WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Leaving the armchair

DAVAO CITY — On the first working day of the year, I sat down in front of the computer and started to write my dissertation. I was several hours into it and was just beginning to get bleary-eyed when Carol Arguillas called to ask if I was in town. She said she had Ed Lingao of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) with her and they were coming to Davao to pick up the threads of the Ampatuan story, and that maybe this time I can tag along on this last leg of their quest.

Carol the journalist, the editor — the one who refuses to answer to any man for her whereabouts — does not make secret her confusion why Gail the columnist allows herself the house arrest. She however accepts my choice and does not want me to get in trouble with my besotted, overprotective, much beloved husband. So here she was asking if I’d be free to do what she knows this fly on the wall likes doing: watching real journalists get the real story.
Note how I make the distinction here. Most times I call media people practitioners. On nicotine-deprived moments, I tag some among them gadflies, airheads, gossip-mongers, or arsonists (for those who generate a lot of destructive heat but very little constructive light). On caffeine-deprived days, I dismiss many more as too comfortable, confused, enveloped, irresponsible, lazy — oh, take your pick. When I am being kind, I’d rather shut my mouth.

(I’m talking about the kind of media practitioners who, instead of going to Maguindanao to ask the people there, would rather text an armchair sociologist in Davao City to ask what martial law means to the people of Maguindanao. If given the chance, they, too, would report the sociologist’s wild guess, embellish it along telenovela lines — if we’re lucky — and pass it for what counts as news. They would only go where the news is when – oh, you get the idea. Generally, we let them. For shame.)

Since there is no board exam for journalism, some news agencies these days go by the ability to text misspelled queries as the minimum requirement for hiring reporters. That leaves me constrained to reserve the label journalist only for those practitioners who live up to the standards of journalism. Sadly for this country, there’s not too many of them left.

And no, the decimation in ranks does not strictly refer to the thirty murder victims recovered in Bgy. Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao. I’d go with the rest of the grieving and aggrieved media groups that find it respectful to exclude the dearly departed in squabbles over finer distinctions in the practice of the living. Remember them well.

Because as it is, journaling our times is a thorny practice, one that is fraught with danger and decision. And where decisions need to be made, personal values ultimately decide the matter for the journalist.

Remembering well the dead among the media had me briefly mulling over how Carol, in particular, renews her passion for truth, for justice, for the public’s right to know. I’d joined MindaNews in 2002 and over the years I find that I have grown a measure of comfort in ambiguity where public issues are concerned. Far too many more times than I care to count, I’d been willing to let things be, to walk away from what I find hard to take. I pick the battle because I’d like to believe there is a bigger war. Hah! Truth is, I too prefer my comfort as much as I’d like to preserve my husband’s mental health.

But Carol and Ed Lingao are still hard at it, doing what it takes to deliver substantive and relevant ground truthing from the frontlines. They’re pooling personal resources, accessing whatever meager reporting grants from independent rights funds, tightening the belt, and shoring up the shoestrings some more just so they don’t cadge for meals or gas or plane tickets and other mundane requisites that would get them there where the news breaks. Their work is the kind I could trust because it carries the least interest, save mostly for the interest to allow the rest of us draw the picture from the facts they painstakingly assemble.

Some are not so lucky, I know. Except that for Carol and Ed and the likes of them, this is not about luck. It is about being convinced that this is the way to do it in this patch of postcolonial third world.

I hung up the phone after making the necessary arrangements for the next day. With renewed resolve, I sat back down and finished in record time the work I had set out to do. The prospect of a front seat view the next day of journalists at work kept me at it till I was done.

Eastern Mindanao Command’s Gen. Raymundo B. Ferrer had replied that he could finally find the time to see us in his office the next day. I was so looking forward to the chance to get from him the inside story on his brief stint as martial law administrator in Maguindanao. Circumstances, however, had me content till then with the lackadaisical game of tag the general and I had been playing in the last few weeks.

Well, we did see him as scheduled. He chuckled at my announcement that I was just an observer, kidding that I made it sound like a session for peace negotiation instead of a media interview. I really was observing, so I can’t tell you anything here about what Ferrer said about martial law. Check with Carol and Ed.

Oh, okay. I won’t say it here because before we left, Ferrer agreed with the suggestion of EMC spokesperson Major Randy Cabangbang to publish Martial Law in Maguindanao. No, sir, I won’t be too busy in the next few months to help write the definitive work on an AFP mission that classrooms, war rooms, and court rooms would refer to in the years to come. Wherever did you get the idea that I would be too busy to pore through six inches of classified documents and hound combat commanders with questions, questions, and more questions? Ever heard of the technological breakthrough that is the text messaging?

Evidently, Ferrer had. We briefly puzzled how to document the text messages exchanged during martial law.

“But you were against martial law!!!” texted Hadji who did not know whether or not to be happy that I had yet again trusted my instincts and indulged a pikit-mata moment right there on the front steps of the Eastmincom.

Ah, well — you know me. I never quarrel with facts. Martial law is done. (And, as Hadji said, it was done well.) All that’s left is to document for posterity what it was about. Having spent time in my classroom, Hadji knows I seldom find it hard to set aside my emotions for an intellectual exercise, and especially where it involves the AFP organization and military psychology.

He sends me a relieved smiley that said, “You never were an armchair academic.”

That I’m not, bet your pwet.

But I do notice that it’s when mine leaves the armchair that my besotted, overprotective, much beloved husband gets panic attacks.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)