Journalist and teacher

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Dean Armando J. Malay, who was a journalist for over 40 years, and who died last week at the age of 89, was one of the pioneering faculty members at the College of Mass Communication, then Institute of Mass Communication (IMC), of the University of the Philippines. In his May 16 to 18 wake at U.P., his former students, many of them now editors in the country’s leading newspapers, recalled how, together with the late Hernando J. Abaya and IP Soliongco, he shaped their development as journalists.

But even before IMC was established, Dean Malay had been teaching the U.P. journalism courses then lodged in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. I was an English major with what was then known as a “concentration” in creative writing and journalism (a strange, probably dangerous, even incompatible, combination). I was among his students in two subjects, newswriting and feature writing.

Professor Malay would come to class in a bow tie and dress shirt, and from there proceed to the Manila Times, then the most widely circulated newspaper in the country, where he was a columnist and was also one of the editors–and where, we his students presumed, a bow tie and dress shirt were the norm.

We made secret fun of his bow ties, of which he seemed to have dozens; his choice of the cigarettes he perpetually smoked, a local brand from the Ilocos and not from Richmond; his pacing up and down before the class rather than sitting down; his looking out the window or at the ceiling rather than at his students while lecturing on the complexities of writing a news lead; and his voice, which was loud, insistent and demanded undivided attention.

Some of us derided his current events quiz, which was everyday and took 20 minutes of each class period. We wanted professors to carry on about “the larger issues,” rather than force us to read newspapers. But no one said he didn’t know his stuff as a journalist. When he told us about the debates in the newsroom over the proper use of this word or that phrase, we listened. Was it “watch out for” or “watch for” the publication of Nick Joaquin’s latest book? Was the name NVM Gonzalez spelled with two “z”s or with one? Was it ever correct to say “peoples” or “sport”?

We listened, too, to his accounts of his experiences as a reporter before and after World War II, one of them his covering the suicide of a Tondo fisherman who had swallowed a blasting cap, and whose remains, he assured us, had to be literally scraped off the walls. Occasionally, he would put his students down, especially those who ignored his admonition to put things simply and clearly, and to think of the readers rather than themselves. Being then under the influence of Lionel Trilling’s murky prose, I once used the word “pestilential” in a feature story. He reacted to it by saying, while looking at the ceiling as usual, that “class, this is one word you should avoid like the plague”–a little joke we caught on to only after he had laughed at it himself.

But he emphasized ethical behavior most of all, admonishing his students to never, never accept anything from any politician, businessman or whomever else one was interviewing or otherwise writing about. That rule was for him absolute and brooked no ifs and buts, and meant refusing not only envelopes and all-expense-paid trips, but even a cup of coffee.

Time does wonders to one’s outlook. I never got over the bow ties. But I did come to realize that a journalist needs to be informed and that it’s a constant and daily need not easily realized in a world of conflicting claims and versions of events. As a teacher at U.P., I give current events quizzes myself, although not daily, and now understand the virtues of looking at the ceiling or out the window if there are windows, rather than being distracted by that student writing a note to his seatmate, or that other one smiling up at you while her mind’s elsewhere.

The newsroom debates he recounted–those debates over the proper use of this word or that phrase–are lessons in the permanent responsibility of communication for exactitude and precision, and the need for journalists to write for the reader and not for each other, a common vice in Philippine journalism. It recognized the fundamental duty of journalism to report events, and to report them as clearly and as precisely as possible.

His instruction to refuse even a cup of coffee, which many describe as far too demanding, and as raising the ethical bar too high, on the other hand, draws early a line the journalist must not cross. Many journalists do draw a firm line between reporting with no consideration other than the facts on the one hand, and on the other, writing with one eye on who benefits or suffers. But some draw the line too late–so late in fact that many find themselves no longer journalists but paid performers, surprising even themselves at how quickly they have been transformed into dancers to the tune of the powerful.

Dean Malay preferred to draw the line early. That way there would be no mistaking where the boundaries between the ethical and unethical are, an issue that in the murky world of Philippine journalism is especially critical.

Dean Malay did not limit the lessons he taught to those he imparted only in the classrooms of U.P.. Though already dean of Student Affairs at U.P. Diliman, in the martial-law period he was arrested several times for what he wrote, and thus demonstrated how valuable a free press was, and how it had to be fought for despite the threat of prison and worse. This was itself an invaluable contribution to the broad resistance against dictatorship. But to that dangerous course he also added involvement in the organizations of former political prisoners as well as of the relatives of the disappeared, and regular attendance in antidictatorship demonstrations.

But he was more than a human rights and antidictatorship activist. He was also committed to a radical vision of a better society and nation, the coming of which he sought through his actions to realize, but which he seemed to know he would not see in his lifetime.

Dean Malay thus combined in his person the virtues of authentic journalism, and of active involvement in the fight for human rights and for an alternative future.

In 2001 Metrobank joined other groups in recognizing his achievements both as a journalism practitioner as well as an outstanding leader in journalism, the latter achieved both by his teaching as well as by the force of his example as practitioner.

The process of his selection was among the most rigorous I have ever seen in the often confused and confusing world of journalism awards. As the process unfolded, and the boards of judges that made up the awards committees came to know more about Dean Malay as teacher and journalist, it became evident that the twin recognitions were properly his.

The months-long search for nominations among journalists, academics and media advocacy organizations had yielded several names, but that of Dean Malay was the one most often mentioned. Once nominated, however, the nominees were subjected to the further probing of a referee, who interviewed the nominee’s colleagues, other practitioners, academics, his friends and enemies and others familiar with him or her. In many cases the muck-raking produced surprising results.

In the outstanding journalist awards, of which there were three, but especially in the lone leadership in journalism award, there was soon no contest. There was not a single negative comment about Dean Malay, no claims that he misused his writing for personal ends, no suggestion that he was other than professional in the four decades that he practiced. There was instead universal recognition of the critical role he had played in the development of the skills and ethical awareness of the practitioners consulted, and testimonies to his personal and professional integrity.

What this indicated was that no one else except Dean Malay then combined in one person the integrity, the experience and the influence on the profession and on professionals that defined leadership in journalism in addition to outstanding practice in it. That could well be his epitaph as journalist and teacher. But it is also a reminder to us all that what we do during our all too brief journey on this earth decides what we will leave behind.

(Today, abs-cbnNEWS.com, May 20, 2003. Also delivered on May 18, 2003 during the tribute to Dean Malay held at the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice in UP Diliman.)

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