Starweek Magazine

Life, the news, and Maria Ressa

- Doreen G. Yu -
"It’s Not About Ratings," says Maria Ressa, over a cup of coffee and pan de sal that remain untouched for the duration of the interview. "It’s about the news, and telling it well. The ratings will follow."

Network bosses–perhaps even her own bosses at ABS-CBN–may not quite see it that way, but Maria is getting her message across. "We are building our skills to become more sophisticated storytellers," she says of the news team at ABS-CBN that includes not just the high visibility news anchors but also the on-cam reporters and cameramen.

Four months into her job as news and current affairs division training consultant for Channel 2, Maria is ebullient. On a recent newsday, she points out eight exclusives in the channel’s two main evening news programs, TV Patrol World and Insider.

Her official title of training consultant is broad enough to allow her to shape the current affairs character of the station in content, delivery and personnel. "The goal is to establish and maintain international standards for reporting, technical services and operations," according to the memo from network bosses Eugenio Lopez III and Luis Alejandro announcing her appointment at the start of the year.

Maria is delighted with the idealism and enthusiasm among the news staff–"actually better than I had expected", although she is quick to clarify, "...maybe I just tried to be very pragmatic and realistic; you know the saying: hope for the best but expect the worst. It was closer to the best," she explains.

"People arrive hours before their shifts for workshops," she says. "There is an eagerness and a thirst for knowledge. People want to be better, to set higher standards–and are willing to work harder to get there."

Any early apprehensions about ruffled feathers and resistance to an "outsider" coming in to the newsroom have been dissipated. "We are beginning to work like a team," she assesses, "working to get different fields to respect and understand each other’s inputs and head toward the same goal. And making everyone understand (that) no one person is responsible for anything–not the good, not the bad. Television is all about teamwork."

While there have been concrete results this early, Maria is quick to point out that "we still have a long way to go". Her to-do and want-to-do lists are long indeed; streamlining, open debates, balance, ethics, empowerment... The concepts bubble out, but then a caveat: "I don’t want to telegraph what we’re doing to our competition!"

As enthusiastic as Maria is about the challenges and opportunities that face her at ABS-CBN, she is just as passionate about what she feels is her role as a journalist–and the role of journalism as a whole. In a recent speech before the Gold Quill awardees, Maria describes communication as "the cornerstone of all human endeavors". She told her audience: "Reality as we see it–and know it–is being crafted every day, every hour, every minute by people like you and me. Journalists, advertisers, corporate communicators–our agendas may differ, but our goals are the same: to move people to action." That "tremendous power", she continued, can have "incredible repercussions in a developing society like ours".

Maria has seen and experienced just how powerful a journalist can be in her 17 years with CNN in Southeast Asia, starting as Manila bureau chief in 1988. She has covered every major upheaval in the region, including three tumultuous changes of government (Indonesia in 1998, East Timor in 1999 and the Philippines in 2001), and interviewed a long list of past and present Asian heads of state. Videotapes of her coverage were found in what experts believed to be Osama bin Laden’s private videotape collection in Afghanistan.

Leaving CNN has not meant the end of Maria’s interest or involvement in the coverage of terrorism. As she repeatedly stresses, the threat of terrorism and the involvement of local groups in international terrorism remain, and "the reality is there whether we recognize it or not". Last month, she participated in an international terrorism conference in Bangkok.

Her stint with CNN put her in the middle of history unfolding, and she speaks often of the "adrenaline" of the breaking story. Hot on the trail of the hottest news story post-9/11, Maria relates how she began her extensive coverage of terrorism in Southeast Asia, coverage that not only provided definitive reports on the subject but also resulted in a book, "Seeds of Terror", published in 2003.

"I was one of the first reporters to begin putting together the links between the MILF and al-Qaeda. I was absolutely sure of the evidence because I had lived through many of these attacks. My investigation into the MILF actually began in 2000–after the bombing of the Philippine ambassador’s house in Jakarta. My team and I arrived at the site relatively early because our office was only a block away. When we got there, we saw the crumpled car, and Ambassador Leonides Caday inside. They were just taking him out of the car. I walked to the front, wading through body parts, some of which were being covered with newspapers by bystanders. But even as that was happening, there were also scavengers taking parts of the fender. It was a horrifying scene. I slapped one guy’s hand and told him not to touch. When my producer and I got to the front of the car and saw what happened, I had to joke–after all, I’m Filipino. That’s how you deal with these situations. I told her–look, it’s a Mercedes Benz. If the ambassador survives, this would be a great ad for them: ride in style and comfort...built so well we cushion you from bombs.

"Well, the ambassador did survive, and investigators would later tell me that the bomb’s trigger had the signature of the MILF. So I began looking into those links in 2000. Investigators also gave me a sketch of a man who allegedly left the bomb, drawn from eyewitnesses’ accounts. I pulled it out again nearly three years later after a significant arrest in the Philippines. It was the picture of Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an explosives expert, bomb-trainor for the MILF and a high-ranking member of Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia.

"When I first started reporting these links, there was a lot of resistance because it challenged conventional wisdom. Muslims took it very personally, and the MILF had a very strong and well-developed public affairs arm. It took two years and my book, ‘Seeds of Terror’ to begin to change that conventional wisdom."

Convention has never really been Maria’s strong suit. Her family moved to New Jersey when she was ten. She was the smallest student in class and didn’t speak English like her classmates, so she became an overachiever, excelling in academics and learning to play eight musical instruments (from piano to glockenspiel). At Princeton, she studied molecular biology toward a medical degree (but abandoned that and shifted to English, which she finished with honors), played basketball, sang in a band and acted in school plays. She would have become a playwright, but a Fulbright scholarship brought her back to the Philippines in the fateful year 1986.

She worked in the news department of PTV-4 before founding in 1987, with Cheche Lazaro, Probe Productions, which is generally credited with starting the broadcast investigative journalism. She says of the award-winning "Probe Team", "Our goal was to meet international standards of journalism but adapt it to make it uniquely Filipino."

A year later CNN came around looking for a reporter, and although Maria had no on-cam experience, she had an American accent. Her tape was sent to CNN and the rookie was, famously, "told to wear a suit, put on some make-up and drink brandy to lower her voice". She was the youngest ever to hold the position of bureau chief at CNN.

Thus, her decision to leave CNN surprised many–including her family–but she speaks of "cycles in your life", and timing, and, eventually, heading home.

"If I had looked at it (leaving CNN and moving to Manila) point for point, I may not have moved; but when I looked at the future, it was easy to make the choice," she says.

The test of her commitment to her new life came when the tsunami happened on December 26. Maria had already left Jakarta and was vacationing in Batangas with her parents–who had not been back in the Phiulippines in 14 years–when the call from CNN came. Of course she wanted to go, but decided that it would "send the wrong signal" if she missed her first day in "a new job and a new life".

She feels that she touches more people’s lives now. "I feel like the work I’ve done since I joined ABS-CBN has had more impact on more people than my last year at CNN," she admits. "I (used to be) one reporter, now I get to help all our reporters, our cameramen, our engineers, our IT... I can take everything I’ve learned from CNN and use that to help make our organization better."

And again she looks at the bigger picture: "We revolutionize Philippine society through media. If we empower everyone in our news group, imagine the power we can harness."

Of course, the move involved personal issues as well. "This move is right for me," Maria says. "It fit my big picture personally. I knew I was headed home."

There is now a "home" that is more than a suitcase and about 80 days in a year spent there–which was her average for several years living in Jakarta. Her responsibilities dictated that she be on the scene–in whatever country that may be–at a moment’s notice. "It was exciting at the beginning, but as I got older, it became tiring," she says of the pick-up-my-bag-and-run-out-the-door life that she lived. "Heck, even my plant died!"

Last Holy Week Maria signed on the dotted line to buy a condo unit in Makati, and should be moving in any day now. "Living in Manila is great," she says, "and the stability of sleeping in my own bed for more than three months straight–wow!" (The Bangkok conference was her first overseas trip this year.) She even has three plants now–all alive, and she’s learning about "plant diseases and how to prevent them".

She puts in 13- or 14-hour days at the office, and she has little personal time, but she’s not complaining. "That’s my choice for now; at least, the option is mine."

"You gotta love what you do," Maria says of her new life. "I’ve done breaking news. I can reel off the themes of all the stories in each country in the region. I can tell you the leaders of the terrorist organizations in any country in Southeast Asia. Been there. Done that. Want something more. This is it."

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