Pia Hontiveros on her new show “Politics As Usual” and what it means to be part of history

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CNN Philippines’ chief correspondent shares memories from her 29 years of reporting experience, talking to politicians, and being part of historical events. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s the 6 p.m. newscast of “News Night,” CNN Philippines’ flagship news show anchored by Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan. As fresnels and soft lights illuminate the entire studio, she sits upright on a swivel chair, a laptop open on her left, printed scripts on the table, and a black pen in her hand.

During a three-minute commercial break, she talks to her earpiece, asking that a technical issue be fixed. A few minutes before it airs again, she says she can still hear people talking from what seems to be another taping next door; looking agitated, she tells the person on the other end of the line to always ensure that technicalities be addressed before they go live.

She is still talking to her ear piece seconds before airing, but like an actor who can switch on and off a character, as soon as the cameras start rolling, she changes to her impassive face, starts to read the news, this time, about the Jolo Cathedral bombing in Sulu. She takes her black-rimmed eyeglasses, scans the papers on the table, talks to DILG secretary Eduardo Año over the phone, and she takes notes of names, the suspected perpetrators of the bombing — almost all in graceful synchrony.

By 6:30 p.m, she gets a 30-minute break, but doesn’t leave her seat before she goes on cam again for the 7:00 p.m. newscast.

CNNPHPIA.jpg Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan during a live newscast of "News Night."

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Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan has been a journalist for 29 years. Being a journalist, as she said in a previous interview, is like being one of the first writers of the rough draft of history. And perhaps, it’s this proclivity towards being part of history that has paved the way for her journalistic career. As a junior in high school, she already had her taste of joining rallies and demonstrations when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated.

“Like many others in my generation, of course you were aware of it unless you pretended that it didn't happen,” she says, adding that she was also in second year college when the EDSA Revolution happened. “[Joining demonstrations, rallies] was nothing out of the ordinary,” she explains. “And that's part of history.”

After martial law, ABS-CBN re-opened by August 1986, but she was still a sophomore in university. Since there were no internship programs in place back then, she had an informal agreement with the network for her to help out in doing research for news or public affairs.

By September 1989, after graduating from the Ateneo de Manila University, she got her first job with the news channel as a reporter and she has been one since. Her first assigned beat was the police beat.

“There was a time that it was important to start [as a reporter] on the graveyard shift, the police beat, because that's where you learn the 5Ws and the one H — who, what, where, when, and how,” she explains. “You learn the basics of news writing.”

CNN PH PIA.jpg “A journalist is not someone who comes in and reads, no. A journalist is someone who has been out on the field, who has covered stories, beats,” says Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan on the importance of going out in the field as practicing reporters. Photo from CNN PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

FullSizeRender (9).jpg The media IDs of Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, spanning her 29 years as a journalist. Photo from PIA HONTIVEROS-PAGKALINAWAN/INSTAGRAM

As if reciting ABCs, she goes on to explain another crucial journalistic acronym that covering the police beat provides — SVDTPO, which means subject, victim, date, time, place, origin. She adds that these basic journalistic practices can be all the more honed through covering stories out of the newsroom — the best place for any reporter to learn.

“I think it's very important for me to tell young people who want to be journalists or who are starting out as journalists now na please take being a reporter seriously. Please go out in the field. Please cover the beats because there's nothing like covering outside,” she says.

“You don't just come here and sit down and start reading a story. People know that you don't understand what you're saying because you've never covered outside diba?” she adds. “A journalist is not someone who comes in and reads, no. A journalist is someone who has been out on the field, who has covered stories, beats.”

This advice indeed comes from her own experience, as evidenced by her breadth of on-the-ground reporting experience. One of her more memorable coverages was in December 1989, when she covered the coup d’etat against the Cory Aquino administration. “I remember running, I remember covering in Makati when the rebels were in the basement of Twin Towers. I remember when I was with another group of soldiers and mino-mortar ‘yung one of the buildings in the Makati Central Business District,” she recalls.

“I was out in the field so much of that time. It was very... exciting is an understatement.”

“I think it's very important for me to tell young people who want to be journalists or who are starting out as journalists now na please take being a reporter seriously. Please go out in the field. Please cover the beats because there's nothing like covering outside.”

The thrill of chasing stories made being a reporter invigorating for Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan. In 1990, she and her crew even went to Ragay, Camarines Sur to interview people about NPA mass graves found in the area. She and her team, together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the police, trekked 14 kilometers along a carabao road — a term used for a route filled with large rocks amid a stream of water.

At one point, they heard someone humming very strongly behind them — “Tan, tan, tanan, tan” to the tune of the first line of “Bayang Magiliw” — and then in front of them, the sound coming from a faraway distance, someone hummed in return to the tune of the last line of the national anthem: “Tan tananan tan tan tan tanan.” She later found out that this was the NPA’s signal, telling their members that the AFP soldiers were there.

The next day, after doing her interviews, gunshots started going off. “It's unbelievable. You don't believe it eh. Parang 'Shit this isn't happening!' … And then like in slow motion, I turned my head slowly, I can see the bullets coming off the ground,” she shares. “I had two policemen beside me — [they said,] ‘Dapa, dapa, dapa!’ and we all fell to the ground.”

They were under fire for two hours. “I really thought I was gonna die. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god I don't even have children, I'm just starting out as a junior reporter!’” she recalls, now chuckling at the incredulity of the situation. When asked if this near-death experience discouraged her at being a reporter, she says, without a sliver of doubt, her eyes lighting up: “No, all the more [encouraged]. Parang, aba exciting ‘to!”

Pia Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan.jpg “In my 29 plus years as a journalist, I have interviewed all sorts of people. And I will interview them. The objective of the interview is to get to the truth, right?” says Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan. Photo by JL JAVIER

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After years of going out and covering all sorts of stories and beats, she then also started anchoring political shows such as “Strictly Politics,” where she interviewed a wide range of politicians, such as Mar Roxas, Edgardo Angara, and Joseph Estrada, among others.

In fact, on February 2002, it was during her interview with then-President Estrada that the former president admitted to having a bank account under the Velarde name. Estrada was, at that time, on trial for having used this name for money laundering purposes. “I wanted to fall off my chair. But I just smiled na lang. He wasn't taking it back talaga,” says Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan. Her interview was also one of the evidences cited by Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo in the case against Estrada.  

This February, Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan will once again have in-depth discussions with political newsmakers through her new show at CNN Philippines, “Politics As Usual.” Being the face of the new show, she also has a say on which newsmakers to invite. When asked about her opinion on “no-platforming,” meaning not inviting guests who may be newsmakers but are known to peddle lies for instance, she says:

“In my 29 plus years as a journalist, I have interviewed all sorts of people. And I will interview them. The objective of the interview is to get to the truth, right? So it's the way you ask questions.”

20368841_1987511208155435_4480651890941727115_o.jpg Alan Peter Cayetano interviewed by Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan during the 2017 State of the Nation Address. Photo from CNN PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK  

IMG_0680.jpg Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan says that before a coverage of the SONA or the elections, for example, she would prepare by printing out her own notes and spiels, and pasting them on index cards. Photo courtesy of PIA HONTIVEROS-PAGKALINAWAN

With her almost three decades of experience researching, reporting, and analyzing political events and figures, it’s as though she’s had the unique position of seeing the weak spots of Philippine politics. Perhaps the country’s weakness is the way Filipinos vote, the way we choose personalities rather than parties? She says that it is indeed problematic that that is how we choose who to put in office, but that it’s not the fault of the Filipino voter.

“That's the system’s [fault] and we have a problem on the political party system also na kahit na may partido, hindi naman talaga siya malakas, lumalakas ang partido dahil mayroong popular, may sikat na sumasama sa kanila,” she says. “In 2010, ganoon ang nangyari, ‘yung kay Noynoy. So everybody joined LP. In 2016, everybody wanted to be PDP-Laban because that's the party of Duterte.”

Through the years, politicians she has interviewed have come and gone, but what has stayed the same for Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan’s reporting is the way she has prepared for every single coverage she has done.

“It's like preparing for a thesis defense. And this I tell other journalists, other anchors, so you read ‘no? But after you read, you don't just keep it in your head. You either write it out, with pen and paper,” she says.

She brings out her phone and finds a photo of how she prepared for the State of the Nation Address: 21 index cards laid out on a table with printed out notes and highlights of spiels, information, and other facts that she thinks could either help add context to the story or could be important to the coverage.

“This is what I do every SONA or every elections,” she says. “I write out things I would say, my notes, ‘yun because I'm OC. I do the same for questions.”

She adds how for interviews, she would even go as far as writing out possible answers to her questions so she can prepare her follow-up questions. “That's my point about being a reporter. Being a reporter gives you experience,” she says. “If you have experience, then you can deal with anything on camera.”

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“Politics As Usual” premieres this Feb. 19 on CNN Philippines.