Saturday, September 29, 2007


GIDGET finally did the unmentionable. She also found a way to hide the remains.

Fat, in her forties and unable to find other work, Gidget stomped inside the newsroom.

Or she wishes she could: wrench the glass door from its hinges, decapitate the City Hall source that kept her standing, furiously writing notes while he dictated beside the busy photocopying machine on the crowded ground floor while eddying customers jostled her forward and backward, the machine operator pushing against her, too, leaving his ink-stained paws on the last good blouse that disguised her middle-aged spread.

Gidget went to the pantry. No one looked up from their PCs. Perhaps they would spare her a look of pity had they known she was already two hours late in submitting a non-existent story (after confiding in her, the source crumpled his coffee cup and told her that everything was off the record because his boss would find out where she got the story if it ever came out).

She looked around for a clean cup. She would need coffee before and after tonight’s aquarium session, bawled out again for missing deadliness.

She saw only a mug without a handle. The brown coffee stain ringing the inside ceramic made her speculate if a human being, deprived suddenly of a head, would also have a ring marking the level of the blood remaining inside the body.

Nonsense, Gidget chided herself as she rinsed the mug. All those severed tubes—veins, arteries, carotid jugular mumbojumbo—would be spurting fluids all around if she had taken a chainsaw to the smug bastard instead of meekly closing her notebook and saying she would find other sources to verify the tip thank you very much for trusting me with your confidence…

Afterwards, Gidget remembers nothing except that she is sitting at her desk, flipping through a strange notebook. She looks at the wall clock. She reads on the board the hourly deadlines for the different pages of tomorrow’s edition. It’s more or less an hour since she rinsed that cup, longing for coffee or a story, any reprieve from the day’s mess.

How did this notebook get into her hands? She stops rifling through the pages. It’s not hers. The notebook she had with her at City Hall that afternoon was nearly full, its pages bloated with several inserted documents.

She puts down the green-covered journal to press down the throbbing in her temples. Someone will cut off my neck for messing up his deadline, she groans. She must have picked up the notebook when she stopped by to place a call from somebody’s desk—except that she doesn’t remember anything after rinsing the mug.

When she starts to scan the pages, she recognizes the handwriting. It’s hers. The same pudgy vowels, familiar half-crossed t’s and sprawled m’s.

But the name on the notebook is different: Manolo Figueroa. A question about this Manolo Figueroa is not even half-formed in her mind when the newsroom assistant pops in his head: Oy, Manolo! Editor P. wants to see you in 10 minutes. Bring your story or your excuse.

For the first time, she notices the strange male reflected in the glass divider surrounding her cubicle. What is this? The stranger looks back with Gidget’s eyes.

Gidget/Manolo stands up, panic rising like vomit. Nobody looks up from his PC. S/he slowly sits down again. S/he opens the notebook. S/he reads the notes written about a murder committed at City Hall that afternoon, when a reporter named Gidget A. turned amok and cut off the real head of a department head near the first-floor photo copier. She also castrated a man identified later to be the machine operator.

If she were Gidget, she would now be facing ruin and jail, not just midlife crisis, s/he thought.

On the other hand, if s/he decided to be this Manolo Figueroa, s/he faced nothing worse than a story to finish in 10 minutes. And since s/he knew what drove the reporter to commit such crimes in full view of City Hall’s horrified tax payers, not to mention pack of reporters, s/he did not even have to interview the perpetrator because s/he was the perpetrator and even now, could still cross back and forth as Gidget, simmering in her red rage while washing the coffee mug minus the handle, and as Manolo, pressed with only ten, no eight, minutes before facing the boss inside his aquarium, “with a story or an excuse.”

S/he thought for a moment. Then Manolo Figueroa began encoding his story because the lines between reality and psychosis may blur, but never a deadline. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 30, 2007 issue

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I am not a sex guru

FOR the first time in my life, I understand Manny Pacquiao.

After the boxer recently became a columnist, he has had to parry worse hits from any Mexican ring foe when even fans doubted he was writing the columns attributed to him.

I’ve never been able to sit through a fight, but I winced from similar punches after I accepted the invitation of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) to join the Sept. 18 forum on “Sex and the Journalist.”

I had an inkling of the theme’s suggestiveness when my student asked me, in a rather quizzical tone, when and where would be the forum where I would be discussing my sex life.

I’d like to think her face registered utter relief when I clarified that the discussion, one of the activities lined up for Cebu Press Freedom Week, sought to probe how media covered the topic of human sexuality, not sexual calisthenics.

Yet my student was not alone in this misperception. My editors ribbed me, one asking if my “erudition” on marital dishonesty stemmed from personal experience.

Two former classmates I met after the forum asked me how “that sex thing” went. But before I could arrange my thoughts, my college chums bombarded me with many solicitous questions about my present state, fearing perhaps that I had either become a Cebuana Deep Throat (of the Happy Hooker/Xaviera Hollander, not Watergate, fame) or was about to launch a new career as local sex guru.

I know, Manny. Believe me, I know.

When I showed up early at the forum, I met one of my idols, Dr. Margarita Holmes, whose honest, smart and humorous discussion of sexuality in her newspaper columns in the 90s opened my eyes to a way of thinking and feeling about sex that was not a patchwork of uptight upbringing, repressed education, romantic myth and pornographic excursion.

Though married for 15 years and having two sons, I still found myself scratching my head when Margie asked me for the Cebuano word for “sexuality”.

When Fr. Fidel Orendain, a co-panelist, arrived, we found ourselves swapping a few terms—“panghilawas,” “iyot,” “kayat,” “ger-ger”—that left us Cebuanos feeling dissatisfied. Not only do the terms refer only to the sexual act, not sexuality—which the Vatican defines as the “intimate nucleus of a person,” not just the biological function and reproductive system—three of the terms that immediately came to my mind are part of street slang, used certainly for negotiating commerce on the streets and brothels but never mentioned in front of children or parents.

Although I have no formal, deep grasp of Bisaya, it still struck me that I could only fall back on the crudeness of slang to answer Margie.

For language is everything. Language does not only communicate information and ideas but it reveals attitude and predispositions.

For my sharing on print journalism’s coverage of sexuality in the forum, I had reviewed my paper’s archives and Internet sources. I decided to stress that print journalists can redeem their sensationalism of sex by rescuing reportage and journalese or reporting jargon from sexism and stereotyping, as well as conducting explanatory reports to probe and inform the public on crucial issues like adolescent reproductive health, sexually transmitted infections and even the rights of solo parents.

But Margie’s one question undid me. Why does “sex” conjure only the randy (full of sexual desire) and salacious (extreme interest in sex)?

I was titillated but also instructed after reading Margie’s columns and listening to “Verboten,” the popular radio program of broadcaster and educator Dr. Filemon Alberca, also a co-panelist in the KBP forum. Like Margie, lambasted for corrupting the young in the 90s, Alberca was tainted by his program’s association with the forbidden and the prohibited in the 80s.

Yet, sandwiched by Margie and Dr. Alberca during the Sept. 18 forum, I recalled the “life-lesson” I absorbed from these two sex gurus.

It is not the clinical psychologists, journalists or moral guardians that should have the last say on sex. Only a person fully alive to his or her being—that “intimate nucleus”—can be the true guru. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 23, 2007 issue

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Way of the dodo

LAST Thursday, I asked my journalism class at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College for volunteers to answer a few questions about the Sandiganbayan’s rules on media’s coverage of their decision on former President Joseph Estrada’s plunder and perjury charges.

Of the nearly two dozen students that took down my questions, I got back only four replies. Rachel Mae Sarmiento, 18, believes that the media should be allowed to cover the reading of the verdict because of the people’s “right to know.”

At the same time, she speculates that the anti-graft court rules may have been passed to prevent the media from “exploiting too much” the former president’s reversal of fortune.

Rachel’s classmate, 18-year-old Arianne Jenille Manzo, believes the Sandiganbayan was right in curtailing coverage. Unrestrained reportage, she fears, might stir up again the “people power culture” that has at times become a “democratic deficit.”

But these Mass Communication sophomores agreed with their other classmates, Frances Claire “Chezka” Peñalosa and Lucille Wagas, that they have no choice but to trust the media.

“Most of the time, I should (trust the media) since they are the only ones who give information about current events. If not them, who else?” rhetorically shrugs Jenille, also reasoning out that any “average reasonable person” will know enough to “filter and scrutinize what the issues are rather than believing what the idiot box could be feeding the audience.”

Lucille is bleaker about democracy’s guardians. Some mediamen, she contends, “exaggerate stories” and “pick out information from rumors just to make their articles sizzle.”

Even media rivalry reflects for this 17-year-old that, though there may be journalists who “labor… to serve the masses,” many are just driven to “sell their stories” and “build a reputation in the journalistic world.”

Realizing that the press has feet of clay, do they see themselves in a newsroom someday? Rachel’s interested because deadline-chasing gives a whiff of adventure, which always “keeps the adrenaline pumping.”

She qualifies though that she may just be keen for “journalism on the lighter side,” meaning assignments that require “a lot of travel” and “meeting other people.”

Best friend Chezka draws a smiley beside her emphatic, “I DON’T SEE myself as a journalist… but I’m still open to possibilities.” Asked to choose between the national and local media, she picks out the latter for “practicing press freedom.”

Jenille concurs, singling out the local media’s expose of the overpriced lampposts purchased for the Asean Summit held in Cebu.

Lucille though has the last say. The social use of the media is they’re “like trained K9 dogs. They have the knack for sniffing out bombs.”

Actually, after the classroom had emptied and I was through noting their candid answers, what I had in mind were not German Shepherds but dodos as not unlikely mascots when the local tri-media usher in Press Freedom Week on Sept. 16.

A flightless bird that once lived in Mauritius, the dodo is the archetype of all things extinct because the last specimens died out during the late 17th century.

Yet, before its extinction made it literary to observe an obsolete thing was “as dead as a dodo,” the living bird languished under a black reputation.

According to Wikipedia, its name is said to be derived from “dodaars”
(meaning "plump-arse") because of its ungainly behind and waddle. It is also the Dutch that called the dodo the “walghvogel” ("loathsome bird" or "nauseating fowl") because it was exceedingly bad to taste, let alone eat.

Unlike the dodo though, the Cebu press is spirited and feisty.

But remembering the many colleagues that have moved out of the newsroom—from death, burnout, career shifts—I wonder where can be found the new blood to infuse a profession where no one gives the journalist a bonus for signing up and taking on the lonely task of upholding democracy.

More unsettling is the thought that, while I was discussing how to make leads sing or organize inverted news pyramids, my future journalists were checking out my past and speculating about the future of one of the last dodos. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 16, 2007 issue

Death meets deadlines

DEATH may be the great equalizer, but there’s nothing like a passing away to set apart the journalist from the rest of humanity.

In a life dictated by scoops and deadlines, an untimely death, or a close brush with it, is a major setback, a potential debacle. A colleague’s equanimity was rocked when a Hollywood actor’s hospitalization was later revealed as caused by a suicide attempt. In another case, a celebrated singer passed away just when the pages were about to be sent to the printer.

Only a timely look at breaking stories on the Web saved the editor from keeling over herself from shock had she missed those “milestones,” journalese for anything requiring the top fold of the paper, bold headlines and high-resolution photos.

When such catastrophes are sidestepped, that’s when you’ll hear angels mentioned in the same breath as deadlines.

The practice of preparing a “tribute” for an ailing notable anticipated to kick the bucket anytime soon (or preferably, just before the paper is put to bed) must seem like a ghastly, not to mention ghoulish, practice for those who sleep well and are not kept perpetually bug-eyed from drinking three-in-one coffee or thinking of pages to fill.

Of all the journalistic quirks, this unconfirmed anecdote remains a favorite for revealing the extent of desensitization from walking daily in an information mine field. Looking for his assistant to retrieve a file, an editor was told that she had taken the day off to attend to her mother’s wake. “What is she doing there?” the harassed newsroom executive was reportedly heard to grumble.

But just like life, death gives the front-row journalist an unexpected view of mortality, writing and remembrance.

The number of website views, visits and hits may now sum up a late person’s prominence, but it is often the small and telling detail that captures the public’s lasting impression of a news personality.

No two people could have been more unalike in life than broadcaster Nenita “Inday Nita” Cortes-Daluz and “opera superstar” Luciano Pavarotti.

Yet, when both recently passed away, the Cebu opposition stalwart and the Italian opera singer deserved the muted but genuine tribute of being referred to as “The Voice.”

Inday Nita was remembered as using her soothing, maternal tones to rally a people to denounce a dictatorship and human rights abuses. Pavarotti’s “vibrant high C’s and ebullient showmanship” was hailed for making possible high-brow opera’s crossover coup with the masses.

Perhaps more than the obituaries, the coverage of enforced or involuntary disappearances reveals media’s soul, if ink-stained.

In a profession hostaged to the ceaseless scrambling for minutiae, often to keep the trivial but sensational in the public eye and media consumption habits, the sustained coverage of the search for missing activist Jonas Burgos is anomalous.

After the initial alert on his disappearance, the trail has since then become cold. The developments are uneventful, mired in petitions for habeas corpus and quashing of subpoenas. The photo of the missing son of the press freedom icon Jose Burgos has been so often used, it blurs the line between visual cliché and pop image.

Yet, it is because of the plodding press that Jonas and mother Edita burn into a consciousness that would otherwise be focused only on the Piolos, Britneys and Aguileras of the world. The bespectacled, calm-faced Editha lends an articulateness to the struggle of other women searching for sons and husbands, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who refuse any form of reparation or compensation as they insist that the regime "took them away alive so we want them back alive."

It is doubtful if young Cebuanos know the Redemptorist priest, Fr. Rudy Romano. In 1985, witnesses saw the priest dragged from his motorcycle by military intelligence operatives. He remains missing.

In the Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons (, there is a tombstone and a flickering candle dedicated for “Romano, Rudy.” What media remember, let no one forget. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 9, 2007 issue

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Back to the future

TO FOLLOW the trajectory of Lisa Nowak's career is like reading a Philip K. Dick novel.

Dick is the science-fiction icon whose novels were set in a futuristic Armageddon. He pitted cyborgs against humans, using artificial forms of life to expose the artificiality of the humans' decaying moral and social order.

Nowak is the former astronaut whose employment was terminated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) a month after she was charged for assaulting and trying to kidnap a romantic rival last Feb. 5, 2007.

Nowak, a US naval officer who logged over 1,500 hours of flight in over 30 different aircraft to obtain the rank of captain, was also a mission specialist in robotics. On board the Space Shuttle launched in July 2006, she operated its robotic arms, as well as those of the International Space Station.

If one were to apply tabloid captions to her case, Nowak's crime of passion made her run the gamut “from robot expert to robot captive” after she recently appealed to a court to remove her electronic monitoring ankle bracelet while she awaits trial for charges.

Last August, Nowak complained that wearing the bracelet was “expensive, bulky and uncomfortable.” She said her ankle was chaffed by the bracelet, which also got “in the way of her military boot laces,” according to an Associated Press report.

The bracelet monitors the movements of the US naval officer whose parole prevents her from going to some states, including Florida, where her rival lives, or to Virginia, where her former boyfriend resides.

The judge who ruled to grant Nowak's plea cited her behavior, which was “well enough” for the past seven months.

Apparently though, not everyone agrees. Colleen Shipman, the woman Nowak allegedly attacked, has petitioned a court to keep the bracelet on Nowak's ankle. Shipman says she still fears Nowak who is accused of disguising herself (even wearing adult diapers to rule out restroom stops) last February to stalk Shipman, harass her in her car, and, when she rolled down the car window, pepper-spray her rival.

Online news sites also report that many Americans found the court's temporary removal of Nowak's bracelet as “too lenient.” Nowak's lawyer has said his client recently lost 15 percent of her body weight. She is diagnosed for “major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia and 'brief psychotic disorder'.”

In her 44 years, this is the former astronaut's first recorded brush with violence, as well as her first criminal charges. In January 2007, Nowak separated from her husband after getting involved with a fellow astronaut, who later cooled off in their affair and took up with Shipman. According to Nasa records, extramarital affairs trouble many astronaut marriages.

Aside from Nowak, Paris Hilton, some rapists and other convicted US criminals on parole, the electronic bracelets are mandated accessories for aliens in eight US cities. According to, the Department of Homeland Security experiment requires aliens without any criminal record to wear the electronic monitors 24 hours a day.

The bracelets are supposed to discourage the aliens from "absconding" or going into hiding to avoid deportation. But according to the Vera Institute of Justice Report on Community Supervision, a three-year pilot program in New York City, phone calls and personal reminders were more cost- effective and almost doubled the compliance of immigrants to court rulings. No electronic bracelets were used in the program.

In his 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Dick wrote of a society hunting down to “retire” androids that rebelled against “forced retirement” by posing as humans. Made into the 1980s classic “Blade Runner,” the novel explored Dick's “concepts of persecution based on narrow distinctions,” notes Wikipedia.

The US trend in electronic bracelets brings on a feeling of reverse déjà vu, as well as chilling new meanings for “distinction-based persecution.” 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 2, 2007 issue