of production that were western."

The CNN offer – for her to become their Philippine correspondent (both producing as well as reporting stories) – came at a time Probe Team badly needed support. Maria swears she was more than just a bit hesitant. "I asked if I could be the producer and Che-Che could be the reporter. They said no. They were too cheap! They wanted one person to do everything," she now reveals over her slowly-eaten Chicken Terriyaki. "Why did we do it? Because, Probe needed it. Probe was our baby. I wasn’t really interested in working for CNN but Probe wouldn’t have survived the first year if CNN didn’t rent equipment for us."

Maria Ressa, former vice president and co-founder of Probe Productions, became CNN Manila Bureau chief and correspondent in 1988. But, when the bureau was moved from Manila to Jakarta, she too packed her bags. Sounding almost guilty, she quickly says: "When I left Manila, I was ready to leave. That was the time of 10-hour blackouts. I was seeing the repetition of cycles in the stories I was covering. My frustration was high. That was also the time of the 10-hour blackouts."

The truth was that CNN wanted her to move to Atlanta. But Maria didn’t want to leave Asia. So, Jakarta became an alternative.

Anticipating the ill thoughts playing in the minds of televiewers, she denies there was bad blood between her and her Probe family: "When you work together and you work together as intensely as we did, we had huge fights! But we figured out how to make it work di ba? Probe showed me that it is possible to change the work culture. Probe is my model."

From 1988 until January of this year, Maria familiarized herself with the sights and sounds of Indonesia. She even spoke the language well enough to get by. But, unconsciously, she began craving for the Philippines. "I knew I wanted to come back. For the last decade, I’ve been trying to figure out where my final home will be. Am I going back to the States or am I gonna stay in Asia? I feel comfortable in Indonesia but it’s not my home. Manila is. Why did I come back? I felt I was like young enough to still be able to work hard to create something but old enough to have had real experience that would give me a different perspective and a different way of doing things. The reason why I was in CNN for a long time was because I was fighting for Asian stories. But I was fighting for Asian stories for a Western world that really didn’t really care about these perspectives. So, at some point, I decided I wanna come back to write about stories I’m passionate about for the people who care about them. The reason I chose ABS was because this network has already gone global. That’s where we need to go next."

Her return to Manila was several years in the making. Gabby Lopez, to her surprise, kept calling her no matter how many times their negotiations failed. Finally, in 2003, he declared he was not taking no for an answer.

Last June, she came full circle by rejoining ABS-CBN where she is again in the company of both Luchi (also a top executive at the station) and Che-Che (whose Probe Team is now airing regularly on its old home). Says Maria: "We just had a meeting last night. It was like old times but we’re much older and we had gone through so many things. We were such young idealists. We were really stupid business people. It was the right thing to do! But, you know what? We haven’t changed all that much. We’re still doing the right thing but we’re older and wiser."

Still a trailblazer, Maria is upgrading ABS-CBN’s news and current affairs shows to meet international standards. She is applying the techniques used in CNN without necessarily losing the network’s local appeal. Joined by her CNN editor and cameraman, both Filipino, she is applying new standards of quality to a system that badly needs reform. They hold workshops three times a week for central as well as regional news staff. Even the ABS-CBN Code of Ethics is currently being updated.

Fair or not, ABS-CBN’s "acquisition"of the former CNN broadcaster is seen as a radical move to reclaim its crown as the No. 1 TV network. Days before her official introduction, there were reports of a massive lay-off of 35 employees from the News and Current Affairs Division. It was this kind of atmosphere that welcomed her the day she addressed her new team.

To break the ice, she quoted Batman Begins: "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." Then, going straight to the point, she emphasized: "What we did last Friday shows character. It wasn’t easy, and it was extremely painful but it had to be done. The company is bleeding money, and that had to be stopped. We had to look at our inefficiencies and streamline our operations."

Maria insists the morale of her division is "surprisingly high." Much of this must come from her own belief that the best is yet to come for Philippine media. After all, she did break her CNN contract to join Philippine broadcasting. "I covered eight countries. The stories were amazing. I got tired of breaking news ’coz I could do breaking news with my eyes closed. There’s a certain adrenaline that would drive you yet I wanted to build. I was tired of jumping on a plane; landing somewhere and going live right away. I had done it long enough. It was the way I presented it to CNN. It was a great, great run. I’ve been here 18 years and I wanna try something else. I still freelance for them. If something happens in the Philippines and it doesn’t get in the way of what I do for ABS-CBN, I do it for them. I wanted to try to build something. I’ve spent my career writing about other people doing things or building things. Now, I wanna be able to build something."

Declining coffee, she drinks her canned diet soda while her neglected ice cream melts. Smiling once again, she asks enthusiastically: "Do you know the Tipping Point? Malcolm Gladwell’s book? For ABS that’s what we’re doing and I think for the Philippines that’s what needs to be done. It’s those small little changes that you can’t see but, at some point, you keep going and you hit the tipping point. And it will make big change happen. Big change doesn’t happen just like that. Big change happens because people work at it. For now, I wanna see every one of our reporters applying the systems I learned from CNN. My end goal is to give Filipinos the best broadcasting can offer. And, then, bring the best that Filipino broadcasting can offer globally."

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