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Rebel Reporter: Late Poet and Activist John Ross Remembered in New Book on Independent Journalism

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This week Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. It’s currently legal only in certain states and Mexico City. The announcement came as he faces renewed pressure over the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in September 2014. Multiple reports have pointed to a role by federal authorities and cast doubt on Mexico’s claim the students were killed by a drug gang. Well, if anyone understood the beauty and contradictions of Mexico, it was the late independent reporter, activist and poet John Ross. Ross covered social movements in Mexico and Latin America for nearly 50 years, and authored 10 nonfiction books and 10 books of poetry before he died in 2011. Now a new book captures some of the lectures Ross gave to journalism students to teach them how to cover stories and create change. It’s called “Rebel Reporting: John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists.” We are joined by Norm Stockwell, co-editor of “Rebel Reporting.” He is also operations coordinator with WORT community radio in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Madison, Wisconsin, headed to Toronto, Canada, today. I’m Amy Goodman.

This week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. It’s currently legal only in certain states and Mexico City. The announcement came as Peña Nieto faces renewed pressure over the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in September of 2014. Multiple reports have pointed to a role by federal authorities and cast doubt on Mexico’s claim the students were killed by a drug gang.

Well, if anyone understood the beauty and contradictions of Mexico, it was the late independent reporter, activist, poet, John Ross. Ross covered social movements in Mexico and Latin America for nearly half a century. This is John Ross during a visit to Democracy Now!’s studios in 2010, shortly after the publication of his book, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City. I asked him about the title of the book.

JOHN ROSS: El Monstruo, because Mexico City is a monster of a city, largest megalopolis in the Americas and possibly in the world, 23 million people living on a piece of land that does not really support them, where there is no water, where there is very bad air—no air—and their struggle to stay on this land, I think, has been epic. And the city is a monstruo in itself.

The Aztecs actually characterized the beginnings of El Monstruo, it was called Tenochtitlan, as an animal itself, and as the population grew, it acquired this name, El Monstruo. But it’s our querido monstruo, it’s our beloved monstruo, and this new book is really a defensive place of a totally indefensible place.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Ross speaking to Democracy Now! in 2010. He authored 10 nonfiction books, 10 books of poetry, as well, before he died in 2011. Now a new book captures some of the lectures Ross gave to journalism students to teach them how to cover stories and create change. It’s called Rebel Reporting: John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists.

In lecture one, the first chapter of the book, John Ross writes, quote, “A good rebel reporter doesn’t just take notes on rebellion. A good rebel reporter incites rebellion, makes people angry, encourages organization, offers them hope that another world is possible. A rebel reporter is a participant in rebellion or resistance or revolution or whatever you want to call the struggle for social change. Like the Zapatistas, our words are our weapons,” he said.

Well, we’re joined now by Norm Stockwell, who’s co-editor of Rebel Reporting. He’s also operations coordinator with WORT community radio in Madison, Wisconsin, a gem in the community radio movement in this country and around the world.

Norm Stockwell, it’s great to have you with us.

NORMAN STOCKWELL: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you decided to put together these lectures of John Ross, Rebel Reporting.

NORMAN STOCKWELL: Well, it was actually John’s project. John said—John had done these lectures initially in San Francisco at New College. He developed this series for journalism students. And he then traveled around the country and did them in several other places, including here in Madison. And he said, “I want to publish these.” And his original title for the book was Handing It Down: Four Lectures on Rebel Journalism. We kept that in the book, but the main title becomes Rebel Reporting, which is how he talks about the craft. So, he wanted to produce this as a book. We looked for a publisher, and then John tragically passed away five years ago in January. And I—for me, it became a mission to bring this book out. And I had a great crew of people working on it, including an introduction by yourself, a foreword by Bob McChesney, who was on earlier this morning, and some wonderful contributors that helped put this book together.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Ross was as much a poet as he was a journalist. I want to go to a clip of John reading his poem titled “Journalism,” which also appears in the book Rebel Reporting. This is John Ross back in March 2010 at Madison College.

JOHN ROSS: You have to stay with me on this poem, because it’s—you know, as I said, poetry is a way of like talking about—doing stories. But this is basically about journalism. And I wrote this because I was teaching a class, a graduate class in media studies at New College. And, you know, I wanted to kind of shock people into thinking about what they were doing.

The Midnight Special
burrows into the bowels of
the North American nightmare
like a sleek silver tapeworm
consuming the body fat of
the most overstuffed nation on earth.
The rules for travel
are posted at the terminals:
Report all suspicious activities.
Do not leave luggage unattended.
Protect your back at all times
from suicide bombers,
Homeland Security,
GMO corn, AIDS, Anthrax,
The Anti-Christ.
the New York Times.
I scratch out a map
in a wilderness of white paper
that bloodies the nation
with crimson headlines
from sea to stinking sea.
I can no longer parse the horror.
The scales have fallen
from my snake eyes
and the serpent has shed its skin.
There is no one lie
worth dying for.
Ir al lugar de los hechos,
Go to the place where it happens.
This is the first rule of the finding.
They will not want you there
but you will learn much
from their fury.
Write it all down
right away in your head.
Do not let the details leak out
no matter how badly
they beat you.
Do not forget their faces.
Do not believe everything
they say. Do not believe
anything you read.

“Journalism.”

AMY GOODMAN: That is journalist John Ross, his poem “Journalism.” Norm Stockwell and Cristalyne Bell have just published Rebel Reporting, John Ross speaking to independent journalists. He—that was John Ross in 2010. Norm?

NORMAN STOCKWELL: That’s right, and that was recorded by Cristalyne Bell. She was a student in that class where John delivered these lectures, and that’s how she came to be a part of this project. She was a journalism student at Madison College and then went on to do journalism on her own.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about John Ross in the few minutes we have left, his reporting from Mexico, in Mexico, for more than a quarter of a century.

NORMAN STOCKWELL: Yeah, well, John’s always—his style was to go to the bottom, to go to the people that were affected by the policies of the corporations, of the politicians, and tell their stories, to give voice to those unrepresented and underrepresented voices. So, in 1985, when the earthquake occurred in Mexico City, instead of going to the large hotels where a lot of the other reporters were, in the unaffected parts of the city, he moved into the central historic district of Mexico, which was very affected by the earthquake. He moved into a hotel called the Hotel Isabel, took up a room there and lived there for most of the rest of his life. And from the Hotel Isabel, he covered the day-to-day life of the people of Mexico after the earthquake, the movement of people rising up, calling for government services in response to the earthquake. And then, of course, the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and all of the other things that affected the people of Mexico, telling their stories to a global audience.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to John Ross in his own words. This was April 2010. I asked him about the effects of U.S. immigration laws and the war on drugs.

JOHN ROSS: These are hot-button issues in the U.S. press—immigration and drugs. Washington uses these issues to pressure Mexico, to win concessions, and they’re not necessarily concessions in terms of the drug war or immigration at all. They look at security, and they look at economy, and basically energy, you know? Washington wants to see Mexico privatize its oil industry, Pemex. And so, they utilize this pressure that comes from immigration, comes from the drug war, in order to win those concessions.

Washington wants greater control over Mexico’s security apparatus, so they use things like the ASPAN, the security and prosperity agreement, to be able to—which would integrate security forces throughout the entire continent under Washington’s control. They use things like the North Command, which now penetrates Mexico’s airspace, because Mexico has been declared the southern security perimeter of the United States.

So those are the two aims of Washington at this point: to gain control over the Mexican security apparatus and the privatization of Pemex. And all of this Mexico bashing that comes out of immigration and comes out of the drug war is really directed at that. And that’s how the White House has operated in Mexico as long as I’ve been there and much longer than I’ve been there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Ross. Expand on that, Norm.

NORMAN STOCKWELL: Well, again, I mean, I think that, you know, what John’s commitment was to the everyday people of Mexico, he would go to places where no one else was, and he would ask everyday people, the workers, the families, you know, “What’s going on here?” And that’s how he would tell the story, and that’s how he responded to all of these global issues, was to go to the bottom and look up.

AMY GOODMAN: Tips and tricks, you have in Appendix B of Rebel Reporting, for journalists.

NORMAN STOCKWELL: Yeah. When we put this together, we wanted to include something for students, because really what I hope for this book is that this will become, you know, a recommended reading for journalism students across the country. And so, Catherine Komp of Free Speech Radio News and Laura Brickman, who is an intern at WORT, and I put together this appendix. It’s web links, it’s resources. It’s something to basically take what you’ve learned in these lectures and get going and go out and do it yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you and congratulate you on this book. You are certainly doing John Ross honor. Rebel Reporting is the book, John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists. It is co-edited by Norm Stockwell, who’s been at WORT here in Madison, the community radio station, for 33 years. Congratulations.

NORMAN STOCKWELL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for our program. A very happy birthday to Simin Farkhondeh! And I’ll be speaking tonight and Friday night in Toronto, Canada. Check our website at democracynow.org. On Saturday, I’ll be in Troy, New York, at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, Sunday back in New York at the Left Forum. And on Monday, I’ll be speaking at the Philadelphia Free Library. Check our website at democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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