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Juan González: Reflections on 40 Years of Fighting for Racial and Social Justice in Journalism

Web ExclusiveDecember 06, 2022
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Democracy Now! co-host Juan González recently spoke at the Columbia School of Journalism in the first of three “farewell” speeches in New York before he moves to Chicago. Juan will also be speaking in New York on Friday, December 9, at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and Monday, December 12, at the CUNY Grad Center. In his speech at the Columbia School of Journalism, Juan talked about his atypical journalism career and his years as a student activist and organizer with the Young Lords. Juan said, “I have been grappling now for more than 50 years — initially as an activist, then for decades as a journalist and a student of history — with the burning issue of how oppressed and marginalized people can best create and disseminate a narrative that truly reflects their lives, not just accepting the simple-minded, stereotypical and often denigrating narratives of them fashioned by those with greater power and wealth.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Good evening, everyone. My thanks to the J School’s dean, Jelani Cobb, and to Mae Ngai, the co-director of the Center for Ethnicity and Race, for sponsoring this event. My deepest gratitude to professors Nina Alvarez and Claudio Lomnitz and to moderator Ed Morales, a true dream team of journalists and scholars, for agreeing to give their time this afternoon to engage in conversation with me.

Many of you may have heard by now that in a few weeks I will be leaving the New York area, the city that I’ve called home for most of my life, where I grew up, where I was shaped professionally and politically, and will instead be relocating to Chicago, the hometown of my marvelous wife, Lilia Fernández, who’s here, where all her family still resides and where she is now professor of history at University of Illinois. At my age — and I just turned 75 this month — that’s called a major change. And the deeper you get into your golden years, the more aches and pains and illnesses gnaw at you, the greater the tendency to look back and ask, “What did I do with my life all these years?”

So it occurred to me that the best way to say goodbye to this city where I’ve had so many terrific memories, so many friends and colleagues, was with some farewell talks that I would turn up — I would attempt to sum up some of the key lessons I’ve gleaned, through much trial and error, through successes and setbacks, perhaps to reveal, as well, some incidents from the past that I’ve never had the opportunity to disclose but which could provide insight to a younger generation, who are still determined to practice good journalism and still devoted to making a better world possible.

As some of you know, mine has not been your typical journalism career. I’ve been grappling now for more than 50 years — initially as an activist, then for decades as a journalist and a student of history — with the burning issue of how oppressed and marginalized people can best create and disseminate a narrative that truly reflects their lives, not just accepting the simple-minded, stereotypical and often denigrating narratives of them fashioned by those with greater power and wealth, but instead offering a fuller and more accurate picture of who they are, of their passion and their pain, their achievements and failures, their hopes and their dreams. Because of my insistence on this approach, throughout my career, I was labeled by many of my colleagues in the commercial media as a, quote, “advocacy journalist,” as if that was somehow a distinct and less developed form of real journalism, some outlier. But more about that in a minute.

That I ended up a reporter, and a radical activist to boot, you can chalk up to Ms. Bonagura, to the 1968 Columbia student strike and to the Young Lords. One gave me the skills. The other two, the two gave me the mind and the heart.

Pauline Bonagura was the one public school teacher every kid dreams of. She was the English and journalism instructor at Franklin K. Lane High School in East New York, Brooklyn. If you haven’t been outside of New York City, you’d have never heard of East New York until the new show that just came out. Young, charismatic and relentless, she had a hopeless love affair with the English language and was determined all her students would master not only grammar and writing, but the art of reporting. The number of fine journalists she produced is remarkable. David Vidal, who for years was a foreign correspondent from The New York Times; Steve Handelman, who worked for decades for the Toronto Star; Carole Carmichael, who was an editor for years, managing editor at The Seattle Times; Janet McMillan, a sterling reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer — all of us were Bonagura’s students.

She plucked me, a shy kid from a working-class Puerto Rican family in the Cypress Hills projects of East New York, and decided that I would be editor of the Lane Reporter, the paper that she advised, the paper that almost every year won top prizes from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. And that probably had a lot to do with my eventually getting into Columbia College on a full scholarship.

My activism, of course, began right here on Morningside Heights as a Columbia undergrad. On April 23rd, 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, and only weeks after Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, touching off a stunning series of urban rebellions in America, right here on this campus hundreds of Columbia and Barnard students occupied and barricaded several buildings. We did so to protest the university’s arrogant and racist land expansion onto Morningside Heights and the Harlem neighborhoods and to achieve an end to the university’s research for the military in Vietnam.

I was a senior at the time, first in my family to attend college. Somehow I emerged as one of the leaders of our Student Strike Coordinating Committee, which is how I came to know and befriend many of the young 1960s radicals who would go on to considerable notoriety: SDS leaders Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, Tom Hayden, David Gilbert, Kathy Boudin, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, the great civil rights lawyers Gerry Lefcourt and William Kunstler.

Our initial weeklong protest ended with a brutal police assault on the campus, where more than 700 of us were arrested, more than a hundred people injured and hospitalized, including several professors, all of which provoked of massive student boycott of classes that paralyzed the university for the rest of the semester, that reverberated across the nation at other college campuses, and that soon resulted in the resignation of Columbia President Grayson Kirk and the university provost, David Truman.

A year later, I helped found the Young Lords Organization in East Harlem, the neighborhood where I had originally grown up. The Lords were a loud, brash, rebellious and talented group who sought to defend the Puerto Rican migrant community from systemic discrimination and to end our homeland’s colonial status. For a few brief years, we became a thorn in the side of the establishment and the police in this town and cities throughout the East Coast with our many occupations of institutions and militant actions against police abuse. And in the process, we inspired a generation of young Latinos to demand more equitable treatment.

We focused not only on the concrete bread-and-butter issues of more traditional community organizers — better schools, better healthcare, better city services — but we also, in the mold of other organizations, like the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Afrika, openly espoused socialist ideals and militant internationalism, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, seeking solidarity with liberation wars against Western imperialism in Africa and Latin America.

We not only created our own bilingual newspaper, Palante, our own weekly radio show on community radio station WBAI, we consciously sought to shape how the commercial media covered our actions and ideas. As a result, the Lords emerged as one of the few 1960s revolutionary groups that received considerable sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press.

This was no accident. It had everything to do with understanding storytelling. Our minister of information, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, who was only 19 when we started, had studied, while as a student at Bronx High School of Science, one of the visionary media scholars of that era, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Pablo had quickly digested the essence of McLuhan’s remarkable critique, that every mass medium touches the human brain in a different manner, that every medium acts on us not primarily through the words or images it conveys, but through the way it connects to our brain and triggers our emotions. McLuhan, of course, famously proclaimed that, quote, “The media are extensions of human beings,” that the “content” of a medium, he once wrote, “is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” Pablo then consciously worked to shape a distinct message for each medium that we dealt with — newspapers, radio, TV.

McLuhan, of course, was writing long before the creation of the internet, the World Wide Web, and the smartphone, advances that only further confirmed his pioneering theories. Think about it. What is more important today, the actual content of any message or video we receive on our smartphone, or the fact that the device itself has become the most indispensable instrument of modern society, tying us to the outside world? And through it, not only are we in constant contact with our family, friends, employers, and even total strangers, but unseen forces are constantly tracking us, surveilling our thoughts and wants, our every search, our every action, everywhere we go.

Even as youngsters, we in the Lords understood the power of the media, and we consciously cultivated that good coverage. We were helped by the first brilliant crop of young Black and Latino reporters in the city’s press, to whom Pablo fed exclusives, and who in turn repaid us with more sympathetic coverage than their white colleagues — people like a young Ed Bradley at WCBS, like Gil Noble at WABC, like Gloria Rojas at WNBC, Rudy Garcia at the Daily News — and, of course, white writers like Jack Newfield at The Village Voice.

Shaping the narrative, however, does not simply involve good stories. To be done well, it requires a deep connection, a virtual fusion, between the storytellers and the subjects of their stories. And we have two excellent examples here in the people that are going to have conversations with me. Claudio did it in his epic book, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón. And Nina did it as a producer, as one of the producers of the epic PBS series Latino Americans, and I had the pleasure to work with her on that series.

We, the Lords, were, if anything, intimately a part of the Puerto Rican community’s quest for respect and equal rights in the country. Many of the issues we see reflected today among young people in the Black Lives Matter movement were issues that we raised 50 years ago: the fight against police brutality in Black and Brown neighborhoods; against structural racial inequities in housing, education, healthcare and employment; against gender inequities and patriarchy; to salvage and affirm our history, culture and language as innately valuable in a multicultural society. Even the hot-button question of racism within our communities is not something new. We confronted it openly in the Lords back then. In fact, while we were proudly a Puerto Rican organization, more than 25% of our membership were Black and Afro-Latino, as well as the majority of our leadership.

So, it was no incident — no accident that when the Lords fell apart in the mid-1970s, several of us ended up going into journalism: Pablo for more than 30 years as a reporter at WCBS-TV; Felipe Luciano, our chairman, as an Emmy Award-winning reporter at WNBC-TV; Geraldo Rivera, wasn’t a member, he was our lawyer, but everyone knows Geraldo, and he’s had a sometimes checkered history; and Iris Morales, who went on to become the general counsel for Children’s Television Workshop for many years and became then entertainment lawyer and now runs her own publishing company.

My first job in journalism was at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1978. I started as a general assignment reporter. Before my rookie year was up, the Iran hostage crisis had erupted. And I’ll never forget being in the newsroom one day and going to the bulletin board, where employees posted all kinds of information on things for sale and other things of interest, and there was a petition on the bulletin board by many of the reporters at the Philadelphia Daily News, an open letter to the White House demanding that if the hostages were harmed, that we should nuke Tehran. These were intelligent reporters in a major metropolitan newspaper openly saying we should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran to solve the crisis that we were facing. So, of course, I was shocked, to say the least.

So, I went in to my editor-in-chief. I was just a young reporter at the time, and the editor-in-chief had taken a liking to me. And I said, “You have a policy of allowing a reporter to submit an opinion piece for the paper. I want to submit an opinion piece to counter this thing on the bulletin board. I want to write a column, 'Send the shah back,'” because that was what the whole Iran crisis was about, that the shah of Iran, illegally imposed upon the Iranian people as a result of a CIA-backed coup in 1953, had been overthrown by the masses of Iranians and had fled to the United States, and the Iranians were demanding that he be returned to be held to trial, held to justice. And that was what the hostage crisis was about. And so, I wrote the opinion piece, and the editor-in-chief calls me in, and he says, “You know, you hit us kind of hard. But I’m going to run your piece. I’m going to run your piece. It’s well written, but I’m telling you, it’s not easy.” That was my first understanding that it was possible to challenge the dominant narrative, even in the commercial media, and at times have some kind of success.

About a year later, I had been part of a group that had helped in the Puerto Rican community, that had built an organization called the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. And at its founding convention, they elected me president of the organization. Now, it was a volunteer organization. And it was basically involved in issues around the Puerto Rican community at the time. I had gone from general assignment to becoming a labor reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News. But the editor-in-chief calls me in again. He says, “I can’t have that. I can’t have my reporters writing news during the day, and then in the evening or in their spare time being involved in activist causes.” And I said, “Well, that’s funny, because didn’t you just have Tom Cooney, our top writer, write all the lead stories about the pope’s visit to Philadelphia? Do you know that Tom Cooney is the president of the Holy Name Society of his church? He’s a devout Catholic. He’s active in the Catholic Church. And you have no problem with him covering the pope. But you’re telling me that I cannot be active when I’m not even covering the Puerto Rican or the Latino community.” So, the editor says to me, “Well, I’m firm on this. You either resign from this organization or we’re going to have to let you go.” So, I was — I just started out in my career. I figured, “What can I do?”

So, luckily, I had a mentor who helped me quite a bit, a magnificent gentleman by the name of Charles Sumner Stone, Chuck Stone, the dean of Black journalists in Philadelphia. Chuck Stone had been a Tuskegee Airman. He had been the speechwriter for Adam Clayton Powell when Adam Clayton Powell was a congressman. He had been the editor of The Chicago Defender before he became a senior editor and a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News. So Chuck Stone wasn’t afraid of anything. And Chuck pulled me aside, and he said, “Juan, don’t be intimidated, first of all. Second, document everything. Always keep a record of everything you do in your correspondence with those in power, because you may need that at some point or another.” And then he said, “Check the union contract.” I said, “The union contract?”

So I checked the contract of the Newspaper Guild. And there was a clause in the Newspaper Guild contract that said that if a member of the guild had been elected to a public office or an office of public responsibility for a term up to four years, that they could request a leave of absence and then get their job back. So, in other words, this thing had been fought over years ago, years before we even became reporters, and there had already been a solution fashioned to deal with the question of social activism and social participation of journalists and reporters. So, I went in to my editor, and I said, “I’m invoking this clause of the union contract. I’m requesting a leave of absence to fulfill my term as president. Then I expect to be able to get my job back.” And so, I was able to get my job back. But it was another lesson that the battle over activism and within journalism is a long-running battle.

Thankfully, my experiences in the Lords and my own readings had strengthened my growing belief that the commercial media were not the entire universe of the press in America. I’ve managed to work not only in mainstream or commercial journalism, but proudly, and almost simultaneously, in the alternative and the dissident press, for the past 26 years as co-host with Amy Goodman a marvelous show, Democracy Now!, and at various times, as well, in the Spanish-language press.

When I started at Democracy Now! in 1996, there were just three of us: Amy, myself and a producer. And the show was just on a handful of Pacifica stations. And my colleagues in the commercial media would say, “What are you doing with that crazy left-wing show?” But both its audience and its influence has steadily grown over the years, to the point that we are now one of the major sources of dissident news coverage in America, and DN! now is on 1,300 stations not only in the U.S. but throughout Latin America, several hundred in Latin America, more than a million followers on social media, and a full-time staff of 30 people, state-of-the-art studios in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and one of the few organizations that consistently covers international news. All of that started from just a few people who were convinced that there was another way to tell the news narratives in this country.

In my 2012 book, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, my co-author Joe Torres and I examined in depth the historic conflicts and interplay between these three distinct and separate streams of the media: the commercial press, the alternative or dissident press, and the press by people of color — each of which have a long history in this country. And there’s been a constant narrative and counternarrative between them.

The commercial press, from Publick Occurrences in 1690 with Benjamin Harris and The Boston News-Letter in 1704 through to the Pulitzer and Hearst chains, and, of course, to the modern Goliaths of our time, the CNNs, The New York Times, the Fox Newses and so forth.

But there’s been a separate stream of the press in America, the radical press, from the working men’s publications of the 1830s through the muckrakers of the late 19th century, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, the socialist and communist presses of the early and mid-20th century, the New Left press of the 1960s, and to the progressive blogs and news sites of today, such as Common Dreams_, ScheerPost, CounterPunch, The Intercept, Consortium News. This whole other stream of the press has been involved in a battle over narrative with the commercial and corporate press.

And there is a third stream. Because people of color were systematically excluded for 200 years from both the commercial press and the dissident and working men’s press, they had to create their own voices. 1827, Freedom’s Journal, John Russwurm, Samuel Cornish, the first Black newspaper in the world: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. … From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented.” That’s March of 1827. You could write that today, and it would still have resonance. And on to great journalists like Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Ida B. Wells campaigning against lynching, or Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper in the world, in 1828, New Echota, Georgia, to John Rollin Ridge, the Native American who founded The Sacramento Bee. A Cherokee was the founder of The Sacramento Bee, that became the basis of the McClatchy chain. The Golden Hills News, 1854, the first Chinese-language newspaper in the United States, or the work of Wong Chin Foo, founder of the Chinese American in 1883, right here in New York City. There were over 25 Chinese-language newspapers in United States before the 20th century.

There were hundreds of Spanish-speaking papers in the country. And, of course, in the Spanish-language press, there’s an enormous radical tradition — not just a news tradition, a radical news tradition — from Enrique Salazar, who founded La Voz del Pueblo in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the 1890s, to José Agustín Quintero, who founded El Ranchero in 1855 in San Antonio, to José Martí, one of the really great journalists covering the United States — he lived in New York City for 15 years and wrote for Latin American papers, some of the most unbelievably great news coverage of the United States, written in Spanish by the founding father of Cuba, José Martí — to Ricardo Flores Magón, the anarchist, with his paper, Regeneración, that was published throughout the Southwest here and was really the precursor of what became the Mexican Revolution, to Jovita Idar, the great Mexican American in Laredo, Texas, who edited La Crónica and who campaigned against the lynching of Mexicans and against the segregation of Mexican schools and of the lack of — the stealing of the land of Mexicans by the Anglo settlers, to more modern times, Jesús Colón, who for decades wrote a column for the Daily Worker, the official Communist Party paper here in the United States. He was a columnist for the Daily Worker in the 1950s. So there is a long tradition of journalists in the Latino community who not only covered the news of the community, but covered it from a radical perspective.

To get back to this issue of objectivity and what’s real journalism, the fact is the press in the U.S. have always been partisan and subjective in their chronicling of reality. In fact, it was Upton Sinclair’s devastating exposure of press corruption in his classic book, The Brass Check, and public revulsion over misinformation by the giant newspaper chains that gave rise in the early 1900s to journalism schools like this one and to organizations like the American Society of Newspaper Editors, that sought to establish basic standards of journalism. And it was only in the aftermath of World War II and the creation of the Hutchins Commission that any principles of fair and comprehensive coverage of news events even began to be promulgated widely or that the FCC’s fairness doctrine began to be implemented.

It was Walter Lippmann, perhaps the most influential journalist of the 20th century, who first dissected the nonsense of objective journalism and first raised the issue of stereotyping in the press. As we say in our book, “It is the job of the modern journalist to witness events in the wider world and then convey those events and their meaning to the rest of us as quickly as possible. But such reports are fraught with weaknesses inherent to each reporter’s own perception of reality — the subjectivity that so often springs from upbringing, education, class, race, religion and gender. The less the journalist knows about the event or the subject at hand, the more likely he or she is to produce a crude or blurred representation of it. Those reports are then further filtered by editors and publishers, who get to decide which portions of the reporter’s dispatch are 'newsworthy' and will survive, and which will disappear in the editing process.”

Lippman warned a hundred years ago — his book Public Opinion was written in 1922. He warned a hundred years ago of the distortions that were inherent in such a process. To quote Lippmann, “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.” And we are deluding ourselves if we think that chronicling of events occurs in any other way.

As you can imagine, my views did not always sit well with my editors in the commercial press. And over the decades, even as I kept breaking major stories that others had ignored, and even if they conceded the accuracy of my reporting, they could not accept my advocacy bent. In fact, I must be the only reporter in mainstream journalism with an extensive rap sheet, having been arrested about a dozen times over four decades — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — on a variety of criminal charges — criminal trespass, contempt of court, marijuana possession, inciting to riot, draft evasion — all, except for the marijuana bust, related to political protests.

Mike McAlary often joked to me — Mike was a colleague of mine, a Pulitzer Prize winner at the New York Daily News, who died very young, in his forties. Mike often joked to me that one day he went into the old Daily News library and came across the paper’s clips on my radical days. This was when papers still had massive dusty files of yellow cut-out articles stuffed into pocket folders under various subjects and names. Now, of course, you just do a Google search. And the clip folder that he found was titled “Juan González, revolutionary.” But by then, someone had crossed out “revolutionary” and changed it to ”Daily News columnist.”

Just before 1990, Mac and I, as two star columnists at the News, were both sent, along with a reporter and a photographer, to cover the U.S. invasion of Panama. Mac and the others chose to be embedded with our military and tell their story. And I, because I was the only one who spoke Spanish and because I knew from the start that this was an illegal invasion of a country that posed no threat to the United States, made my way into the barrios of Panama City to report on the invasion’s impact on the Panamanian people.

And that brings me to the issue of war, very timely issue today. Throughout the history of civilization, governments have had to justify wars to their people. How else could they get the people to send their sons and daughters to the front to fight? But in every war, at least one side is lying to its people, and quite often both are. And the press has always been essential for whipping up public hysteria for war, from the Patriot press printers of the American Revolution — Ben Franklin, Benjamin Edes, Sam Adams — to the war press of New Orleans that was the one that pushed for the U.S. to get involved in the war with Mexico, to the yellow press of the Spanish-American War, to the Committee on Public Information that spread worldwide propaganda for the First World War. All the Panama-like imperialist interventions of our country — in Nicaragua, in the Dominican Republic, in Cuba, in Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, and today, Ukraine — our commercial press inevitably rally round the flag, the press releases and the narrative of our generals and politicians, and they rarely shine light on the voices of peacemakers or even to legitimate questions raised by those opposed to our wars.

It is in time of war that journalists face their greatest challenge. And having the courage to question or oppose your own government’s actions at war is the ultimate test of independent journalism. The various times I did so, during the Iran hostage crisis, during the Panama invasion, during the Iraq War, were among the most difficult periods of my career. But having been steeled by those early experiences in the Columbia strike and on the streets of East Harlem with the Lords, it was not difficult to withstand efforts to intimidate me or dismiss my reporting by those who felt they were only doing their job.

Most of my reporting, however, has not been about such weighty issues of race, war and politics, but about individuals seeking a better life and seeking some form of justice. When I began writing my column for the Daily News in 1987, I had to decide what my particular approach would be. In a city brimming with extraordinary writers — Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, Pete Hamill, Russell Baker, Sydney Schanberg — and awash with many able young writers, my modest contribution, I decided, would be a voice from another part of New York. Not writing about outcast neighborhoods, but from them. Not simply to entertain, but to change. Not after the fact, but before it, when coverage could still make a difference. In daily news writing, time becomes both an enemy and an ally. What you lose in the chance to chisel and refine for the relative few, you gain in the opportunity to influence and energize the many.

I sought to use as many of my columns as possible to probe the injustices visited upon the powerless. Yes, the rich and the famous are also victims on occasion. But they have so many politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, gossip columnists, even editorial boards, ready to jump to their defense, that they will always do fine without my help. I preferred the desperate unknown reader who came to me because he or she has gone everywhere else and no one would listen. More often than not, I came across unexpected gems, human beings whose tragedies illuminated the landscape and whose courage hopefully inspired the reader to believe that there is indeed some greater good served by a free press than just chronically or influencing the oustering of one group of politicians by another.

So that’s been my journey, a short sketch of what I tried to do with the skills Ms. Bonagura gave me, with the radical views of the world I first learned here at Columbia in the midst of the ’68 strike, and with the courage and heart the Lords exemplified. And the main lesson of it all? Never stop believing a better world is possible when you dare to struggle for it, but strive to do so with the knowledge of the efforts that paved the way for you, with the humility to learn from your mistakes. And as the great Chuck Stone counseled, remember to document everything. Thank you

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