The Sinister and the Young Journalist

Jessica Soho’s interview with Gen. Almonte was aired on GMA News TV

Last week, my anchor Jessica Soho interviewed General Jose T. Almonte, former National Security Adviser to Fidel Ramos. Before that I did not know who Almonte was.

I did my homework to the best of my ability. More than that, I read his 333-page memoir to make sure I wasn’t clueless for the interview. I had my own questions, but I was prepared never to have them answered. What I wasn’t prepared for were the questions that followed that interview.

We got to Gen. Almonte’s office in Greenhills an hour early. He asked me: “Aren’t you going to brief me?” After briefing him, he asked me what questions were going to be asked.

Sir, I have my questions here, but Ms. Jessica almost always doesn’t follow my questionnaire. She has her own.

I’m sure she has. But ask your questions.

Are you sure, sir? We could just wait for her and we’ll do the pre-interview together.

No, ask your questions.

Reading his memoir, “Endless Journey”, was enjoyable, almost like reading a political thriller or the script of House of Cards. I learned he was a veteran of the Vietnam War who embedded with the Viet Cong. He studied the first basis of Martial Law as an adviser to President Marcos, but also one of the core members of the Reformed the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) who led the attempted coup, before joining millions of Filipinos during the EDSA People Power Revolution. He was security adviser for Ramos during the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front.

Of course I had a lot of questions.

Sir, have you been approached by groups who want to oust Noynoy?

Sir, do you favor coup?

Sir, do you think that another EDSA is likely in today’s social climate?

He answered my first questions in short responses, a soundbite nightmare for any Journalist. I pressed him on these topics two more times before sensing I needed to drop it.

Sir, do you support the Bangsamoro Basic Law?

No one ever wins in war.

Hmmm, yes, but a categorical answer perhaps? I thought.

He told me he supports peace but that he understands the cautious statements of some lawmakers.

So Sir, do you support that this progresses in Congress or are you saying, let’s wait and think about it first?

You’re missing the point.

I’m sorry, sir.

Besides, I’m just an old man, why do you need my stance?

You’re not just an old man, Sir, you were National Security Adviser for Ramos.

The power of the ruler is with the ruled. If the ruled do not obey their ruler, the ruler doesn’t have power.

I’m sure that in that context sir, you have power.

That’s not for you and I to say. I’m sorry to be lecturing you, hija, but….

He was cut by Ma’am Jessica’s entrance to his office door. We never got to resume that conversation and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. We proceeded with the interview where he gamely and lengthily answered Ma’am Jessica’s questions about the role of Military in our history and today’s society, about Oligarchy, about Valor, about Honor.

almonte_js

Even after we have edited and aired that interview, I was still stuck to that conversation. Why was he upset over my questions? I was convinced that those were valid questions, and it had become so frustrating for me thinking over it that I even asked Ma’am Jessica if he was mataray. “Hindi, mabait siya,” Ma’am Jessica told me, and I should believe her, since she covered Gen. Almonte for many years.

Determined to understand his demeanor towards me, I researched some more. It led me to an Esquire article about him in 2013 and this highlighted quote caught my eye:

He was frustrated by the impatience of young journalists who wanted simple answers to complicated issues.

That’s it. Was I too simplistic?

I guess I was. At the time, when I was talking to him, I was already outlining soundbites: Gen. Almonte on alleged coup plots / Gen. Almonte on PNoy ousters / Gen. Almonte on BBL. And I was trained to think that way, to aim for categorical, clear answers, to seek expert opinions — one anti, one pro. Quick, clear, digestible.

Was this the impatience that frustrates Gen. Almonte, one of the country’s most venerable intellectual?

almonte

Perhaps.

Earlier I attended a Media briefing on Mining data in the Philippines. The Non-Profit group who called for the meeting had impressive statistics and findings. Print journalists were mad men typing away on their laptops, questions here and there about the data, but all I could do was sit there and think: where’s the case study, where’s the basic problem, what is my jumpoff, where am I going to shoot, is this visual?

Bothered, I chatted my friend who was sitting next to me: I feel that my brain has been diluted to basic things.

Is it a Television thing? To always fit stories into limited airtime, to cut soundbites, to make things as simple as possible, to want clear-cut statements, yes or no, do you agree or do you disagree, is this bad or is this good?

Gen. Almonte’s voice resounds in my head: You’re missing the point.

Have we, in Television, been missing the point?

My friend argues that print journalists are better trained to tackle complex issues in complex manner, and that’s not a problem because their readers would understand them — the policy makers, the influencers, the people who can do something about it.

The same people, perhaps, who would watch TV News and complain that it is too simplistic.

But my service is not for those people. If anything, they’re the least in my priority. I am in News because I want to inform the less-informed, educate the uneducated, and empower those who think they’re ignorant.

“Kung sino pa ang marunong, sila ang mahirap gisingin. Ang turuan natin ay ang mga walang alam,” as one Journalist told us once in a program planning session.

How would I ever reconcile wanting to tackle complex issues comprehensively with the obligation to make sure that the most common Filipinos understand what I’m saying?

Perhaps there is a difference between being simplistic and being someone who knows how to simplify.

I still don’t know if that’s the real reason why Gen. Almonte got a bit miffed with me. And the fact that I don’t know means there is something truly wrong with my sensibilities as a Newsman.

Which means there is so much more to learn.

So much to study, so much to research, so much to ask and so much to do in order not to miss the point, again, ever.

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