Esguerra on the importance of preparation: "The viewing public is shortchanged if journalists come unprepared and simply read what’s in the prompter."
Culture Spotlight

ANC’s Christian Esguerra on being an anchor: “You remain relevant by doing your homework”

The “Matters of Fact” host and this year’s Marshall McLuhan fellow says he’s not a fan of guests asking for questions in advance. “That, to me, turns the program into a mere ‘show.’” 
Jerome Gomez | Oct 22 2020

It’s hard to find serious people on TV at 7 in the morning, so we’re glad to see Christian Esguerra among the rare few. He’s been in charge of the anchor’s job at ANC’s “Matters of Fact” since it premiered  as its own show during the pandemic (it used to be a staple political talk segment of the morning newscast “Early Edition”), and the guy gives it the kind of razor-sharp focus it deserves. 

Christian was a multi-media correspondent for ABS-CBN before taking on the talk program. And before joining network news, he was a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer where he trained under the great Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. 

He was recently named the 2020 Marshall McLuhan fellow by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Canadian embassy in the Philippines. He was cited for his “passion for the craft,” his “proficient mastery to discover and explain the facts" restricting "the space for disinformation to thrive.” 

With his co-anchors in Early Edition on ANC.

These qualities are pretty much what the 41-year-old exhibits daily behind the anchor’s desk—and this makes “Matters of Fact” quite the rewarding day-starter. Christian speaks to experts and public officials about the issues of the hour and asks the questions that need to be be asked. Recently, he’s taken to asking those who voted against the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise if they were proud of their vote—and we have to admit watching the congressmen pause and do a bit of conscience-check in front of the camera, even only for a few seconds, has become one of this pandemic’s great pleasures. 

We caught up with Christian recently to ask him about his pre-on-cam rituals, his memorable coverages, and how one remains relevant behind the anchor’s desk. 

 

ANCX: What time does your day start? 

CHRISTIAN ESGUERRA: I usually get up at 4:45 a.m. That gives me more than enough time to prepare for the 7 a.m. program.

ANCX: Would you mind walking us thru your rituals before going live in “Matters of Fact”?

CE: The ritual actually begins the night before when I prepare for the following day’s interviews. I’m more concerned about the substance of the discussions so I make it a point to get ready even for topics I already have a good deal of knowledge of. The viewing public is shortchanged if journalists come unprepared and simply read what’s in the prompter. And I’ve always despised what I call “parrot” journalism. You see that when anchors simply repeat what the interviewees say, with no value added. And that’s usually the kind of “interviews” many politicians and spin doctors love because they get to control the narrative, thanks to clueless interviewers.

ANCX: What are the challenges of hosting the show? 

CE: One challenge is digging into issues and, on certain occasions, confronting public officials over what they did or failed to do, given the limited airtime. So questions must be organized in your head but you also have to be ready to adjust during the actual interview. You can only do that if you have enough stock knowledge. 

Another challenge is making sure audiences understand the issues. ANC’s viewers are basically from classes A and B, including government officials and policymakers. But since the program is also available on social media, practically anyone with internet connection can watch. So we really need to do a better job at explaining and dissecting issues.

With Tina Monzon-Palma and colleagues at a taping for a World Tonight New Year's special.

ANCX: Name three of your most memorable interviews in the show so far?

CE: One thing that comes to mind was my interview with deputy commissioner Edgardo Cabarios last May, soon after the National Telecommunications Commission ordered the shutdown of ABS-CBN, on paper, because of an expired broadcast franchise. The interview tackled how much of the NTC’s cease-and-desist order had been influenced by Duterte through the solicitor general. It also debunked the narrative—the spin—being floated by then Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his group that the NTC should be blamed for the shutdown because it ignored congressmen’s appeal to keep the network on free TV and radio in the meantime.

In fact, despite the excuses, the House under Cayetano dragged its feet on the franchise application and the reason was made even more obvious by President Duterte’s statement afterward. 

Another memorable interview was with journalist Sheila Coronel last September 30. That episode, to me, clearly identified the grave challenge the Philippine press was facing under the current political environment. 

More recently, I had the chance to interview Rep. Sharon Garin, one of the more powerful members of the House of Representatives. Cayetano removed her as chairman of the economic affairs committee because she was supporting Lord Allan Velasco for speaker. She felt bad about that. But her removal was par for the course given their kind of congressional power play that ultimately redounds to their personal benefit, not necessarily that of their constituents.

The interview also gave me an opportunity to ask her whether she would have voted in favor of ABS-CBN’s franchise had the House leadership apparently not dictated the vote. The initial reluctance in her response was telling. 

With MILF chair Murad Ebrahim, now interim minister of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.

ANCX: How do you get the courage to ask the tough questions so early in the morning?

CE: If people find my questions courageous, that’s probably a good thing. But I know of many colleagues in print who ask much tougher questions. It’s something I also learned in my years as a reporter with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, having been exposed to a lot of politicans’ BS while covering Malacañang, Senate, and the House of Representatives.

It also helps if you don’t accept favors or worse, bribe, from them because you can focus on what needs to be asked. Journalism can get easily compromised when the line between journalists and politicans is blurred. That’s why journalists should be careful whenever politicians treat them as “friends.” I bet they need something from you, perhaps not now, but definitely in the future.

ANCX: You were a field reporter before “Matters of Fact”—what do you miss about being out in the field? 

CE: I miss being in the thick of the story. News anchoring has its purpose, but nothing beats being out there in the field and being in the thick of the action.

ANCX: What do you consider your most memorable story when you were still in the field?

CE: I won’t point to a single story but I’ll probably cite my coverage of the Bangsamoro Organic law and the subsequent plebiscite, which helped explain the bigger issues surrounding the creation of a new Bangsamoro region. And then there were the elections of 2016 and 2019. I think the coverage helped the public scrutinize the competence and track record of those seeking elective positions.

Covering President Noynoy Aquino's visit to Japan in 2011.

ANCX: You were working in print before joining ABS-CBN—what was the shift like for you?

CE: I spent the first 15 years of my career with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I joined the paper straight from graduation from UST in 2000. That was the time when fresh grads went through the so-called hierarchy of news beats and didn’t go straight to the big ones such as Malacañang or Congress. 

I began as a police reporter and covered local politics and local courts. I also covered fires, drug laboratory raids, accidents, typhoons, and rallies. Eventually, I got assigned to the political beats and some of the local politicians I used to cover as a young reporter eventually became reliable sources later on.

At that time, I would say the pace of news was much slower because there was no social media yet. You could still afford to wait for the 3 p.m. deadline for the following day’s edition. 

I experienced the transition to multiple platforms and I know that many of my colleagues were resistant at first. But it’s something we knew we couldn’t avoid anymore, the need to break the news across platforms, unless we were willing to be left behind and essentially become irrelevant.

ANCX: Who were your mentors, Christian?

CE: I began my career with the Inquirer so my training early on happened in the newsroom under the late Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. There I got to also work under Gerry Lirio, whose tenacity for scoops was reflected in his work as assistant metro editor and later, city editor. We also had good editors then, the likes of Rosario Garcellano and Ruben Alabastro, to improve our copies.

At ANC, I enjoy working with Nadia Trinidad, whose journalistic compass remains clear despite her years in journalism. I think we have a similar way of seeing what’s good—and what’s mostly wrong—with our profession. 

ANCX: How does a journalist keep relevant behind the anchor’s desk?

CE: Well, it’s important, first and foremost, to have a clear idea of what news anchoring is all about. It’s journalism, not plain news reading or trying to look good or smart on TV. That’s easy to pull off for a lot of people in a medium that’s prone to attach high value to appearances and inanities. As they say,  “Fake it till you make it.” But eventually they will get exposed.

You remain relevant by doing your homework and legwork. You meet with news sources to better understand issues. You meet with real subject matter experts. Reading helps a lot, too. 

I’m not a fan of scripted interviews, the type where interviewees request for questions in advance and interviewers oblige for the sake of a smooth flow. Or worse, so no one would look stupid on the air. That, to me, turns the program into a mere “show.” That’s sickening and superficial. I prefer honest questions and answers because viewers deserve that.

ANCX: What does the McLuhan fellowship mean to you?

CE: It’s a humbling recognition given the crop of finalists they had this year. The rest were equally deserving. I take the fellowship as an opportunity to speak before a wider audience about the struggles journalists in the Philippines are facing today, and why we have no other choice but to fight on.

With COMELEC chair Sixto Brillantes Jr.

ANCX: You said in the McLuhan awarding that journalists today need to have more courage—“because a lot of us in the media are actually meek.” I wonder about this too. Why are many of us meek? 

CE: It was veteran journalist Vergel Santos who had been using that term more frequently to describe the press under Duterte. I often used “timid” but during the forum, I felt “meek” was more appropriate and searing. That many reporters in the Philippines are meek probably has to do, first, with culture. Filipinos are generally deferential and it’s not necessarily a good trait when you’re a journalist dealing with government abuse and shenanigans.

The meekness or timidity of many of our colleagues under Duterte is driven by fear, especially with what he did to the Inquirer, Rappler, and ABS-CBN. The chilling effect is real. I know of reporters very much willing to fight but they also have had to deal with news managers or company owners, who, for one reason or another, prefer to just ride it out and not put up a fight.

Tyrants are predictable. You know what they’ll do and it’s often beyond our control. But we do have control over how he would respond despite the pressures. Do we cower in fear or do we resist? There’s always a choice.

ANCX: What books are you reading now? 

CE: “The Vatican Prophesies” by John Thavis and I’m also revisiting China Miéville’s “October,” which I put on the shelf last year. It’s about the Russian revolution. 

ANCX: What does the rest of your day look like, after “Matters of Fact”? 

Now that I’m no longer an ABS-CBN news correspondent (as of October 1), I get to focus more on the program. I still teach political reporting at UST. I also launched a new podcast, “Facts First with Christian Esguerra,” and an eponymous YouTube channel.

ANCX: You asked Cong. Eric Yap recently if he was proud of his vote against the ABS-CBN franchise renewal. As a reply, he was insisting the franchise denial made you a better person. Did it make you a better person, Christian?

CE: I thought he just ran out of things to say so he resorted to some aimless preaching during the interview. Did the shutdown of ABS-CBN make me a “better person”? I don’t know. He should ask himself this—Did his servility to the president make him a better person or a hopeless sycophant?

 

[Photos courtesy of Christian Esguerra]