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So, what’s on your list?

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It’s less than two months before Christmas. No wonder people are beginning to make their list of things. For his part, Dean Nicholar Lemann of the venerable  Columbia Graduate School of Journalism has made a list of books journalists of the future should be able to read to be able to navigate the brave new world of journalism in the 21st century.

At least  I can say I’ve made my own list well before Dean Lemann did, and posted it as a note on Facebook (stamped on the note is the record of the date of posting — September 22, 2010). It seems his brilliant mind has met mine on at least two points. Two books I rated in my list as must-reads — Dispatches, by Michael Herr, and Berlin Diary, by William Shirer — are on his list too.

Click here to go to Dean Lemann’s list, published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Scroll down for a re-post of my Facebook note:

The Journalism List: Personal (Re)Collections

I recently spoke in an ACLE session at my undergraduate alma mater, UP Mass Comm – a pinch-hitter for my boss. I thought the invite was for me to give an update on the Maguindanao massacre case; instead I found myself talking to students half my age about my former life as a journalist, and what I thought they should be reading to prepare themselves for such a demanding profession (predictably, none of them seemed to have read or heard about any of the authors I mentioned at the talk). After the talk, I decided to make a list of the books on journalism I thought any journalism student should read. The list is only of foreign authors (most of them American). A good number are memoirs written by journalism greats and they are valuable for the insights they give on the nature of journalism as a profession. In a word, they are windows to an expanded vision of the field. The others are anthologies of reportage. I added two books written on what it means to have a free press – the first was by a lawyer who argued before the US Supreme Court a landmark case on free speech and the second, by a long-time justice reporter for the New York Times, who covered the same case and wrote an important book about it. There is one work of fiction by a British novelist who at one time worked as a war correspondent in Ethiopia. His novel was a thinly-disguised account of his experiences there. Another book is by an Italian radical whose work presents a nice counter-point to the liberal democratic perspective that dominates thinking on journalism.  I only included books I have in my personal library, acquired for the most part in nearly two decades of raiding used book shops from all over the place. In the next few days, I’ll probably add more to this list, as the ones included here are what I can remember for now. I am sorry to say my collection of Filipiniana on journalism is rather slim but I just might later on make a separate list for Filipino works.

Vincent Sheean, Personal History

Theodore White, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure

Harrison Salisbury, A Time of Change

Philip Knightley, The First Casualty

Reporting, Lillian Ross

Reporting Back, Lillian Ross

Dispatches, Michael Herr

The World of Jimmy Breslin

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

Pete Hamill, News is A Verb: Journalism at the end of the 20th century

Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life

William Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of A Foreign Correspondent

Ben Bagdikian, Double Vision

H.L. Mencken, Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir

Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir

Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

John Hersey, Hiroshima

Lincoln Steffens. “The Shame of the Cities.” 1902-1904

John Reed. Ten Days That Shook the World.

James Agee and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

John McPhee. The John McPhee Reader.

Russel Baker, Growing Up

Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Norman Mailer. The Armies of the Night.

Joan Didion. Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I.F. Stone, The Best of I.F. Stone

An American Album: One Hundred Fifty Years of Harper’s Magazine

Floyd Abrams, Speaking Freely: The Trials of the First Amendment

Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience

The Crimes of War Project Handbook

Robert Coles, Children of Crisis

Robert Coles, The Call of Stories and the Moral Imagination

Granta Magazine Issue No. 53 (News)

Granta Magazine Issue No. 58 (Ambition)

Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Gary Wills, Lead Time: A Journalist’s Education

St. Augustine, Confessions

Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons

Flannerry O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters

Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli

Czeslaw Milosz, To Begin Where I Am

Tracy Kidder, The Soul of  a New Machine

Written by Romel

November 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Excerpts from the Diary of a Bargain-Book Addict

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A slightly shorter version of this essay appeared as a full-page spread  sometime in April 2003 in the Arts and Culture page of The Philippine Star. Alas, it was to be my last article as a reporter for the newspaper, and it’s not even about news!


By Romel Regalado Bagares

The affliction came to me bit by bit, as any real disease invading the
body’s immune system would, until the last of its defenses fell to the viral
infection. The bug must have bitten me sometime between my first trip to a
bargain book shop and the first time I read the first page of the first
bargain book I had ever bought not too long ago – a forty-peso paperback
edition of Italian Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.
It’s like partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; one bite
at temptation and your life is changed forever. One buy and you just can’t
stop yourself from buying more. And more. And more. Before you know it,
you’re hooked. I guess it’s a fine variation of what Filipina novelist Gina
Apostol calls bibliolepsy, “a mawkishness derived from habitual aloneness
and congenital desire. Manifestations: a quickening between the thighs and
in the points of breast, a broad arching V, when addressed by writers,
books, bibliographies, dictionaries, Xerox machines, a sympathy for typists
of manuscripts. Etymologically related to Humbert Humbert’s gross
tenderness, though rarely possessing its callous tragedy; ocassionally
accompanied by a liking for rock and roll. The endless logo-itch,
desperately seeking, but it can’t get no satisfaction. Biblioleptic attacks
followed by bouts of complete distate for words.”

I chuckled when I first read this passage. What, for example, does she mean
when she talks about that “quickening between the thighs and the points of
breast”? What readily came to mind were romance novels that invariably fill
the shelves of bookshops, their glossy covers embossed with the likeness of
men and women in sundry amorous forms. Indeed, Apostol – or Primi, the
principal character in her novel – seems to equate the pleasures of the text
with sex, the parody that the novel is notwithstanding.

At the very least, her etymology of the logo-itch reeks with sensuality.
Still, bargain-book addicts like me can agree with her when she talks of the
deep obsession with words, an endless itching for books, yes, one that can’t
get no satisfaction, one that, indeed, is oftentimes followed by a
dissatisfaction with the nature of things, with a sweet horror at the
realization that one has become a slave to yet another pleasurable sin, or
to a desirable flaw from which there seemingly is no
redemption.”…(D)esperately seeking, but it can’t get no satisfaction.” I
can heartily agree with her on that point, thought I’m not much of a fan of
rock and roll.

And yet, it, too, could be something ethereal, or even an insatiable longing
for a spiritual experience in the world of the logos. Here works what the
philosopher and fictionist George Steiner calls Real Presences – the
transcendental reality of the Divine communicating to mortals in their own
terms, in their own words.

Poet-pastor Eugene Peterson notes in his book Reversed Thunder, The
Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination [P120], that in the revealed
word, …”[T]here is logos: God revealed is God known. He is not so
completely known that he cannot be predicted. He is not known so thoroughly
that there is no more to be known, so that we can go on to the next subject.
Still he is known and not unknown, rational and not irrational, orderly and
not disorderly, hierarchical and not anarchic.”

I think of the scribes of old who painstakingly hand-copied scripture into
hand-bound books that were, in themselves, works of art. The New Testament
is a wonder in this respect: there are more than 5, 300 known manuscripts in
the original Greek language. In addition, there are more than 19,000 ancient
New Testament manuscripts in Latin, Syriac, Armenian and other languages.
More than 24,000 hand-written copies of the New Testament have survived. In
contrast, Homer’s Iliad only has 643 copies – the most for any other ancient
work. There are only about ten manuscripts ever found of Caesar’s War
Commentaries, seven for Plato’s Tetralogies, twenty for Livy’s History of
Rome, and only a couple of Tacitus’ minor works. And how close to the
originals do the ancient works actually get? Caesar’s War Commentaries was
written about 50 B.C., yet we don’t have manuscripts available which were
copied before the 9th century – a gap of 900 years.

Most of the Greek writings have even greater gaps, between 1,000 to 1500
years. The shortest span of any ancient work, according to scholars, is that
of Virgil, about 300 years between his writing and the oldest copy known.
Compare that with the New Testament books, which have been written over a
fifty-year period, beginning at A.D. 47.

The range for all other literature is from 300 to more than 1, 500 years.
But the John Rylands Papyrus, dating about A.D. 125, is a fragment of a few
verses of the Gospel of John, which was made only some 35 years after the
original gospel had been written by the apostle.
Says Sir Frederic Kenyon, the eminent scholar of textual criticism:
“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the
principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of
Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge of their
writings depend on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of
the New Testament are counted by hundreds, even thousands.”
He adds that no other ancient book has anything like such early and
plentiful testimony to its text as the New Testament, and no unbiased
scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially

But perhaps, I digress. After all, we’re talking of bargain books here.
Still I think just as well of the famed library at the ancient city of
Alexandria which, in the grandeur of its time, was the scale against which
the intellectual wealth of other nations and races was measured. One legend
– almost surely false, notes Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould in his book
Eight Little Piggies: Reflections on Natural History (P215) – that the
library was still intact when Muslim invaders captured the city in the
seventh century. The library, built by descendants of Alexander the Great
about 2,000 years ago, housed the largest collection of books in the ancient
world – more than 700,000 volumes – including the works of Homer and the
library of Aristotle. Historians tell us that Euclid and Archimedes studied
there, as did Eratosthenes, the first mathematician to calculate the
diameter of the earth.

The story goes that emir Amrou Ibn el-Ass, having conquered Alexandria in
640, wrote to the Caliph Omar asking what should be done about the library,
hoping against hope that his beloved Caliph would spare it. But the Caliph
was supposed to have replied to the emir with the words, “heads I win, tails
you lose.” The books and manuscripts in the library, said the Caliph, are
either against the Koran, in which case they are heretical and must be
destroyed, or they are in harmony with the Koran, in which case they are
superfluous and must be destroyed as well. In the end, he had the entire
collection burned to heat the water in the public baths of the city, with
the library supposedly keeping the fires going for six months. The emir must
have mourned the great bargain he lost when that great treasury of knowledge
went up in smoke.


It’s a fine Monday morning. Time to call my friend Arvin, who edits a
medical journal. As always, we begin the way our friendship began: with a
conversation on books. He exclaims when he learns that I found a coffee
table-size anthology (P180) of the poet John Ashbery’s writings on art and
artists that span three decades of his career as critic for various
publications, notably, the Paris Review, Newsweek, International Herald
Tribune, New York and Art News.

He is even more surprised when I tell him I’ve also bought at a shop along
Pedro Gil in Manila a collection of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s short
fiction, The Moons of Jupiter and Other Stories, for only P60. “I’ve already
finished reading the book, would you like to borrow it?”
He wants to bring my new acquisitions when he goes to Hong Kong next week.
Okay, okay, I say, but what’s the quid pro quo?

He offers to compensate my temporary loss with a back issue of Granta
magazine (which looks like a Penguin paperback – in fact, it is published by
Penguin!) on why we’re all enamored with crime and Lingua Franca, a lively
journal of the highs and lows of academic life. “That’s fair enough I say,
“and please take good care of my books.”

And I could now imagine his jaw drop when he also learns that I now own a
hardcover edition of Ian Gibson’s definitive work on the life and times of
the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (P250). That last bit sure floors
him. We’ve first laid our eyes on a copy of that book at the British Council
Library when it was still located in New Manila during our college days.
“Now that’s a really good one,” he says. “As for me, I haven’t bought any
book, just some back issues of Harper’s Magazine.” Not bad at all, I say. I
myself collect Harper’s. My most treasured copy is the one that had a short
story by US-based Filipino writer Eric Gamalinda about the fall of the
Skylab satellite in the late 70s as Filipinos of the era experienced it.
Fear of Heights, was the title, if I am not mistaken. And I think this story
isn’t really new but is one that had been with him for sometime, revised
here and there for publication in the magazine. Arvin says it’s the very
first time a Filipino writer has made it to the fiction section of the
prestigious magazine, which makes that particular issue a collector’s item.

Last week, Arvin made me turn green with envy when he told me that he had
found at a Booksale in Makati City a mint-condition copy (P60) of Sylvia
Plath’s Ariel, a posthumously published collection of her poems (it has an
introduction by the poet Robert Lowell, which makes it an all the more
superb find), and that, at a National Bookstore sale, he had bought one of
Paul Auster’s New York trilogy books – In the Country of Last Things – for a
measly P30. That completes Arvin’s trilogy collection. (The only book I have
of Auster is entitled the Art of Hunger, a collection of his essays and
interviews, the lead piece of which is a lyrical almost trance-like
exploration of the world of Franz Kafka as a writer whose many works were
written at the point of starvation. Auster  – who has also translated some
of the major French poets of the modern era – knows what it means to write
and starve at the same time. I have a copy of a Granta magazine issue on the
memoir as a literary form, where Auster and another noted writer, Doris
Lessing, recalled the tribulations they went through as beginning writers).

But this time, ha ha ha, the victory is all mine. I can hardly wait for our
next book banter, our ritual beckoning to a common bond.


Ah, when will this implacable urge to buy books ever end? “Of making many
books,” said the philosopher-king Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “there is no end.
” I must not forget the next phrase to Solomon’s line:” and much study
wearies the soul.” The wisest man to have ever walked on the face of the
earth certainly presaged the demigod of deconstruction, the French literary
theorist Jacques Derrida, who once said to the effect that a book will never
achieve any closure, but can only pretend to one.

Or am I just taking my reading habits too seriously? There are times when,
having finished a book, I fling it to the floor, feeling exhausted and used
up. A certain guilt overwhelms me, indeed, a “complete distaste for words,”
all at the thought that in the end, knowledge becomes puffed up and the
wisdom of this world is mere vanity, “a chasing after the wind,” in the
words of Ecclesiastes. I open my Bible to the New Testament. “Where is the
wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age,” asks
the apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthian Christians. “Has not
God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

A certain mawkishness. The computer’s thesaurus lists the following
synonyms: sentimental drivel, mush, sentimentalism, maudlin act, gush,
affectation, exaggerated sentiment, excessive sentiment.
But no sooner had I promised myself not to indulge in yet another buying
spree than I’d find myself inside yet another Booksale outlet, poring over
the books it has to offer, wishing I have all the money in the world to
satisfy my cravings for words. It’s as if my day by day struggle with words
as a newspaper reporter wasn¹t enough!

My fascination with books began when I was about five years old. One day, I
wandered down the basement of the old house in General Santos City where I
found a dusty collection of titles that covered everything from music,
philosophy, arts and history to law and religion. I pulled a chair,
clambered up and took out a thick volume from the collection, which lined
racks stuck high up on two adjoining walls. It was a history book. Still an
unread lot, I sat enthralled as I opened the volume to pages which showed
photos of the etchings left on the walls of caves by early men and those of
dinosaurs of the earth in ages past. Alas, my early explorations in history
opened me to a bigger world, one that, by turns, thrilled and fascinated me.
I would later learn that most of these books were bought from the old
bargain shops along Recto, Lerma and Avenida by my father and my uncles
during their college days in Manila.

In the old days, these places sheltered numerous bargain bookshops, the
old-timers recall. They’re still there, existing alongside dens of fake
diploma makers, the latter distinguished for their craft the world over. But
these shops have fallen behind the march of progress, losing the battle to
the air-conditioned Booksale outlets elsewhere – most notably, the malls –
which offer unrivalled ease and convenience. Today, the old paths are worn
and dirty. Who would want to use them still? For me however, a bargain is a
bargain. I’d go anywhere if there’s a good buy there and I’ve got the money.
Nothing approximates the excitement I feel each time I chance upon a long
sought after-tome at a bargain bookshop.

Unlike the Swiss, however, I am not a meticulous keeper of records. I have a
hard time keeping track of books I’ve lent to friends. I don’t even keep an
inventory of the books I own. I only like to imagine them lining up imagined
book shelves, their spines shimmering in the dark of the room, so full of
mystery and excitement. For now, however, my books chiefly make up the chaos
that is my small rented room, kept in boxes under my bed, piled on chairs
and on the study table, or stacked on the floor like they were waiting to be
transformed into a bonfire in some Nazi pogrom.


Today, I discover at a Booksale in the UP Shopping Center two fine discards
from the Floral Park Library in New York. Imagine the distance the books
have traveled! And think of the people who’ve read them before they were
shipped out of the library for the pleasure of a bargain book addict like me
– hey, I read somewhere about the big crisis public libraries in the US now
face because of a serious lack of funds.

Anyway, the first one’s a collection of the letters of Nobel Prize winner
for peace Albert Schweitzer (P140). The other one’s another letter
collection, also of another Nobel Prize winner, the American novelist
William Faulker (P120), mostly written when he was a strapping youth in his

Handsomely jacketed hardbounds, in very good condition. Old-fashioned
letter-writing has become such a tedious exercise. In this day and age of
the e-mail, the pleasure of reading handwritten text on paper is becoming a
forgotten experience. But in the old days, it was in itself, a fine craft
for the true-blooded aficionado of the handwritten word. I am not much of a
letter-writer myself, except when it comes to love letters.
If I had the money last week, I would have bought another letter collection,
that of eminent journalist Nancy Mitford, who had corresponded with many
famous and interesting personalities of her time. Her volume, worth P180,
had already been bought when I returned to the shop today. I wonder what
Arvin would say about my latest find.


What’s the life of books? In an essay in the New Yorker, John Updike
describes the flurry that marks the act of writing a book. It is, in his
words, like that one moment in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, when a tiny
black dot on the shimmering desert horizon slowly grows into a galloping
sheik – “a vibrant blur that gradually enlarges into a presence, preferably
dashing and irresistible.”
Then the book is finally published and our auteur picks up a copy, smells
the fresh ink on its pages, and smiles with a contentment that’s all to
himself. But soon, the first blush of excitement over its publication is
followed by a downward spiral that is the fate of ephemeral words. When the
accolades die down, the reality of unsold copies lines up the shelves of the
bookstores. What happens to the author now?
As he passes by the store windows, he glances away, and like the bad Levite
in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he takes the comfortable way, away
from the inconvenience, nay, the pain, that the sad truth brings. Updike
muses:” the books call out with little surface details – a title type once
fervently debated, a topstain tenderly selection – for a recognition now
stonily denied.” “Soon,” he adds, “a chorus of cries from a sinking ship,
the books die away; they eddy into the back shelves of bookstores, and
thence into the mountainous return piles, to reappear a year or two later in
the discount catalogues and in a paperback version. The royalty statements,
by the time they appear, are like shreds of wreckage which float to the
surface of a cruel, inscrutable sea.”

A not-so-comforting observation from a veteran prize-winning writer of over
40 volumes and more than seven million words. But such is the woe of the
writer. To bargain-book addicts, however, the writer’s woe is their best
enjoyed pleasure. For, in the end, that means yet another consignment
waiting to be discovered and bought, all the better and all the more
romantic if it’s found in some street corner shop, all for the price of a
song, all for the delight of bargain book addicts everywhere.

Written by Romel

October 31, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Strictly Politics: Free Expression and the Supreme Court on live media coverage of the Maguindanao Massacre trial

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A television camera in court?

The European Court of Human Rights  has said that that there could be discussion of court proceedings as they were taking place, and that reporting including comment on court proceedings contributes to their publicity and is thus perfectly consonant with the rule  that hearings be in public. Moreover the media’s task of imparting information to the public and the public’s right to receive it, is all the more so where a public figure is involved, to wit:

[Para.] 50.  Restrictions on freedom of expression permitted by the second paragraph of Article 10 “for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary” do not entitle States to restrict all forms of public discussion on matters pending before the courts.

 There is general recognition of the fact that the courts cannot operate in a vacuum. Whilst the courts are the forum for the determination of a person’s guilt or innocence on a criminal charge (see paragraph 40 above), this does not mean that there can be no prior or contemporaneous discussion of the subject matter of criminal trials elsewhere, be it in specialised journals, in the general press or amongst the public at large (see, mutatis mutandis, the Sunday Times (no. 1) judgment cited above, p. 40, § 65).

 Provided that it does not overstep the bounds imposed in the interests of the proper administration of justice, reporting, including comment, on court proceedings contributes to their publicity and is thus perfectly consonant with the requirement under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention that hearings be public. Not only do the media have the task of imparting such information and ideas: the public also has a right to receive them (ibid.). This is all the more so where a public figure is involved, such as, in the present case, a former member of the Government. Such persons inevitably and knowingly lay themselves open to close scrutiny by both journalists and the public at large (see, among other authorities, the Lingens v. Austria judgment of 8 July 1986, Series A no. 103, p. 26, § 42). Accordingly, the limits of acceptable comment are wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual [1]

[1] App No 83/1996/702/894, 29 August 1997.

We recently appeared on ANC’s Strictly Politics talk show hosted Ms. Pia Hontiveros to discuss the Supreme Court’s new guidelines for the live radio and television coverage of the Maguidanao Massacre trial. Prof. Theodore Te of the UP College of Law and Mrs. Melinda Quintos-De Jesus of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility were also guests.  Excerpts from of the talk show episode may be viewed here.

Written by Romel

June 30, 2011 at 8:14 am

Impunity in the streets on Friday the 13th

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That is what killed veteran journalist and University of the Philippines professor Ma. Lourdes Simbulan – or Chit Estella to her media colleagues – and ended a brilliant and compassionate life dedicated to what many people these days consider to be that nebulous idea of the public interest.

But it is a different kind of impunity.

It is an impunity that has thrived on decades of government incompetence and neglect and is exacerbated by the exploitative conditions maintained by transportation companies driven by sheer profit motives.

It is one whose viciousness the same public Chit had sought to serve faithfully as a journalist has learned to take with a resigned shrug on the shoulders. “Why did her life end this way?” said a friend as we tried to find our way close to midnight Friday to the funeral home where Chit’s remains were brought a few hours earlier after she was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Half-jokingly she broached the idea that perhaps, journalists can all agree to write a common story about the tragedy by saying that it was all part of a sinister plot to silence an irrepressible advocate of the accountability to the public of certain officials in government.

My friend’s was not a unique reaction to the tragedy. Indeed, many of Chit’s colleagues felt that her death seemed to have rendered all that she was and all that she worked for to puny insignificance.

Here was a journalist who had tilted at the windmills of Martial Law, only to perish in a seemingly senseless car crash – yet another victim of the recklessness that has turned Commonwealth Avenue into the country’s Death Avenue. Ah, had Chit become just another statistic collected by responsible government agencies to justify budget increases rather than a well-lived life cut short by a tragic but heroic death?

I beg to disagree.

How she died cannot trump how she lived. The seeming senselessness of her death does not for a moment diminish her purposeful and fruitful life as a wife, sister, friend, reporter, editor and mentor. Perhaps, that is all really beside the point.

But I rail at suggestions she was thus fated; the forces of sheer bad luck conspired to snuff out her life, just like that.

The fugitive bus driver that delivered the cruel and deadly blow that busy early Friday night is a repeat offender, authorities now say. If so, why didn’t the authorities suspend his license? Why didn’t the company who hired him fire him for being a danger to himself and to society?

Chit’s car crash isn’t the first on Commonwealth Avenue attributable to reckless bus drivers. It wouldn’t be called Death Avenue if that were the case.

The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) says 405 accidents had taken along the “killer highway” in the first four months of 2011. It is however quick to point out that the current figure is smaller compared to the 872 accidents that happened in the same period last year. Three died in accidents along the avenue from January to April this year, two deaths fewer than the five deaths recorded for the same period last year.

But do they expect us to jump for joy over these statistics of supposedly declining deaths and accidents?

You wonder why despite the threat of suspension on companies of erring buses the deaths continue to happen and the reckless impunity does not stop. It has now come to a point when human life does not anymore matter, certainly not to bus companies.

These companies continue to perpetuate a “boundary system” that drives these bus drivers to throw all caution to wind and to race like hell to meet the day’s income quota.

That our responsible regulatory agencies have allowed this anomaly to continue unchecked year after year could only be the result of monumental incompetence or a cozy transactional relationship between regulatory officials and bus owners or both.

Impunity begins with one act of recklessness, one corrupt decision to shield the guilty, one moronic policy perpetuated by mediocrity in government. Over time, it is repeated over and over again, branches out into other corrupt acts and eventually transforms into a complex and corrupt structure of interacting habits, decisions and actions – an entire culture, monstrous and yes, deadly.

No, Friday the 13th didn’t kill Chit. Impunity did.

Written by Romel

May 19, 2011 at 4:06 am

“Drowing” Capa

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Gerda Taro (to the right of an unidentified soldier), Robert Capa's great love, taking cover in an episode of the Spanish Civil War.

I caught the last day of the Robert Capa (b. 1913, Budapest) retrospective at the Jewish Historical Museum. It brought back memories of long hours spent at the library in high school poring over his photographs of sundry wars featured in many a Life publication.

Of course, his fame as a photojournalist has been forever tied to one of his iconic photos from the Spanish Civil War: that of a Republican militiaman caught falling into the clutches of death by Capa’s ready and sympathetic lens. For years, his Falling Soldier photograph would be the subject of much debate, of both admiration and derision, with critics charging that, in the language familiar to contemporary Filipino journalists, it was all drowing; it was faked. Yet Spain was his very first terrain as a war photographer, and Capa, then only 22,  established a solid reputation as a photojournalist based on his photographs of the war there,  with Falling Soldier easily becoming the conflict’s most recognizable image; Capa’s own version of how he managed to photograph the unnamed soldier at such a dramatic moment, as Phil Knightley tells in his pioneering book on war correspondents, The First Casualty,   is that  it was taken in Andalusia in August 1936.  He was holed up in a trench with Republican militiamen, who were trying to break through  a Fascist machine-gun nest. The militiamen had repeatedly  attempted to overrun  the machinegun nest, but each time, many of them were mowed down by the enemy.

It was in one such fruitless charge  when Capa raised  his camera over the trench and pressed the button without looking; at that precise moment, the machinegun nest let out a burst of lead,  supposedly hitting on his head the unnamed militiaman who would henceforth become the poster boy of a failed Republican dream. “Two months later,  he [Capa] was notified that Capa was now in truth a famous, talented, and nearly rich photographer, for the random snapshot had turned out to be a clear picture of a brave man in the act of falling dead as he ran and it had been published over the name of Capa in newspapers all over the world,” writes Knightley, quoting generously from The Man Who Invented Himself,  a book about the photographer written by  another famous journalist, John Hersey, who had spoken with Capa about his famous photograph.  Life, a leading magazine of the time, published the photograph, with the caption “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba.”

Knightley, himself an accomplished  war correspondent of a much later era,  had his doubts:

“Since there is something wrong with the values of a journalistic world that accepts as an important image  a photograph that so clearly depends on the caption for its authentication, we set out to discover something more about the circumstances in which the picture was taken. When, and exactly where, did Capa take it? The terrain in the photograph tells us nothing; it could be anywhere. Who is the man? His face is blurred, but there appears to be no sign of the wound, certainly not the explosion of the skull that a bullet in the head (see the Life caption) would cause. In fact, he is still wearing his cap. How did Capa come to be alongside him, camera aimed at him, lens reasonably in focus, just as the man was shot dead?”

Yet the author himself  readily acknowledges how difficult it was to confirm or disprove the photograph. There were contemporaries of Capa in Spain, like Herbert Matthews and Martha Gellhorn — themselves famous journalists in their own right — who believed the photograph was without doubt genuine. The London Daily Express correspondent O.D. Gallagher recounted how Capa himself had told him that a Republican unit posed for him during a lull in the fighting. The Canadian playwright Ted Allen told yet another variation to the story, saying he once  had a conversation  with David “Chim” Seymour, a war photographer who later perished in the Suez invasion in 1956. “Chim told me that Capa had not taken that photograph. Whether he then told me he, Chim, had taken it or that Gerda had taken it, I cannot now remember.”

In any case, I am pretty sure  it is one  controversy that Filipino photojournalists will perfectly understand.

Capa’s  debut as a photographer was as auspicious as any. When he was barely 19, he made his first big break: at that time, Leon Trotsky, the exiled erstwhile comrade to Joseph Stalin, was to speak at the Copenhagen stadium – a very rare public appearance – on the strange twists and turns of the Russian Revolution that had now betrayed him. Capa was sent from Berlin, where he had recently moved to study photojournalism only a year before, to cover the event.

Self-portrait of a legendary photojournalist

His photo of a dramatic moment in Trotsky’s speech, the revolutionary gesturing wildly with both hands in the air as he spoke in the packed hall, his right palm obscuring a part of his bespectacled face from the flash of cameras, caught the intense and deep frustration the Russian Marxist intellectual felt in his heart following his expulsion by the Stalinists from his native land.

Such were  Capa’s formative years away from his homeland, the Weimar era, which spanned the years after the end of the First World War and the rise of Hitler in 1933, an era that ironically  saw the blossoming of   artistic, literary, architectural, philosophical and scientific endeavors in Germany- thus making it the center of cultural life in the Continent – but also presaged the death of freedom and the democratic way of life in much of  Europe;

But as I looked at Capa’s photographs once again, I searched for the right words to describe his life – the rootless, wandering Hungarian Jew who couldn’t return to his native land because his own country didn’t want him, or had no place for someone like him who, in his young life, believed in a progressive ideal that didn’t sit well with the spirit of fascism that was sweeping the Europe of those days.

Capa's falling soldier

Handsome and reckless, he only found happiness, even if oh so brief, in a fellow wanderer, his fellow Jew Greda Taro, who was Polish in origin but whom he met in Paris; it is said that at times, she’d take photographs that they’d dispatch to news services under his own name.

For a short time, she was his comrade-in-arms in the dangerous pursuit of a committed journalism amid a world at war with itself. Short, because she was killed in a tank attack as she was covering the Spanish Civil War, a war that was a magnet to many like minds who thought none of a neutral, objective journalism but who, more often than not, ran to the frontlines with pen and gun in hand, in the fight against the spread of fascism: Ernest Hewingway, Marta Gellhorn, George Orwell, Federico Garcia Lorca, to name a few well-known literary figures whose writings and political views were shaped by the tumults of the time.

Of course he’d have other love affairs, famously, with the American actress Ingrid Bergman, but he wasn’t quite the same after Gerda’s death. Rumors had it that Bergman was ready to divorce her husband for him but Capa wasn’t going to get married – he was a wanderer, he told her, whose profession demanded his full attention.

Of their love affair, the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock would do the movie Rear Window, in ill-disguised tribute.
But his and Gerda’s love affair was  something. In Paris, he struggled to sell his photographs under his birth name: Endre Ernő Friedmann.  And so, she decided she’d take charge. At that time, Frank Capra was the Oscar winner, in Holywood.

She made a cover story for him: a famous American photographer, so famous he’s hard to find (the original drowing, one might say!). It would not take long before the ruse would be uncovered. But by then, the name had stuck – a name that would soon become legendary in the annals of war journalism (it must be noted that as some observers had remarked Capa, in Hungarian, means “shark.”)

Trotsky, betrayed by his own revolution, at the Copenhagen Stadium, 1932

Robert Capa was killed by a landmine while covering the conflict in French Indochina in 1954. He took to his grave the mystery behind the Falling Soldier. He was only 40 years old. His death was a tragic emphasis to his own motto as a photojournalist:  “To me war is like an aging actress—more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic.”


The photo exhibits led into a room where a haunting documentary of the photojournalist’s life played. I sat at a corner and found myself spellbound, as were the others, I believe.

I am forever drawn, it seems, to the Weimar  era and its ideas and personalities.


As I stepped out of the exhibit I headed for the Museum’s store to buy  three postcard reproductions of Capa’s works, that: (1) of Picasso and his son Claude on the beach (2) of Madrid residents watching as Nazi planes flew overhead to bomb the city and (3) of a clarinetist at a New York Jazz Club.

Rain. Dutch rain, not quite a downpour, but it lingers. It fell as I stepped out of the Museum. I forgot to bring my raincoat!

5/27/2007 Notes from Amsterdam

(all photographs featured here had been downloaded from various on-line sources)

Postscript: For the latest twist to the Falling Soldier controversy, as discussed in the New York Times, click here

Magnum Photos, which Capa helped found, as it is now.

Written by Romel

May 8, 2011 at 8:06 am

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