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The Making of an Activist-Journalist: the Rebel Reporting of John Ross

John Ross was an unforgettable character, with the forgiveable emphasis upon “character.” My sole encounter with John was so brief that I could not possibly have taken in all the things he did and all the things that he was.

Cristalyne Bell, multi-media journalist extraordinaire, says something surprisingly similar in half of the two-part preface to Rebel Reporting: John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists. Her only encounter was to listen to lectures by Ross, in a journalism class, and drink in the wisdom. With sartorially downscale, gap-toothed casualness and quite a bit of humor, Ross, who wrote regularly for CounterPunch, tore into the supposed objectivity of the news gathering-and-reporting that has become the standard, liberal (MSNBC) and reactionary (Fox) alike. Norm Stockwell, Bell’s counterpart and himself the heart and soul of Pacifica station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin—although too modest to admit it—offers a bit more because Madison was on John’s itinerary. Norm plugged him into local gigs around town and brought him on the air numerous times over a twenty year stretch.

Robert McChesney, easily one of the most distinguished media scholar/critics in the US, points to Ross’ real credentials, not the awards hung on office walls by network bigshots. McChesney goes on to give us a concise overview of what happened to American journalism as the media giants took over the press, about a century ago, trimming its diversity by monopolizing both the outlets and the advertising sources of revenue. The nineteenth century press, with all its limitations, had been intensely local, utterly dependent on lower class as well as middle class readers to supply the real revenue by buying the paper daily. Journalists, prominently including union members, and more than a few lively local newspaper owners fought back, tried to get back to that sense of independence, and within a certain scale, managed to hold on.

Then came the next stages of consolidation, one by one. At the current end of the process, newspaper staffs barely exist, use the police blotter for most of the so-called local news, now and then getting an investigative assignment that might get them a rebelreportingPulitzer or at least a promotion. It’s harder by the year to find middle aged newspaper men and women who are not looking forward to retirement, and fearing that, like the Chicago Tribune employees swindled out of their pensions by Sam Zell, the pensions are not going to be there.

The journalistic heroes and heroines, including Glenn Greenwald, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill and John Nichols among others, operate in a wide array of venues, print to radio, television and web, wherever they can find space. They are often alone, it seems, in opening up debates that do not occur in the mainstream, obsessed as it is with fast-breaking trivia and assuming, as it does, a conformity of views about American goodness and the terror threatened or actually imposed upon the virtuous by the barbarian outsiders.

This four part intro is, admittedly, a hard act to follow. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now makes it a five part introduction recalling Ross’ coverage of the Zapatistas in particular (“Go where the story is,” his motto) and associated, more often merely depressing, developments in Mexico over the scope of several decades, as peasants continued to lose ground and gain toxic wastes.

“Who is a rebel journalist?” That is the big question asked by John Ross. He heads back toward John Reed, by no means the first but in many ways the exemplar of radical journalists, because Reed headed to Mexico for the revolution (like his latter-day counterpart) and then…after a bit, on to Russia, where John Ross would surely have gone if another revolution, not counter-revolution, had been in the making. Ross moves on to I.F. Stone, the courageous publisher of I.F. Stone’s Weekly. And then on to Joe Hill, the famed Wobbly songster who was not quite a journalist, although his writings appeared in the Industrial Worker. Hill chose lyrics to tell the story, but the story was his focus.

Ross quotes poems, sometimes his own poems, amidst urgings to find the story, act on the story and bring the story back home. It sounds simple. Often it is dangerous, but always adventurous, if only in the sense that those in power simply do not want these stories to be told, especially not in ways as radical as the content is potentially explosive.

Ross tells his audience about globalization, as he approaches the issue from more than a half-dozen angles. He finds greed, he finds suffering, and he finds (in the famed 1999 Seattle “Teamsters and Turtles” demonstrations) potential redemption. He also finds hope, and tells these potential writers how they can hope to make the insights useful enough to change some history. Later on, by the last lecture, he adds that “rebel reporters are travel writers,” and that seems to me a deep insight. He adds, “We have to be cartographers,” because the locations that are remapped need to be remapped almost constantly. Globalization changes landscapes with frightening speed, and almost never in a good way.

Above all, he asks for courage, and points to the fate of Brad Will as a vision of faith and a warning. Will covered the Oaxacan uprisings and was murdered for it, with American diplomats happy enough to help the Mexican authorities cover up the crime. The man who filmed his own murder has, at least, left behind the evidence. The de-nationalization of PEMEX oil (FDR accepted the nationalization, at the height of the New Deal, even while corporate leaders and some politicians called for an invasion), so badly desired by US investors, sealed the fate of the investigation. One more journalist did, and so what?

The book is completed artistically by the artwork of Lester Dore. A namesake to the great printmaker, this Dore hangs his hat in Madison but notably works out of Mexican motifs, especially those of Posada, the artist of a century ago famed for his laughing skeletons. It’s a suitable, final touch.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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