Meeting John Ross

In the February issue of The Progressive, Bill Lueders has written John Ross’s obituary and summed up his life as an “anti-war correspondent”.  Imagine the irony of Ross’s life—part John Reed, part I.F. Stone, part Studs Terkel—a deeply moral man who never made enough money reporting about what he saw to take proper care of his teeth.

Being a rebel reporter doesn’t come with health insurance, retirement benefits, stock options, or even a family life, something that animates most of us no matter what profession we choose.

Who John Ross really reminds me of is Joe Hill.  He was a mythic figure, noble, passionate, articulate, and tragic because he was someone who couldn’t get out of his own way.  “Ross is in no more danger of selling out than he is of finding a buyer,” quipped John Leonard, an editor at Harper’s. So the liberal intelligentsia knew him. They just wouldn’t employ him.

I met John Ross through another Latin American hand, Bill Gasperini, who reported for In These Times and the Christian Science Monitor after the Somosa dictatorship fell in Nicaragua in 1979.

Bill spent years writing, doing radio, and taking pictures, and like Ross, did so risking his life for peanuts. When he loaned 300 of his slides to a good New York liberal outfit, the Center for Humanities, they lost them and Gasperini sued.  He won but the Center appealed because the $450,000 award was too large.  They wanted Bill to accept $100,000 since he’d only made about
rebelreporting$10,000 during all that time reporting with John Ross in Central America.  So much for New York liberals who have never been shot at, which I know Bill has been, because I was there when we took fire from Contras on the Miskito Coast in 1986. I got $500 from Visnews for the story we filed. I felt bad because I don’t think I paid Bill much, if anything. The whole episode was a financial disaster. I got audited by the IRS for three years in a row. It was during the Reagan-Bush years.

I think Bill is working for Voice of America in Moscow now. I am sure he has had to give up some of his youthful idealism in order to collect a decent paycheck so he can live the life he chose as a foreign correspondent. I completely understand his choice to go for an outfit that backs him up. Alex Cockburn’s brother, Patrick, is so lucky to work for a good newspaper like The Independent in Great Britain. We don’ t have anything like it in the US.

I wish Gasperini well and I am so glad he introduced me to John Ross. When I met Ross in 1994, he was withered, desiccated, and on fire with an urgency to tell his stories, so you simply shut up and listened to what he had to say. I was surprised to learn from Lueders that Ross had actually sat down and written ten books. I’d be surprised if he had that many clips from the publications who published him. I’ve written for the ones Lueders mentioned Ross wrote for and they pay miserably.

The price of independence and passion in reporting is poverty—unless, of course, you happen to be funded by some rightwing outfit like the Scaife, Coors, Olin, or Bradley foundations. Sadly, The Progressive and even The Nation with all its donors don’t provide a decent wage to people like John Ross who died from neglect by lefty publications as well as the MSM.  I know magazines like In These Times and The Progressive don’t have the do-ray-me, as Woodie Guthrie sang, but if they want more John Rosses in the world, they need to figure out how to monetize their work.  Until they do, there won’t be another John Ross for a long long time. He was one in a million.