Maria Ressa: Courage makes a woman sexy

10 THINGS - Bianca Gonzalez () - November 20, 2011 - 12:00am

When asked in a past interview how powerful she was, Maria answered, “I’ve gained some pretty powerful enemies.” She’s interviewed some of the most influential and controversial people in the world. She’s looked into the eyes and minds of murderers and terrorists. She’s headed massively powerful news organizations. She’s won over 25 local and international awards. She was cum laude at Princeton. But when you talk to her, you get this sense of idealism, enthusiasm and humility as though you’re talking to a fresh journalism graduate. Just 1,800 words is not enough for all the life lessons and opinions she has to share, but here are 10 things you should know about Maria Ressa.

1. It was actually friend and fellow top broadcaster Che Che Lazaro who she recommended to be the on-cam talent for CNN, but Maria was the one who got the job. 

When CNN came to Manila they were looking for a reporter, and Maria reveals, “I offered them Che Che!” At that time, they were working together on Probe where Maria was a producer. “In fact didn’t want the post,” she reveals. She was at the University of the Philippines on a Fulbright Fellowship, with no experience of on-camera work, but in the end she felt she was the one chosen because she “was young, cheap, smart, and I spoke English with an American accent.” With no training whatsoever, she went straight to the field. Her boss told her she looked like she was 16 (she was actually around 21 at the time) and that she should wear makeup, a suit, and drink brandy to lower her high-pitched voice.

A dream interview she still wants to happen: “Ramzi Yousef, one of the main perpetrators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He lived in the Philippines and trained the Abu Sayyaf. I put in a request every month for a year to Colorado Super Maximum Prison. The US won’t give me access.”discuss reincarnation.

“They’d call us at 2 a.m. and say, “Go to Pakistan by 6.” You wake up, you go find a visa, you do a live show as soon as you land,” Maria recounts. She says the whole CNN experience taught her to never take “no” for an answer. She spent 18 years with CNN, heading the Manila and Jakarta News Bureau.

2. On the real reason she left her post as head of ABS-CBN News: “Ultimately, if you don’t see eye to eye, either you do what your boss wants, or you leave.”

She makes it clear that there is no bad blood, sharing, “I love Gabby (Lopez).” They each had their vision of where they wanted to go, but at the tail end she felt that her leaving was the right time for her and the right time for ABS-CBN. She spent six years building the organization, and four years into it, she realized she wasn’t doing any real journalism work, “and I don’t want to not be a journalist,” she shares.

“I felt that something was fundamentally changing in the world, and what the job of the head of news demanded was someone who was going to stay and fix these problems,” Maria shares. She is currently finishing her book, From Bin Laden to Facebook, and is spearheading social media news group Move PH.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever join government because “It’s more fun to be a journalist.”

3. “Every president is a reaction to the last one,” Maria strongly believes.

The 25-year journalist shares her thoughts on our presidents.

Ferdinand Marcos: Cunning and intelligent.

Cory Aquino: Sentimental, inspirational and “the angel to the devil’ but didn’t have the nuts and bolts to really bring about the reforms that needed to happen at that point.”

Fidel V. Ramos: Not flashy, but got the work done and “turned out to be an extremely efficient, goal-directed president.”

Joseph Estrada: Fun, represented a certain machismo in our culture, was “inclusive but wasn’t a visionary.”

Gloria Arroyo: The technocrat who “knew what she was doing, but if you look at the potential of what we could’ve achieved in nine years, you can certainly say there was room for improvement.”

Noynoy Aquino: “Again, he’s a reaction to Gloria Arroyo.” A good man with values, but, she asks: “Okay, next step?”

She shares that all sides can keep throwing rocks at each other, but who cares? “The problem is, we’re still here, and who can do something about it? We’re waiting. Where is the government that will give us what we deserve?”

4. Her take on why the Philippines isn’t moving forward as it should be: “We’ve been so personality-driven that we’ve sacrificed our institutions.”

It is her frustration that every new government that comes in takes out people with experience, and brings in new ones without experience. It makes more sense to keep people who know the job. She cites Indonesia as a case in point.

“What did they do when they kicked out Suharto in 1998? They took out the top, and they kept everyone in place until elections,” she points out. When she asked why they weren’t changing people in power, they answered “Why? This maintains the institutions.” Sure enough, during the next elections, the people too close to Suharto and those who didn’t share the peoples’ ideals were voted out. “You allow the vote to happen,” Maria concludes.

On the Arroyo hold-order situation: “I could be wrong, but President Aquino’s government has been in office more than 500 days, they could’ve filed a case against her that would prevent her from leaving, but they didn’t. At some point they decided that she couldn’t leave. Legally, they violated her right to travel. There is a constitutional clash. Who will be the one to decide? It’s public opinion again.”

If personalities continue to prevail over our institutions, “We’ll keep winding up in the same place which is where we’ve been for 25 years.” 

5. Her take on our first step to move forward: “Everyone knows what is right and wrong and too many people stay quiet when the wrong thing is being done.”

“We need to feel that we are responsible for it if we do not call it out,” she adds. As social media becomes bigger and bigger in our country, it has the power to spread the following: Terrorism. Fear. But also hope. Maria shares: “If corruption spreads through social media, we can also counter it. If we spread that within our networks, and share the action they can take for it, then we begin to change reality.” She believes our greatest strength as a people is that we are hard working, patient, caring and giving, and that when you put Filipinos anywhere in the world where the system is good and institutions are strong, we perform really well.

6. Maria Ressa in numbers:

250: Number of pages in her book, Seeds of Terror.

23,686: Miles she flew within 12 days just last week, traveling to 10 cities, giving a total of five talks.

6: Number of siblings, her being the eldest. She has three sisters, one brother, and two Vietnamese foster brothers who escaped Vietnam by boat and stayed in First Asylum camps in the Philippines.

8: Number of musical instruments she plays.

10: Number of cities she lived in for three months or more.

7. She is constantly trying to make our country better for future generations, but doesn’t see herself having her own children to pass that on to.

Even on the thought of adopting, Maria shares, “I work too hard, I’d be a really bad mom, unfortunately. I can’t even keep a plant!” She shares that her great dream is to see real progress in our country where institutions become strong. She treats her Probe team, her ABS-CBN group, as her “babies,” and says that “If I had my own children, I wouldn’t have been able to throw that much of myself into my work.”

8. In 2010, she was hailed by US Esquire magazine as the Philippines’ sexiest woman alive, but what Maria finds sexiest is courage. “I get drawn to people who work for a vision of the way things should be.”

Her friends call her a serious cookie, but for fun, Maria likes playing instruments, watching movies (Inception is her current favorite), and reading books (she loves Milan Kundera). When not wearing suits, she likes wearing jeans and a shirt.

As to which cliques she was part of back in school, she says she was a nerd. But she was quite active! She played basketball (she was the point guard), did theater, was in the chess club, played softball. She was never part of any school publication.

9. A look back at some of her most memorable interviews:

Most charming: “Bill Clinton. He’s larger than life. He’s smart, substantive, and in control. The US made some mistakes in East Timor and I threw him the question expecting him to sidestep it, and he said ‘You’re right, we could’ve done this better.’”

Most surprising: “Gloria Arroyo. Seeing what happened after nine years in office was so disappointing, for me personally, but I think historically it shows how power can isolate.”

Most touching: “Suharto was an interesting one. After he fell from power, and was under house arrest. It was humbling.” She adds: “There’s a man in Samar, I keep going back to him. Every time a typhoon hits, his house would get torn down. And every time we would arrive, he would be sitting there, smiling.”

Most abrasive: “Lee Kuan Yew. But not in an offensive way because he was smart. He’s a control freak.” In every interview with him, the room has to be 65 degrees Fahrenheit, “for optimal performance.”

A dream interview she still wants to happen: “Ramzi Yousef, one of the main perpetrators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He lived in the Philippines and trained the Abu Sayyaf. I put in a request every month for a year to Colorado Super Maximum Prison. The US won’t give me access.”

. On the future of journalism in the Philippines: “Now, everyone is a journalist. We have to move up and offer analysis, context, the ability to encapsulate the story.”

She says that we can take advantage of new technology, specifically, social media. “Before, journalists only used to write about what people do, but now, we can crowd source action,” citing ABS-CBN’s Boto Mo I-Patrol Mo Campaign as an example.

She points out, “I’m tired of just writing about weak institutions. I can take what everyone else is feeling and we can do something together to actually help strengthen that weak institution.”

* * *

“The more you do the right thing, the harder it is to do the wrong thing.”

“Never judge. Step in their shoes.”

“You cannot succeed if at some point you haven’t failed.”

These are just some of the countless inspirational quotes from Maria. The usual “dream” of a Filipina woman is to be a good mother or wife with a successful career. While the former isn’t part of Maria’s list, I personally am thankful that modern-day heroes like her exist, who devote their lives to pushing the country forward and making change happen. Without revolutionaries like Maria, where would we be? And seeing people like her compel you to ask yourself, “What have I done for the country?”

* * *

E-mail the author at askiamsuperbianca@yahoo.comor follow her on twitter @iamsuperbianca.

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