Over 600 people were trapped in the rubble of the Ruby Towers on August 1968. ABS-CBN News crews were the first on the scene.
Culture Spotlight

‘Being first is not so important as being right’—and other credos of ABS-CBN News’ early days

As Geny Lopez’s news division started gaining traction in the 1960s, it gave birth to more shows and hit many milestones, including the ability to report and broadcast events as they happen. 
ANCX | Jul 06 2020

It was the pioneering spirit and vision of Geny Lopez that breathed life into ABS-CBN News. It was borne out of a vision to bring the country together, to be at a forefront of events that shaped the nation and to bring this information to as many Filipinos as possible.

Here is the second part of the story on the beginnings of ABS-CBN News and Radyo Patrol. The first installment can be found here.

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Even after the success of The World Tonight on CBN Channel 9, Geny still had another channel looking for news content—ABS Channel 3. He wanted to have strong news broadcasts on both ABS-3 and CBN-9 for a double-barreled threat to ABC. Geny solved the problem in a characteristic manner: he got Jun Jison to meet with Bong Lapira and Marita Manuel, anchor and news editor, respectively, of The Big News; and persuade them to transfer to ABS-CBN with a very good offer. Tony Tecson was also given a similar offer, but after some indecision he chose to stay with ABC-5.

In March 1967, Bong Lapira and Marita Manuel began Newsbreak at 9 P.M. on Channel 9. Marita Manuel, a pharmacy graduate who had wandered into writing, became the assistant news director and head of news operations. Newsbreak flourished and won several CAT awards. Henry Halasan and The World Tonight were moved to Channel 3 and 10 P.M. From 1967 to 1969, Bong and Henry were the twin faces of ABS-CBN News. In 1968, Newsbreak won the CAT award for best news show, breaking the four-year winning streak of The Big News.

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For its part, ABC replaced Bong Lapira with Jose Mari Velez on The Big News. Velez also turned out to be a credible and popular news anchor, and battle was joined once again between the two networks.

In May 1967, ABS-CBN News scored a scoop by covering the Lapiang Malaya massacre. On May 21, 1967, the Lapiang Malaya cult members, led by Valentin de los Santos charged a PC unit on Taft Avenue with bolos; 33 of them died, 47 were wounded. The attack was covered by ABS-CBN cameraman Bert Salonga and reporter Philip Pigao. Jake Lopez arrived at the scene with Vero Perfecto and gave the first live radio report via the phone.

ABS-CBN News made it a policy to continue hiring young talent. In 1967, Bong Lapira was only 27, Marita only 26. To assist Marita at the news desk, ABS-CBN hired Jorge Arago (later an award-winning screenwriter for Ishmael Bernal), who was only 25. Jorge was joined by a former Chronicle writer with a journalism MA from Columbia, Sylvia Mayuga, then only 24. Marita, Jorge Arago and Sylvia formed a topnotch troika on the news desk, writing and editing stories and continually thinking of new angles to cover the news. The ABS-CBN News crew was young, Sylvia conceded, but she said: “We were the best!”

During the first broadcast by ABS-CBN on February 24, 1986, host Ninez Cacho Olivares, Orly Punzalan, Bong Lapira, Soc Rodrigo and Fr. Efren Dati discuss the day’s momentous events.

By 1967, the news crew had grown over tenfold since 1961, and despite all the talent in it, Geny felt it needed an experienced hand to take over from Ric Tierro. In April 1968, he hired the most respected news director ABS-CBN ever had—Rod Reyes. Rod, then only 33, was the 1961 TOYM awardee for journalism who had shot to fame for his Times exposé on dope dens and heroin syndicates in Manila. Since then he had gone on to become a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, news editor of the Manila Times, and second-in-command to Times executive editor Joe Luna Castro. Jake Lopez recommended Rod to Geny; they had met eight years earlier when Rod was covering the Antonietta Cabahug rape case, which Jake was handling as a private prosecutor. Geny and Rod met at his office at the ABS studios in Roxas Boulevard.

Rod wrote:"[Geny] offered to double my salary. But more than the salary Geny impressed me with his plans for ABS-CBN and his idea that a newsman should head the news department. I found that Geny and l were on the same wavelength about doing some pioneering efforts in electronic broadcast journalism in the Philippines... I shook hands with Geny and accepted his offer. The challenge of television was simply too enticing.”

Rod came into the network with many plans for ABS-CBN News. At his first meeting, he told Geny and his executives: "We must bring those cameras out of the studios. And I am not just referring to the newsreel cameras.” He wanted a lot of documentaries, investigative reports, and live on-the-spot coverage, in addition to the regular news coverage. Geny backed Rod all the way.

Rod also became a key figure for ABS-CBN News because he set a new tone for news professionalism and dedication. Rod liked to say: "We are all here because we are involved in a news pioneering effort." Sylvia said: “Rod was very indulgent. He just set us free to do what he wanted. So we really worked hard. Rod was actually very developmental. He wanted to develop us, so he gave us a lot of leeway. We loved Rod."

It was not all leeway, however. Rod Reyes was also strict about the ethics of the profession. Orly Mercado recalled: "Once, after ABS-CBN had made a mistake in a story broadcast over the radio, Rod Reyes issued a memorandum to all newswriters and reporters in radio and television. I never forgot the last line. It became my credo: 'Being first is not so important as being right.'"

Rod succeeded in sending the TV cameras out of the studios. In April 1968, ABS-CBN aired live TV coverage of the Senate hearings on the Jabidah massacre on Corregidor; this was the first time a Congress hearing had been aired. The Jabidah project, an AFP effort to train Tausug commandos in an attempt to destabilize Sabah, was headed by Maj. Eddie Martelino, the former operations manager of Alto Broadcasting. The recruits had reportedly mutinied and been gunned down by their own officers. The young Ninoy Aquino used the hearings as an opportunity to lambast the Marcos administration. Rod also sent Marita Manuel and Carding Ligon to Paris in June 1968 to cover the peace talks between North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho and the US's Averell Harriman.

“That was how the Lopezes did things; they gave you whatever you needed. So we had a scoop that night.”

On August 2, 1968, a Friday, the big breaking news story that Rod Reyes had been preparing ABS-CBN for finally came. An Intensity 7 earthquake struck Manila at 4:20 A.M. The 40 seconds of upheaval caused extensive damage all over the city and became the worst trembler to hit Manila since 1937. The worst hit was the Ruby Towers, a six-story building on Doroteo Jose and T. Alonso, in Manila. The building split in two and the two sides caved in on each other. Over 600 people were trapped in the rubble, but they could not be rescued in the dark. Screaming from under the rubble went on for hours. This quake was the kind of late-breaking news story that ABS-CBN would have been powerless to handle only three years earlier. How they handled it now would be a testament to how far they had come.

Rod Reyes in 1968, the newly hired head of ABS-CBN News.

Since Johnny Midnight of dzAQ had the graveyard shift, he was onboard when panicked calls swamped the switchboard. Johnny took the calls, tried to calm the people, and aired the reports coming in. On the TV side, Orly Mercado sent a film crew to the Ruby Towers as soon as he got the word. Bert Salonga said: "Orly Mercado called: 'Bert, rush to the Ruby Towers.' So [driver] Pablito Manalo and I went over. There were still some aftershocks. When we got there, there were so many people, many Chinese, trapped under the rubble. One Chinese had to have his foot amputated in order to free him front the wreckage. It was dark, but we had lights and batteries, so we could shoot. That was how the Lopezes did things; they gave you whatever you needed. So we had a scoop that night. No other TV network was there. Channel 5 got there only after we had already gone on the air."

When daybreak came, de Leon took over radio anchor duties from Johnny Midnight and with his roving reporter, Rey Pascua, aired reports of the situation in Manila. The first few films taken by Bert Salonga at the Ruby Towers were hurriedly developed and aired on ABS-CBN, and up-to-the minute films continued to be shot by ABS-CBN cameramen Vic Garcia, Mario Co and Jarnes Arce. Other reporters on the scene were Hal Bowie, Orly Mercado, Tony Seva, Danny Hernandez and Elmo Valera. The reporters would take turns going back to the studio to annotate on the fly the newsreel films being aired—there was no time to write scripts.

Rod Reyes said: "By mid-morning, everyone was glued to their TV sets, eagerly following the developments on the rescue efforts. The number of dead had gone up to 143. I called up Jake Lopez in his house, asking his permission to send the outside broadcast (OB) van to the Ruby Towers site. Jake hesitated for a while and then towards noon gave the order for an OB van to go to the site. ABS-CBN engineers then set up the microwave facilities. By late afternoon, we were on the air from the Ruby Towers site."

Sending the OB van was a costly move for ABS-CBN, but it worked. ABS-CBN's joint TV-radio coverage live from the scene, the first of its kind, made the Ruby Towers disaster a national drama. A nation watched and listened for five days as the count rose to 312 dead and 393 survivors. The drama climaxed on August 7 with the unexpected rescue of two final survivors. When everyone had given up hope, Suzie Wong Chan, 9, and her cousin, Shirley Chan, 12, were brought out alive from the rubble. ABS-CBN newsreel cameramen were there to record the moment.

Thus, ABS-CBN demonstrated a new capability in covering breaking news. For its extensive and groundbreaking coverage, ABS-CBN News received a citation from President Marcos. With that award, ABS-CBN News had truly arrived.

And just as it did, a season of upheavals and changes at ABS-CBN News came. In late 1968, the news group moved into its brand-new home in the basement of the Broadcast Center, across from Master Control. Rod Reyes himself did not stay much longer. In March 1969, Geny asked him to take over as editor-in-chief of the troubled Chronicle. Rod managed to increase circulation and improve quality, and the paper was soon back on the road to health. In the years to come, Rod would go on to become GM of GMA-7, press secretary to two presidents, and back at ABS-CBN as news director.

You have to do the newscast, then the postmortem, then you got dinner at about 11. And the pressure was so great.

Rod's post was assigned to former Times editor Manny Benitez. But Manny lasted less than 12 months as news director; he got into conflicts with many newsroom veterans, who believed he was too hidebound by his print background to function effectively in an audio-visual medium. Sylvia Mayuga, among others, said they missed Rod and his management style.

Bong Lapira also left ABS-CBN in 1969 amid a controversy about a news program that he produced on the 1969 elections called Encounter. The show funded by Potenciano "Nanoy" Ilusorio, was aired on ABC-5. Some top ABS-CBN managers saw it as disloyalty and had him fired. Bong filed a P5-million suit for wrongful dismissal, pointing out that his contract with ABS-CBN did not bar him from appearing on other networks. In the end, Encounter won a 1969 CAT award and Bong desisted from pursuing his lawsuit. Bong moved on to MBC, where he headed the integrated news division.

Marisa Manuel left ABS-CBN and went to work for Malacañang. Jorge Arago left to write scripts for such classic Ishmael Bernal films as Nunal sa Tubig. Sylvia Mayuga had been fired in early 1969 for a satirical piece in the Free Press about the Broadcast Center inauguration. Other talents came forward to fill the gaps. Newsbreak was now anchored by Duds Rivera and Ernie Garcia, and produced by Sol Vanzi and Boo Chanco and later by Tony Seva.

Despite all the changes during 1968 and 1969, ABS-CBN News continued to expand its capability for handling breaking news. The network covered the funeral of Robert Kennedy in June 1968, the Mexico Olympics in October 1968, and the US presidential elections in November 1968. Henry Halasan, Hal Bowie and Bert Salonga went to Vietnam and got memorable footage of North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses trying to shoot down US B-52 bombers. Defense reporter Danny Hernandez and Bert Salonga also went to South Vietnam and got combat footage of the Vietcong in action against the US Army.

Then on July 20, 1969, ABS-CBN covered the Apollo 11 moon landing. Through ABS-CBN and the power of satellite broadcasting, the Filipino nation joined a worldwide audience of 600 million to watch a booted foot touch another world as Neil Armstrong spoke the famous words, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”

Geny made a point of having his newsmen learn from the best. Don Hewitt, creator of CBS's pioneering newsmagazine 60 Minutes and long-time executive in producer of Walter Cronkite’s Evening News, spent a month in Manila helping ABS-CBN design its moon landing coverage. The ABS-CBN reporters also learned some tricks of the trade from US news stars like Ted Koppel, then ABC's bureau chief in Hong Kong, who often used ABS-CBN's facilities to process, edit and send his Vietnam news footage to the US via satellite hookup.

To upgrade the technical level of his news coverage, Geny hired a top American news producer from ABC, Darryl Griffin, to conduct on-the job training for the News staff from 1969-70.

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The connection was Millie Logarta, who had become good friends with the head of ABC News, Elmer Lower, when they met in Tokyo during an international conference on satellite broadcasting. Lower was willing to send Griffin, one of his top men, to help Geny. For four months, Griffin trained the Newsroom staff in the use of the Chroma Key and other production techniques that improved the look of the news. Griffin held the training sessions both on-the-job and after sign-off. He also went around with news crews on assignments to critique their work.

In November 1969, Griffin's training paid off when ABS-CBN’s Halalan ‘69 coverage marked the first use of the Chroma Key in Philippine TV. Nowadays, of course, it is commonplace to project an image behind an anchor or a weatherman, but in 1969 it seemed almost magical; after all, the TV backdrops in ABS-CBN had only recently been just ratty old curtains. With the advent of Chroma Key, ABS-CBN cartoonist Ely Santiago designed icons that illustrated every news item. An ABS-CBN newscast was getting further and further away from the era when it was just Hal Bowie reading on the air with no visuals.

At around this time, Cady Carandang and other ABS-CBN engineers worked out a method for doing remote live broadcasts for special events within the metropolis. Previously, remote coverage had been constrained by the line-of-sight limits of microwave technology. No ABS-CBN van had an antenna high enough to broadcast from virtually anywhere. Here, the Lopez-Meralco connection came in handy. ABS-CBN teamed up its big OB vans with a Meralco cherry picker truck. Once the OB van reached the area to be covered, it would raise the cherry picker basket, put up an antenna, and send a microwave signal back to home base. With the basket, the van could easily catch the line of sight to the station. So ABS-CBN News could now do instant reports from the field. Microwave was very difficult, but Cady worked out the new technique, with a push from Jake Almeda Lopez who insisted that ABS-CBN had to be the leaders in live on-the-spot television. For ABS-CBN, the new method came just in time for big events like the First Quarter Storm and the Plaza Miranda bombing.

By 1969-79, a new set of journalists like Boo Chanco, Tony Seva, and Tony Lozano had taken over the reporting and producing chores from people like Sylvia Mayuga, Marita Manuel and Jorge Arago. Boo Chanco joined ABS-CBN News as a working student from UP in April 1969, at age 19. Now a columnist of the Philippine Star, Boo started as a foreign affairs beat reporter and soon became the producer of Newsbreak, initially working with Sol Vanzi. When Sol Vanzi left ABS-CBN in 1970, Boo became sole producer. He said: "That's where I got my ulcers. I didn't get to eat dinner until about 11 P.M. You have to do the newscast, then the postmortem, then you got dinner at about 11. And the pressure was so great."

“It became my credo: 'Being first is not so important as being right.”

He added: "We would be at our beats around 10 A.M., then back in the studio by 4 or 4:30 to do our stories for the Tagalog newscast. That's where we learned to dictate our stories on the fly—there was no time to write. You had to think on your feet. By the time I got home, I was dead. My mother would say: ‘I don't know what to do with you. You come home late, you go to bed, and you're dead to the world.’”

This new batch of young journalists was learning the TV medium by doing. And learning by doing, Boo pointed out, essentially meant learning by making mistakes. He recalled: "I remember one real big foul-up that I had. It was an election coverage. We were doing hourly updates. And [the anchor] Val Mallari was late. It was two minutes before air time and he wasn't there! So, I rushed from the newsroom, which was in the basement, up to the studio. When you run like that you really have to catch your breath. When I got on the air, for the first few seconds I was still catching my breath. On the air. Really stupid. I could have gotten fired for doing that."

Once, Boo tried to substitute for an absent editor; he tried to edit footage of a demonstration abroad. But he spliced the wrong end so the film ran backward. The people were running in reverse, away from the rally, instead of toward it. But despite these bloopers, the newsroom managers recognized that Boo was an up-and-coming talent. In late 1971, the network, in conjunction with the Philippine Press Institute, sent him to the University of Chicago on a grant to study journalism.

By 1970, Geny's expansion of ABS-CBN TV News had gone a great distance. He now had four daily news shows where not even one existed four years earlier. ABS Channel 3 had Balita Ngayon, a Tagalog newscast (hosted first by Ernie Angeles and then Ric Tierro, and produced by Diana Quintos) at 5 P.M. and The World Tonight (with Henry Halasan) at 10 P.M. CBN Channel 9 had Newsbreak at 9 P.M. with Duds Rivera and Ernie Garcia, and Apat na Sulok ng Daigdig at 6 P.M., anchored by Orly Mercado. Soon, ABS-CBN News would also have public-affairs shows like Soc Rodrigo's Kuro-Kuro, and Max Soliven’s Impact.

ABS-CBN’s very first marketing slogan back in 1953 had been: "From where it happens you watch it happen.” By 1969-70, ABS-CBN News was making that slogan come true in a way that not even Jim Lindberg would have thought possible.

 

Excerpt from Kapitan, authored by Raul Rodrigo, published in 2006.