A Brief Defense of Atom Araullo, Journalist

You decide if it's "schlock" or not.
IMAGE ABS-CBN News; Cinema Artists Philippines

The feud between Citizen Jake director Mike De Leon and his lead actor, Atom Araullo has come to a head.

In case you missed it: Last week, just days before the film's nationwide theatrical release, De Leon called Araullo out on his convictions, his work as a journalist, and to some extent, his acting. Araullo played it cool for a few days before issuing a calm and measured response earlier today. De Leon then hit back with more specific anecdotes, ultimately calling Araullo a narcissist. It's been brutal, and ultimately, it feels like no one really wins.

One of the prevailing aspects of the volley—and to us, a totally unnecessary thing to bring up—was Araullo's career as a journalist. It was always clear that Araullo landed the starring role partly because he is a journalist (and not an actor), but the director eventually expressed disappointment with his brand of journalism.

In the Facebook post that started this whole mess, De Leon said, “Atom’s journalism was not exactly the kind of journalism I had in mind. It’s not the gritty kind but more of the celebrity-centered schlock that sometimes verges on entertainment, even showbiz [...] Perhaps the journalist was really a closet movie star.”

Araullo responded to this specific side of the issue by explaining that it was De Leon who chose him, and that he only ever let his journalism speak for itself. "I have never made any claims about the quality of my output or my stature in the media industry. To do so would be futile and obscene. I just aim to do my best like everyone else, always acknowledging that one continues to learn and improve everyday. I’ll leave it to the public to appraise the value of my work, accumulated over a decade of being a journalist."


Then, in the most recent installement of this saga, De Leon brought up Araullo's profile by FHM Philippines ("Atom Araullo is Ready to Be This Generation's Greatest Storyteller"), and continued to deride Araullo's journalism. "E wala ka pa namang real accomplishments except being the famous boy in the rain who braved the wrath of Yolanda, an unrelatable documentary on climate change shot in Scandinavia, and of course, Umagang Kay Ganda."

De Leon then went for the jugular: "Accept that you are a celebrity and don't use the noble profession of journalism to hide your inadequacies as a human being."

The director is certainly entitled to his own views, and his own appraisal of his lead actor's journalism, but we call foul on that last one. Yes, there are many great "gritty" journalists to whom Atom Araullo cannot be compared, but that doesn't mean his accomplishments aren't real, or that his projects aren't noble, even if in a smaller or less controversial way.

Perhaps De Leon is simply judging Araullo's journalism by the standards of his Citizen Jake character, Jake Herrera, a "serious" investigative journalist whose beat is in politics. But it seems unfair to levy those expectations on Araullo, who if anything, seems to embrace the glossiness of his place in the media landscape. And while Araullo's body of work may not consist of Pulitzer-winning, world-changing sorts of stories, we think it's fair to say that he's done enough to call himself a journalist. Hell, worse people have proclaimed themselves journalists and gotten away with it. And as Araulo himself wrote, he leaves it to the public to appraise the value his work.

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So perhaps, as the public, we should be reminded of Araullo's journalistic endeavors so that we may appraise it ourselves. For your consideration, some of his works are up on YouTube:


There's his full-length 2017 documentary, Philippine Seas:


Some episodes of I-Witness, including one about traditional healers in Basilan:


And one about Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh:


And a recent one about female circumcision in Yakan culture:


Of course, among the ones mentioned by De Leon himself, there's the iconic Yolanda clip:


And Warmer, a climate change documentary that Araullo shot in Norway:


As well as the controversial Baby Bakwit, a McDonald's advertisement that was deemed by some as a commercial exploitation of the plight of evacuees:


There are also the few works from FYT, a passion project that he started with Voltaire Tupaz, Zak Yuson, and Rupert Ambil earlier this year:


And his work as an advocate of the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR):


Plus a clip of him talking about journalism as a profession:


Of course, these are just some parts of his work, and there is a large and more commercial aspect that can't be ignored. Take for example this "Friendzone" episode of Adulting With Atom Araullo. We don't think that even he would deny that this is a part of his career. Yes, he is a celebrity, a media personality—but that shouldn't mean that he can't also be taken seriously as a journalist in his own capacity. Araullo still manages to tell significant and meaningful stories, even if they aren't necessarily about exposing corruption in the government or overthrowing people in power. De Leon has a point: journalists are expected to rise to the higher calling of speaking truth to power. But perhaps—and this is especially true today—it's enough for a journalist to speak truth.

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