Initiation to public life

I marked my 10th year on TV last week.  Purely by coincidence, GMAChannel 7, my new home, called a press conference to launch my program.  I have never been the subject of a presscon.  I like asking questions, but I do not relish answering them, particularly those that border on the personal.  But there I was, filled with trepidation, having to give an account of myself before a slew of movie and TV writers.

They were surprisingly mild that day, perhaps in deference to Marilou Diaz-Abaya, the film director who initiated me into the world of TV and, to this day, remains my director.  Ten years younger than me in years, this accomplished woman held my hand like a mother does on the first day of her child’s nursery school.    The experience  served as an opportunity for me to reflect on the difference between the culture of media and that of academe.

As any academic from Diliman will tell you, the campus, where I’ve lived in the last 22 years, is a most private and peaceful place.   One can live one’s life here in total solitude and isolation.  We live in a fairly secluded place on this hilly campus, away from the academic buildings and the main avenues.

Television represented for me a very drastic change in pace and milieu.  While the scholar’s pace is slow, lingering and deliberate, that of a TV host is frenzied and full of bluster.  The academic milieu is quiet and retiring.  That of TV and of media in general tends to be excitable and even hysterical.  No two styles could possibly be more dissimilar to one another.

Media tend to simplify, academe tends to qualify.  Truth is singular and uncomplicated for media, whereas it is multiple, mobile, and metaphorical for academe.  In one, the hunt is for sharp phrases and memorable sound bites; in the other, it is for concepts and perspectives.  One aspires to generate heat, the other hopes to generate light.

Yet in a curious way, I thought I somehow succeeded in straddling both worlds, without sounding too flighty on campus, and too staid for television.  I resolved to confine myself to TV writing and hosting, explicitly avoiding personality interviews, both as a personal defense and necessity.

I wasn’t always successful.  Sometimes I had to agree to be interviewed as a return favor to someone who had consented to be a guest on my show.   But I refused to surrender to the popular notion that being a TV person, my life has therefore  become public property. My family, in particular, resented being dragged into the camera’s field of vision.  It is the same objection they pose to any suggestion that my exposure in media might be a suitable preparation for politics.

My children squirm whenever I have to tell them that a friendly reporter needs to talk to them about the experience of being the children of a public father.  They are frightened that they might say the wrong thing, or not look good enough to a public that has been conditioned to expect total glamor from TV personalities.  They have seen enough of movie celebrity talkshows to know how  an innocent statement can often be so embroidered or so stripped of its context  as to produce an entirely different set of meanings.

Just to illustrate:  when we pre-terminated our contract with ABC-5 in July this year, I knew that the media would ask why.  Marilou Abaya’s answer was straight and simple: we were getting signals that made us feel we were no longer needed.  But when fellow Inquirer columnist Anselle Beluso asked me the same question separately before the start of the presscon, I said, like an incurable academic, that it was difficult to answer this without explaining why we decided to join the new ABC-5 in 1991, instead of signing up with the more established ABS-CBN which had kindly offered us a contract.

What attracted me to the new station, I said, was the prominence that it pledged to give to public affairs programs.  Tina Monzon-Palma’s presence as the general manager impressed and re-assured me.  On my first visit to the Novaliches station, she showed me the newsroom, the studio and control booth meant exclusively for public affairs.  I decided that I wanted to be part of this effort to rescue public affairs from the margins of Filipino television.

Things didn’t turn out well for us in the new station.  This is not necessarily the fault of anyone in particular.  The whole cultural environment favored entertainment more than public affairs.  With every passing year, we felt it in the diminishing resources that the station was prepared to commit to public affairs programs like ours.

Anselle asked if I felt used.  I said I never thought of it and would not put it that way, but that it was possible that bringing in public affairs people like Tina Monzon-Palma and myself could have strengthened the station’s initial justification of its franchise – the license to use airlanes belonging to the public.   Anselle’s report was fairly accurate, but understandably, for lack of space, it did not include the questions he asked that led to my answers.

In the world of academe, my views would be taken for granted as plain theorizing.  In media, however, they are heard mostly as griping and moralizing.  One writer who wasn’t at the presscon found what he imagined was an unexploded bomb in Anselle’s report, and decided to detonate it in my face, viciously deploying the full vocabulary of gossip and intrigue to describe my conduct.  This is all fascinating for me as an academic, but extremely disconcerting for my children who have sufficiently warned me about the pitfalls of public life.


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