Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Eugenia Apostol: a profile

Here is a profile of Eugenia "Eggie" Apostol, acclaimed Filipino journalist and founder of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The piece was originally written for the February 2006 issue of the magazine Me, but did not see print due to a change of editorial teams and a change in the magazine's focus. The piece was commissioned by then-Me editor Maya Besa.
Eugenia Apostol: Caring for the truth
By Lakambini A. Sitoy
Eugenia Apostol emerges from the front door of her unassuming Dasmarinas Village home. Though there are servants about she opens the gates herself. She is petite, her complexion very fair, her features tiny. Today she walks with a slight limp, making her seem especially fragile, though at 80 years of age the founder of the Philippine Daily Inquirer – career journalist, lifestyle commentator and savvy businesswoman -- is as active as ever.
In her living room, Apostol, “Eggie” or “Tita Eggie” to friends and colleagues, chooses a carved wooden armchair and, straight-backed and poised like a dancer, begins to reminisce about her life. The room, with its nacre-inlaid chests, a Japanese screen, and folding doors that open out onto a terrace lush with plants, evokes a bygone era, the glory days when education, hard work and fair play were the formula for prosperity. A crepuscular Sanso landscape, and a collection of images of the Virgin Mary, antique by the looks of them, add to the atmosphere of nostalgia.
Yet Eggie, in red Levi’s, a white shirt and hot pink slides, is firmly in touch with the present. Her latest baby is the reformatted, updated, Mr. and Ms. magazine, which was launched in June this year. It is now a glossy appearing every month and printed in full color. Though it contains the inevitable announcements about makeup and fashion, the usual profiles of Manila’s young, beautiful and wealthy, the product focuses on spirituality and the supernatural. There are manuals on aura reading and the use of color for healing, yoga instructional features-- and even tales of ghosts and alien abductions.
There’s nothing flaky about Eggie herself. What she possesses is a sixth sense for what the market needs. When times are hard, people seek comfort in religion, in other-worldly insights.
Apostol tends to come up with the right concepts at the right time. She founded the all-Tagalog Pinoy Times in 1999, and it raised awareness of the excesses of then President Joseph Estrada, contributing to his ouster the following year. And before that was the Philippine Daily Inquirer, in late 1985, which defied then-president Ferdinand Marcos’s policy of sweetening all news about his administration.
Lipstick beat
Preceding the Inquirer was the original Mr and Ms, born in 1977 in the thick of Martial Law. The 53-year old Apostol brought to it nearly three decades of experience as a lifestyle editor and writer, having worked for the Manila Times and the Manila Chronicle in the 50s and 60s. When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, he turned the news world upside down, arresting journalists, closing newspapers and banning what he felt would be unfriendly publications. But he made an exception for women’s magazines, in the belief that frou-frou variety pages could scarcely be expected to subvert his regime.
He failed to perceive a threat in the convent-bred, even-tempered, soft-spoken Apostol. Throughout her life she had played within the limits of her gender – born Eugenia Duran to a relatively affluent family of landowners, she was second of eight children. Her father had been a Commonwealth-Era legislator, later the superintendent of the Quezon Institute for tubercular patients, and her mother had been a housewife. She had majored in English at the University of Santo Tomas, and for a few years after graduation restricted herself to the Catholic papers, fearing the evils of the secular world. She had married – Jose “Peping”Apostol, a handsome engineer – and had had one child, a son.
“Time was when young girls dreaming of becoming journalists imagined themselves … as crime reporters or making sage comments on the moving and shaking in the high halls of government,” Eggie reflected in a recent speech about cultural constraints to provincial advancement. “Then, they would graduate, join a newspaper or magazine, and be assigned to cover parties, art opening, fashion shows, food festivals, visiting movie stars. And when they grew older, they would be given as reward, the women’s page to edit onto retirement and creative death... When I became a journalist in the late 1940s, I found myself trapped in that career route… No women were at the newsdesk, and only one woman was writing an opinion column. Management of the news was men’s domain.”
Occasionally, she had nudged the edge of the envelope. When the Archbishop of Manila banned the ballet, saying it provoked animal lusts, she defended it in print, as an art that glorified the human form. She was pressured to leave the Catholic papers, and propelled into secular journalism, where she covered the “lipstick beat.” Her articles from the 50s and 60s were involved and compelling – in one, circa 1969, she featured the models and creative team behind an all-black fashion show she had attended in the States. The gains of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement had yet to reach the Philippines, and it was a period when Filipinos, with their deeply entrenched, oft-denied racism, regarded all things “Negro” with scorn.
So it was that in 1972, Women’s Home Companion was the first women’s magazine to open under Martial Law, and Eggie Apostol was the editor. When the magazine’s ownership changed hands in 1977, she left, and shortly after opened Mr and Ms. When Martial Law was lifted in 1981, she grew bolder and began to introduce political articles to her pages.
In 1983, Marcos’ chief political rival Benigno Aquino Jr was assassinated, and Eggie was alarmed by the treatment the event received in the papers. Rather than document the giant crowds at Aquino’s funeral, for example, the Times Journal, owned by a relative of First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, chose to focus on the bizarre story of a man struck by lightning.
“That’s really what prompted us,” Eggie remembers. “It wasn’t just the Romualdez paper, but the Bulletin, and all other newspapers at the time of Marcos. They were controlled, and his friends owned them. None of them reacted to the shooting of Ninoy in a way that I thought they should have reacted. They were very indifferent to it. And yet we, and many of our friends, were very shocked, and very touched by it.”
Eggie and her staff had already devoted an entire issue to Aquino. Now they responded to the desultory coverage with a funeral supplement. On the cover was a close up of the dead man’s face, bloodied and sans makeup.
“Copies sold so fast,” she says. “Agents kept coming and coming, and we had to print and reprint until we had about 700,000. I thought, wow, this is what it is. Maybe we should really fill the gap for news of the reaction to ‘Ninoy,’ and make that a regular issue of the magazine.”
Eggie went to an old friend and colleague, Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, and proposed that they collaborate on a weekly supplement, the Special Edition of Mr and Ms.,covering the progress of the independent panel put up to investigate the assassination and the frequent anti-government rallies. They reproduced foreign wire service stories of Imelda’s excessive projects and the “conjugal dictatorship’s” abuse of power. The best Filipino commentators at the time reminisced about Ninoy Aquino.
Magsanoc had been fired from the Bulletin by its publisher General Hans Menzi, a close associate of Marcos, for publishing opinions critical of the strongman. She was happy to join Apostol’s team, but fearful of repercussions.
“So for a year and a half we did not use her name (in the staff box),” Eggie says. Magsanoc’s wariness was typical of many journalists in the Marcos years: though personally outraged at his excesses, like the president arrogating legislative power upon himself (in a proper democracy only the Congress has the power to make laws), they were also conscious of the threat of losing their jobs. If they pushed too hard they could be blacklisted, imprisoned, or even eliminated.
In late 1984, the fact-finding Agrava Board indicted Marcos right-hand man Gen. Fabian Ver and 26 other soldiers, Apostol, Magsanoc and their team created the Philippine Inquirer, a weekly publication, to cover the trial. And when Marcos announced that snap elections would be held, they formed a group separate from Mr. and Ms., bought the name “Philippine Inquirer,” and launched the Philippine Daily Inquirer on December 9, 1985, the day the election campaign officially began. The paper’s circulation tripled to nearly 100,000 in the days before the February 1986 Edsa “revolution” that deposed the Marcoses and catapulted Aquino’s widow Corazon to power. The Inquirer has since enjoyed unshakable status as a paper that aggressively battles corruption, political dishonesty, crime and other causes.
Apostol herself was a prominent participant in the events surrounding Edsa: it was she the New Armed Forces (breakaway group headed by then General Fidel Ramos and Apostol’s friend and business associate General Juan Ponce Enrile) enjoined to spread the news of Enrile’s impending arrest and to contact the powerful Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin.
The shift from so-called “soft journalism” – the women’s pages – to “hard news” proved to be less bumpy than some skeptical colleagues had expected.
“I realized that men and women are really quite equal in journalism,” Eggie says. “In women’s magazines you talk about food, children, beauty and fashion. When you’re doing a newspaper, you must entice people to buy your newspaper. It has to feel good, look good, smell good. There’s no gender in that. (Like with) fashion and beauty, you have to have a newspaper that’s good looking, and will appeal, and should be priced properly. There’s no gender in that either.”
Cutting ties with the Inquirer
Apostol’s good relations with Enrile and his wife Cristina came to an end in 1989, when the Enriles, part owners of Mr and Ms Publishing Company, named her in a suit. According to Lorna Kalaw-Tirol in the book Seven in the Eye of History, the Enriles accused her of misusing Mr and Ms resources in setting up the Inquirer.It was the year, Kalaw-Tirol says, that a series of coup d’etats attempted to overthrow the Cory Aquino administration. Enrile was closely identified with the military factions responsible, “and was rumored to be nursing presidential ambitions himself.” But in its reportage, “the Inquirer consistently took an uncompromising stand for the preservation of democracy.”
The trial court resolved the case in Eggie’s favor in 1994, but the Enriles appealed the decision to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which reversed the ruling in three months. Knowing she risked losing her shares in the Inquirer to the politically ambitious Enrile, she resigned from the board, retired from the paper, and sold her shares to banker Edgar Espiritu (now Ambassador to the Court of Saint James).
On July 13, 1998, the case was finally resolved by the Supreme Court in Eggie’s favor, on a technicality: Enrile’s accountant who had filed the suit was not the party of interest. Eggie had kept busy in the intervening years – nursing her ailing husband Peping and, in 1997, publishing the short-lived Hu!Ha!, a vernacular magazine that chronicled President Fidel V. Ramos’s controversial attempts to extend his term by revising the Philippine Constitution.
She had also set up, with colleagues and friends, the Foundation for Worldwide People Power, which raises awareness about the historical significance of the 1986 Edsa revolution. Commentators have already noted the shortness of Filipino collective memory – ensuing generations fail to comprehend the abuses of the Marcos period, and hence to appreciate the efforts of such leaders as Ninoy Aquino and Apostol’s journalist colleagues.
By 1998, too, there was a new man in Malacanang – the former actor Joseph “Erap”Estrada, beloved by the majority of lower-income Filipinos, though his critics accused him of knowing nothing of governance. Indeed they accused him of outright corruption.
“We wanted to come out with the truth about Erap, so I suggested we start a weekly to cater to (his) fans, in which case it had to be in Filipino, and a tabloid type,” she says. “Kasi yun ang masa audience. Five pesos, six pesos, kaunti lang.”
At the height of Estrada’s popularity, Apostol launched the low-priced The Pinoy Times. Memorably, it ran a series of profiles of Estrada’s mistresses, from girls fresh out of convent school to aging ex-actresses. Acting on tips, Apostol visited the mansions he had built for many of these women, photographed their exteriors, printed her findings.
Her format and approach worked. Erap’s mass base was shaken. The exposés emerged around the time of the televised impeachment hearings of Estrada, charged with receiving pay-offs from illegal gambling activities. By January 2001, pressured by public opinion and massive rallying at the People Power shrine on Edsa, Estrada stepped down through what some now call “People Power II.”
Magsanoc, as quoted by Kalaw-Tirol, remarked that all of Eggie’s achievements were probably not motivated by an activist streak. Nor is she a die-hard nationalist.
“All I wanted was to be report the truth,” Eggie assents. “Report as a newspaper woman. That’s all the ideology I know.”
Most people take the news at face value, not realizing the full extent of the wheeling and dealing that takes place behind the scenes. Whether in print or broadcast, editors, producers, reporters or presenters may accept gifts in exchange for treating a story favorably, or downplaying a brewing scandal. Politicians and big businessmen all have media relations officers who in turn know which media people are “flexible” -- and how much each fellow will cost.
“Reportage by cartel” is a scourge on the ground – reporters from different papers covering a common beat take turns in writing the story for the day, which they submit to their respective papers under their bylines. Reporters fictionalize facts or fudge their sources. In the opinion or style sections, plagiarists come to light ever so often.
At Apostol’s insistence, the Inquirer maintained, and still maintains, an ombudsman or reader’s advocate who ferrets out colleagues who break the paper’s Code of Ethics. (At present that reader’s advocate is Kalaw-Tirol) One such colleague was a columnist and editor whom Eggie described in drafts of a 2004 lecture she delivered at the University of the Philippines. The man repeatedly attacked then Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo in his column. Then he refused to publish Arroyo’s rejoinder, as a fair-minded editor ought to have done. The paper’s board of directors met and decided that he could not be both editor and columnist at the same time, as he appeared to have a conflict of interest. The man chose to resign.
Another time, Apostol suspended a brilliant opinion columnist for plagiarism. He returned to work after nine months, but three months later another complaint of plagiarism was filed – also substantiated by a copy of the original material. The man was fired.
Asked whether there is a gap between men and women in terms of journalistic integrity, Eggie does not hesitate.
“I think the women are better at it! It’s like caring for a baby, which in journalism is the truth. And women have a very natural affinity for caring for a baby. You’re taking care of the truth.”
A woman’s assets
The culture on a newsdesk is typically rough and male-dominated, the atmosphere blue with swearwords and cigarette smoke. One might expect Eggie to have become aggressive and authoritarian, as so many Filipinos in management positions tend to be. Yet her manner is striking in its quietness – she is, after all, of a generation that observed Jackie Kennedy with interest: the type of woman who has plenty to say, yet secure enough in her status not to resort to theatrics.
For all her femininity, she can’t cook, or do laundry, or keep house – and has divulged this foible in many of her interviews and speeches. The joke is that since she wasn’t competent enough in the home arts, she resorted to journalist. The reality is that her relatively affluent background spared her the domestic tasks early on.
“I’ve always been lucky in the sense that I’ve had the facility to have maids and drivers,”she says. “So if I don’t have to do these things, I’d rather not. But I can cook up the best food pages. I can cook up the best fashion pages!”
She pauses to reflect on whether a career outside the home would be more fulfilling for a woman.
“I guess there are some who would much rather stay home and do the housework themselves… do all the good things, like cooking and caring for the family. And they are fulfilled that way. It all depends upon the personality of the women themselves.”
One domestic“asset” was no doubt her husband Peping, who died two years ago. He supported both her career and her financial endeavors, and his own business was successful enough for the family to afford a home in one of Metro Manila’s most exclusive subdivisions. Kalaw-Tirol narrates how, in the early days of Mr and Ms, Eggie needed cash for the magazine’s payroll. Money was short, in part because Peping was holding back on his share of the couple’s investments. In an act of defiance, Eggie sold her diamond solitaire ring for just 67 percent of its value. The ring was a silver anniversary present from Peping.
The story of the ring is significant not just as a wife’s opposition to her husband, but as a sign that she cared enough for the people who worked for her. Today, it has become common practice among newspaper owners to delay or reduce staff salaries if funds are low. That’s the dirty little secret of many publications.
“It was the only thing I had,” she remembers. “There was nobody I could run to. When my husband found out – well, what could he do? But he bought me a bigger one much later. Ten times bigger. Later, when his business was better, and I had quit my job in the Inquirer, and we had enough money, we went cruising. And one of those cruises was to Africa. And he bought me diamonds there.”
The day of this interview would have been Peping’s 85th birthday. It is also the birthday of their son.
“A good man,” she sighs. “A very good man.”
Nowadays, Eggie busies herself with Mr. and Ms., ballroom dancing, and chairing the Foundation for Worldwide People Power. In a recent article in an academic journal, she noted that the lessons of February 1986 have been lost on the Filipino people, because no real social transformation has taken place. The commemoration of People Power has turned into a fiesta, filled with merriment but bereft of meaning.
When asked to name what dream or dreams sustained her in the various stages of her long life, it takes Eggie a long time to respond. She is clearly giving the matter a good think.
“The education revolution,” she says at last, referring to the Foundation’s drive to combine values education with access to books, classrooms and supplies in various areas of the country. “I’ve always been fulfilled. But the education revolution is my dream.”
- 30 -
Lakambini A. Sitoy is the author of Jungle Planet, a collection of stories published by UP Press. She was David TK Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia, UK.
The Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings possesses a collection of Eugenia Aposto’sl writings. More information on Apostol and Marcos-era press restraints can be found in the book Seven in the Eye of History (2000).

No comments: