Column: Most influential opinion journalist?

My first column after a year away; I pay tribute to an excellent editor, both friend and mentor. Published on July 10, 2012.

A good number of names in almost any survey of the country’s most influential opinion columnists make their home in the Inquirer’s opinion pages. Some of these columnists have the advantage, not only of lucid analysis or illuminating prose, but of careers in television: I think, for example, of Randy David or Solita Monsod. Others equally gifted have become popular despite what may best be described as indifference to regular TV appearances: You have, for instance, someone like Conrad de Quiros or Michael Tan. Still others of similar talent become must-reads because they bear almost the entire weight of their profession on their shoulders: Consider Fr. Joaquin Bernas (law), or Ambeth Ocampo (history), or Amando Doronila (journalism).

It is an easy thing for me to suggest these and other names from the Inquirer’s opinion pages, but the fact that I can also suggests something characteristic about the pages themselves. As the print (and, since about a decade and a half ago, also digital) equivalent of the public square, these pages have managed to attract some of the most powerful soapboxes of the last quarter-century.

The case can be made—and if you will allow me I will make the case—that one of the most influential opinion journalists of the last 25 years was the man largely responsible for defining and defending that public square.

I mean Jorge Aruta, who retired as the newspaper’s opinion editor earlier this year. At the testimonial lunch held in his honor last week, I grew even more convinced. Now I am constrained by Jorge’s own example, of avoiding attention to himself if he could help it, to keep my argument short and sharp. I must therefore apologize to him for the next three paragraphs, which will shine memory’s spotlight on the work that he did with such a sense of duty and the minimum of fuss. (He did not sweat the small stuff.)

At that testimonial lunch, I thought of all the columnists he had given a home to, from the likes of the Voltairean Adrian Cristobal to the Didionesque Pat Evangelista; I remembered the sensation the Youngblood column he conceptualized made when it first saw print, and the palpable excitement it still generates among the under-30 crowd, who to this day continue to contribute personal essays of astonishing candor; I called to mind the countless letters to the editor he had caused to be published, many of them memorable mini-essays in good citizenship.

I took stock of the many columnists and commentary writers who have written, or found the occasion to tell me, about his editorial touch, which former columnist Manolo Quezon once described as at once sure and light.

Above all, I remembered the especial care he took of the newspaper’s editorials, both the ones that he wrote (it says something about his personality that he never bothered to keep track of the pieces he wrote, but my own estimate, based on his 22-plus years of service as opinion editor—he spent a total of 24 years working in the Inquirer—is that he must have written something like 2,000 editorials or a little more) and the ones he directed and edited. It was in this role as editorial writer and editorial gatekeeper that Jorge’s role as custodian of the public square was most evident, at least to me. (I hasten to add that Jorge never, not once, spoke of his role in these terms; if he had, it would only have called attention to himself. I must also state for the record that he never thought that his own opinion pages had a monopoly on analysis and insight; he made it a habit to read other opinion sections, and had a couple of favorite non-Inquirer columnists he often referenced in conversation.)

But the editorials were, rightly, the focus of his work. It has been a privilege of mine to work in an opinion environment where, by and large, editorial positions have either remained consistent since the newspaper was founded (for instance, the Inquirer’s steadfast opposition to capital punishment, because government’s unforgiving blade often falls on the necks of the unprotected poor) or evolved in a way consistent with the newspaper’s People Power roots.

Let me sum up my argument this way. When I first joined the Inquirer, in 2001, I thought the most important thing was to be heard, to see my views quicken into print; under Jorge’s guidance, I realized that editors working in the opinion pages had in fact a higher duty: to create the space in which others can be heard. That he did so, while keeping very strong opinions of his own, gave added meaning to the newspaper’s founding slogan: “Balanced news, fearless views.”

* * *

At a forum I attended last March, I heard Jim Brady, former editor of and new editor in chief of Digital First, outline the four strategies that were redefining the company he worked for, Digital First Media (owned by the redoubtable John Paton), and the media properties it owned, such as the various Journal Register newspapers. He spoke of renewed emphasis on breaking news, investigative reporting, audience engagement, and “widgets” (which I understood to mean social media apps and other gee-whizzery).

An admirable direction, but also inadequate. Wasn’t Digital First giving opinion and analysis short shrift, I asked. In reply, Brady pointed to the difficulty of summarizing everything that a media organization stood for in only a handful of strategies, and insisted that opinion was in fact assumed in the four strategies.

I see what he means, but still think that his answer comes up short. That may just be Jorge’s influence though, hard at work.



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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Nieman Notes, Readings in Media

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