Every now and then, it’s good to reflect on the people who had a profound impact on your life. Last July, Town & Country’s Editor-in-Chief Yvette Fernandez asked me to write a piece about Cheche Lazaro, who recently closed down the company that became a symbol of independent journalism in the Philippines, Probe Productions. This was published in Town & Country’s September issue under the title: “The Cheche Lazaro I Know.”
This shows the power of a dream to push a tipping point and change lives – in this particular case, the life it changed was mine!
The energy in the room was electrifying. People were hugging, kissing, screaming. Network rivalry collapsed as journalists from competing stations created a safe zone under the sanctuary of Probe.
I raised my glass to the woman who cajoled us, pushed us, nurtured us – the boss who never asked us to do anything she didn’t do first, whose humility put us all to shame.
“To Cheche Lazaro,” I said, “for showing us we have the power to make our dreams come true.”
I looked at the smiling faces, felt the closeness of the group – Probers coming together to celebrate a common experience that bound us across many “generations” and programs. Every person in this room – in some way – was touched and became part of the vision of this petite woman with the distinctive widow’s peak.
Let me tell you how she changed my life. Cheche, then head of ABS-CBN’s Public Affairs, recruited me in 1987. I was at the tail end of a one-year Fulbright, my private search for “roots” – the first time I had returned to the Philippines since my family left thirteen years earlier. I had deferred admission to law school and had several job offers in NY. I was ready to go back. That all changed when ABS-CBN decided to cancel Probe and turn it into a monthly special. That was when Cheche decided to resign from ABS-CBN and start her own company.
A network executive who wanted me to stay with the station said, “Bakit ka sasama kay Cheche? Probe can’t work. That’s not what Filipinos want. Mabuti pa, pag-tanggahin niyo na lang si Cheche.” (tr) “Why will you join Cheche? Probe can’t work. That’s not what Filipinos want. It’s better to just make Cheche wear a bikini.”
Strangely, that only made me want to help her more. Cheche believed it was time for an investigative news magazine program, and she infected me with that zeal. We wanted to prove that Filipinos deserve better programs, and there was no better time to try than after people power.
We had one problem: I had expensive student loans to pay, and Probe couldn’t afford a salary that would allow me to rent an apartment. Cheche offered a solution: in addition to working for her, she wanted me to live with her family. It was an unorthodox solution, particularly given my American upbringing. I didn’t know her well at that point, but I didn’t hesitate. I accepted.
My parents in the US thought I had gone crazy: they said I was throwing my Princeton education away. It was a life-changing decision – one of the best I ever made. Much of what I am today as a journalist began with Probe, where I set up systems and developed our program template – writer, director, producer, video editor rolled into one. Cheche’s faith in me gave me courage to create, to improvise, to set up my ideal. I know she did the same for others after me, and because I worked for her, I hope to do the same for those who work for me today. That time proved to me that a small group of people can change the world.
When we left ABS-CBN, we moved our office into Cheche’s house. I was tasked to buy our first camera and our editing deck. When I returned from New York with our equipment, Cheche and her husband, Del Lazaro, were at the airport to pick me up. We turned their son’s room into our editing suite – on one side were the decks, on the other, my bed. On the average, I would be up editing at least three nights of the week.
Probe gave the most rigorous training in the broadcasting industry. That’s what happens when you let crazy dreamers set up the system. Through succeeding generations of Probers, it would be normal for a producer to pull at least two all-nighters a week. We were the only company that trained our editorial staff in the technical aspects of video production – a very different approach from broadcast stations during that time. We hired no editors because our writers/producers did the actual video edits. It changes your writing. If you’re a Prober, you understand what I mean. You’ve been through it, and it made you better at your craft.
I lived with Cheche and her family for more than two years. When you do that, you really get to know people through the best and worst times. You see their darkest secrets, and hard as I looked, there were none! Although they were public figures, they lived private lives, shunning ostentatious behavior. Their whole family was incredibly generous to a stranger. I never felt different or alone.
I admired the life Del and Cheche modeled – Filipino values in their purest forms – delicadeza that showed professionalism and pride, utang na loob that never degenerated into patronage. Until today, when the tables are turned and I am now, as Cheche says, her boss, she takes the initiative by telling me to treat her like I treat everyone else I manage. She has never asked for special treatment. (If only everyone I manage is like that!)
That time in my life showed me it’s possible to live your ideals – to successfully bridge the gaps between the way you choose to live and the realities of our society. It’s a choice! Choose to be better. Cheche and Del taught me not to compromise.
Cheche taught me to embrace and love the Philippines – despite its imperfections. Like most Filipinos, Cheche’s life revolved around her family, but her heritage turned that love for family into love for her nation.
She saw her family live those values. Her grandfather, Gen. Vicente Lim, was the first Filipino graduate from West Point. She told me stories about how he led the last front against the Japanese and even after defeat, he refused to collaborate with the enemy, turning down the position of Chief of Staff of a puppet government. Instead, he pretended to have cancer and led an underground resistance until he was captured and later beheaded. It’s a story of conviction, courage and passionate belief in a people fighting for its freedom.
That love of country is a core value of Probe, and because we were young, we gave everything we had. We set no limits – stretching ourselves physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. That pushed us to accomplish goals we never thought we could. Cheche called us “the little train that could.”
Probe may be the only company to stand up to two broadcasting giants: its survival proved the ABS-CBN exec wrong because Filipinos were ready for serious in-depth news analysis; and in 2003, Probe rebelled against GMA7’s censorship of Bernadette Sembrano’s lifestyle check of Efraim Genuino and Pagcor. Publicly, GMA7 said Probe did sloppy work.
“That’s the biggest insult,” said Cheche. “We mind when someone tells us you aren’t being responsible. Or you are not doing thorough research. Because we knew we did. So that was a major affront.”
Cheche stood her ground. GMA7 cancelled Probe’s contract, and Probe moved on to TV5. Today, all three broadcasting networks have been “infiltrated” by Probers both on-camera and behind the scenes.
Even in conflict, Cheche remained gracious, and at times, it cost the company. She refused to use gutter tactics. When the fighting dropped to those levels, Cheche would stand by her principles and – without giving up – leave the fight.
Today, I look back at how Cheche managed us, looking for guidance so I can do my job better. Such passion also meant there were great conflicts within Probe, and yet at that July 4th reunion, those conflicts faded. Everyone who could came to say good-bye.
“I was overwhelmed. You remember the good times. You remember the bad times,” Cheche said. “They’ve all moved on and become successful. So whatever petty disagreements there were at that time that we were together have dissolved into nothingness. We pushed aside the complaints – they were underpaid; they were under-recognized; you remember them. I guess because each one has been successful, they are now more gracious in their own ways.”
On that July 4th reunion, we Probers felt sadness and joy. I saw our past living in our present, and I know Probe will still help determine our future.
Onstage, I saw the faces of our team looking at her – Cheche’s children, all of us – together one last time. We had grown up and scattered in different directions. Some are working for international networks. Others are known faces in Philippine broadcasting. Still others are now decision-makers in the networks which at some point shunned the independence of Probe.
I raised my glass one last time: “Cheche’s the only person who could’ve gotten us to set aside rivalries and come together. From Probe we supply the best we have to offer to all of Philippine broadcasting.”
Like some of our most poignant episodes, this story about Cheche Lazaro’s Probe follows the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Probe was born in the crucible of People Power. It thrived on the drama of Philippine politics, of a nation that never found its soul. It ends as another Aquino comes into power, a fitting stage for its rebirth.
For me, that decision to join Cheche in 1987 changed my life: I never left Asia, never moved back to the United States. I fell in love with journalism, leading to nearly two decades with an international network as an Asia specialist. When it was time to choose my home, one of my first calls was to Cheche, who helped me decide to come back to the Philippines. Today, I am a Filipino.
I know I am not alone because I’m certain everyone in the room that night has a similar story to tell. This is the power of Cheche’s dream.
(Last three pictures courtesy Facebook posts of Cheche Lazaro and Howie Severino – Thank you!)