There is a scene, recalled only on reflection in the movie “The Post,” but told more completely by Katharine Graham in her memoir “Personal History,” which took place on the morning Graham was to meet with the board of the Washington Post after her husband, then publisher of the paper, committed suicide.
Up until that moment, Graham had been but a socialite and friend to the powerful. She had never held down a job, and grew up in the sheltered confines of a wealthy family. Now she was to come face to face with a group of men who wielded tremendous influence in the country’s affairs, and whose confidence and trust she had to win as the new head of the US capitol’s “hometown paper.”
Getting into her limousine still not knowing what to say, Graham was taken by surprise when her daughter, still in her night clothes, jumped in and joined her. On the way, Graham’s daughter went over the talking points of her address, scribbled on a note that Graham had kept. On the night in question, Graham was being asked whether the newspaper she loved would publish the rest of the Pentagon Papers and risk financial ruin and the ire of the Nixon administration.
The scene brought to mind all the other women I had known in my life as a journalist. And like Graham, they were women who were a complex blend of many things—frail, fragile, steely, courageous, nurturing and poised—who could draw from a deep well of personal resources when crises struck and threatened the survival of the newspapers they loved.
I worked in the Star when Betty Go-Belmonte was chair of the board, and in the Inquirer when Eggie Duran-Apostol was its chair, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc its editor in chief, and later, when Marixi Prieto took over as board chair and Sandy Prieto-Romualdez as president and CEO.
In Graham, or rather in Meryl Streep’s magnificent portrayal of Graham’s darkest days, I see these women and their strength of character and resolve in the face of adversity.
The story that best exemplifies the bravery of Betty Go-Belmonte was told by Louie Beltran as tribute to the deeply religious Star publisher. Motoring to Edsa in the early hours of the People Power revolt, it was Betty who ordered her driver to park her Mercedes Benz to join a line of buses across the highway to stop the tanks that would surely be sent to quell the nascent rebellion. Betty, gentle-mannered and soft-spoken, had nerves of steel when it mattered.
“Tita” Eggie (she is a distant relative) often made light of the fact that she was No. 1 in the list of journalists to be arrested in the event Marcos prevailed over the Edsa forces. “A for Apostol,” she would say with a smirk, never mind that since Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, she transformed her “little women’s magazine” into a major force of independent journalism in a country where the press had been intimidated into silence or made complicit with the dictatorship.
Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc often said that when journalists took themselves too seriously (“believing in their own press releases”), they lost their objectivity and their professionalism. You wouldn’t think she was one of Asia’s Heroes (along with Tita Eggie) when reading her columns written with a light touch and even a dash of humor. But she was fierce, unleashing reporters to look into stories that were sure to annoy and anger those in authority, regardless of who held the reins of power. It’s a mark of her success that no president was ever left unscathed by the probing eyes and sharp tongue of the Inquirer.
Marixi and Sandy Prieto to their credit not only kept believing in the mission of the Inquirer, retaining LJM as its EIC, but also joining her and the staff when enemies conspired to bring the paper to its knees. But even with their interests at stake, they and the board held fast, surviving even the highly popular Erap regime.
These were the women whom I took as guiding lights (along with many others, including Graham) in my career. More significantly, these were the women to whom Philippine journalism owes a deep debt of gratitude for keeping the press alive and pushing back, especially now.
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