Hers is the best resume of any journo in town: An Ivy League degree; pioneering producer of the Probe Team; CNN bureau chief; head of ABS-CBN News; book author; Esquire’s sexiest woman alive!
No wonder that despite her size, the soft-spoken Maria Angelita Aycardo Ressa is already a towering figure in Philippine journalism. And she’s The Spin Busters’ inaugural HuMan of the Year.
“Despite documenting some of the worst disasters and uprisings in Southeast Asia, she believes in the goodness of human nature and in the transformative powers of media and technology,” says Ressa’s bio at Rappler.com, where she’s CEO and executive director.
Ressa, single at 50, nonetheless has a baby in Rappler, the so-called social news network that’s trying to shake things up in the industry.
She did not set out to be a journalist, however. At Princeton, she studied molecular biology and theater (she was classmates with Michelle Obama). She graduated cum laude. Unlike Filipinos who apply for the Fulbright to study abroad, Ressa, who had considered herself “very American,” did the reverse – she applied for the Fulbright to get into a master’s degree program in UP.
As the case with most moist-eyed, collegiate idealists, media’s power to influence and change things seduced Ressa. She started earning street creds at the iconic 60 Minutes. Later, she became a producer for Diane Sawyer.
The EDSA revolt of 1986 ushered in a springtime in Philippine journalism muzzled by Martial Law. Ressa went back to her roots in 1987 and joined the Probe Team, Che-che Lazaro’s ragtag band of investigative journalists. In her own words, she gave the TV news show “gloss, production value, and willingness to question their perspective.”
But Ressa was destined for greatness. Probe was to be her springboard to an international broadcasting career at CNN, and in 1995, she moved to Jakarta, hotbed of terrorism in Southeast Asia, to become bureau chief. At the same time, she was the Atlanta-based cable news giant’s lead investigative reporter in the region.
So far-reaching was her footprint that tapes of her coverage of terrorism were found in Osama bin Laden’s lair in Afghanistan. That’s an honor from the 9/11 mastermind whose only other video collection was porn.
In 2004, ABS-CBN chief Gabby Lopez gave Ressa an offer she couldn’t refuse – a seven-figure salary to head ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, which had been left eating dust by rival GMA News. At Mother Ignacia, Ressa repackaged the moribund TV Patrol into “TV Patrol World,” instituted a citizen-journalism platform, and tightly enforced the network’s code of ethics.
As network executive, her mettle was tested by crisis events. In 2006, she ended up praising rival GMA News’ coverage of the Wowowee Ultra stampede. Ces Drilon’s kidnapping in 2009, Ressa now admits, was the most emotional point of her life.
Reportedly due to differences over a decision to return former senator and vice president Noli de Castro and ex-future second lady Korina Sanchez to their newsreading chores at TV Patrol, Ressa left ABS-CBN in 2010.
Ressa’s departure as network news boss was an opportunity for her to do her own thing; somewhat a return to her days at Probe, the independent media outfit. But she’s now all grown up for that. After some brainstorming with like-minded associates and new alliances with local Internet pioneers, Rappler was born.
“I used to say that we had a strain of megalomania,” said Ressa in an interview with the Inquirer a decade ago for a feature on the original members of the Probe Team. Looking back, her impressive career was but a preparation for Rappler, whose bold vision is to “change journalism.”
With its market of digital natives, Ressa has had some success. That is why she’s our HuMan of the Year.
Ressa, as digital prophetess, inspires a group of young journos who believe they can change the world one tweet at a time – no different from when Ressa herself was fresh out of Princeton.
Finally in-charge of her own news outfit, Ressa has come out as a self-styled intellectual, secular progressive and liberal-minded. At Rappler, she is able to inject her personal politics into news coverage under the guise of “uncompromised journalism.”
What was initially a media experiment has become a veritable propaganda machine. Rappler played a key role in the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona and the ongoing demonization of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The ultimately victorious effort to pass the reproductive health bill dovetailed with Ressa’s vision for Philippine society. Rappler, which has a sex advice column, laid the case for the RH vision of a safe and satisfying sex life for all Filipinos. It’s a whole new twist to the old newsroom saying: “sex sells.”
At the same time, Rappler is able to harness online hate and everything inane and ridiculous to generate website traffic – digital sensationalism at its lowest.
In another era, such practice would be labelled “yellow journalism.” But yellow journalism has acquired a new meaning under Ressa, who has canonized President BS Aquino as a “transformational leader.”
Ressa is our HuMan of the Year for simply being God’s Gift to Journalism, for showing us how yellow journalism ought to be practiced in the age of new media. The Rappler-in-Chief is indeed changing journalism. They say it’s for the better. We say it’s for the worse.