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Friday, December 28, 2012

An Old Letter From El Salvador

(Between 1980 and 1982 I spent a lot of time in Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua--all of which were involved in some nasty guerilla uprisings and revolutions. From time to time I will post one of the stories I did from these places. The following story was one I wrote from San Salvador in October 1981.)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador--In 1937, a year after Juan Chong arrived in San Salvador from Hong Kong and opened the Canton China Bar and Restaurant, an American journalist dropped in for a drink.

"I think he was from New York," said Chong, shifting his 80-year-old frame in the ancient wicker chair behind the bar. "New York World. Yes, yes, that was it.'

Chong, his ancient brown eyes peering out from behind wire-rimmed bifocals perched on his nose, examined the reporter sitting across the bar from him.

"You American?" he asked. The reporter nodded.

"You know something?  You're the first American journalist to come in here since 1937. You work for New York World, too?"

"The Chicago Tribune," the reporter answered. "The New York World died a long time ago."

"You come to write about the war, right?" Chong asked. The reporter nodded again.
El Salvador

''There had been some trouble just before that other reporter showed up," Chong said, recharging his memory cells with a shot of vodka. "Some peasants up north had shot a couple of soldiers. There was talk of another rebellion like the Matanza." (The Matanza, or "slaughter," had occurred In 1931 and 1932, when some 32,000 men, women, and children were killed by government forces after an ill-fated uprising by the Trotskyite Indian named Farabundi Marti).

"We were all very excited about It, Chong said, igniting an ancient pipe."But this American journalist, he was not. He said Americans didn't care about little revolutions in little countries."

Then, eyeing the reporter before him, Chong said, "I guess Americans think differently now, eh?"
Indeed they do. The little unimportant banana republic visited so long ago by the New York reporter is suddenly front and center in the eyes of American foreign policymakers.

Today, the whole world Is watching to see how the United States handles Itself in a 11-year-old  revolution pitting left wing guerrillas against the four-man, civilian-military  junta of  President Jose Napoleon Duarte that is backed by Washington.

And unlike 1937, when just one American reporter wandered into town to take a quick look around, San Salvador is a city overrun with journalists from all over the world.

Most stay at the 235-room Camino Real Hotel, which has evolved into a kind of unofficial media headquarters for anybody covering the hostilities here.

Besides a well-stocked  bar, where foreign correspondents tend to gather evenings in clusters to discuss (well, argue) solutions to El Salvador's problems, the Camino Real offers  a  government-run telex room for filing stories  and messages.

It is not just camaraderie and the dubious benefits of flock journalism that lure journalists to the Camino Real - It Is safety.

"This is the hotel for the International press," explained William, the head bellhop. "Neither the left nor the right would be so stupid as to attack this hotel. This is neutral territory."     
Government Troops On Patrol
Yet most journalists feel a little naked In El Salvador. Since the fighting began in 1980, five foreign correspondents and photographers have died - not to mention the two dozen or more El Salvadoran journalists who have been tortured or murdered. Conversations in the Camino Real bar tend to be sprinkled with bravado and twists of gallows humor as reporters attempt to put such things out of their minds the way they have always done in war.

Like in Viet Nam, for example, and Cambodia. Except that In the Camino Real bar, Viet Nam and Cambodia are taboo subjects. Most of those covering the war In El Salvador, it seems, did not work In Southeast Asia, and there is a perverse, albeit unnecessary, need on their part to convince Viet Nam era reporters that this war is more dangerous than their war.

There is indeed something much more ominous about this conflict, with its incessant decapitations, mass murders, and disappearances.

But it is impossible to apply a Bo Derek kind of scale to war. People get blown up. They lose arms and legs and feet and hands. They die. Who is to say El Salvador rates a 10 on the danger scale while Nicaragua and Angola and Cambodia are only 8s? Such comparisons are not only absurd, they are obscene. Suffice it to say that thus far El Salvador, with Its 20,000 dead, is still far from the 1.3 million soldiers and civilians killed In Viet Nam (including 105 journalists).  
Another Victim in El Salvador

But there does seem to be something about El Salvador's tragic conflict that makes you look over your shoulder a lot.   
Perhaps it's that there are so many fanatic fringe elements in this New Jersey-sized nation of five million running around flaunting machine guns, machetes, and machismo.

Right-wing death squads armed with razor-sharp machetes and rifles roam the city streets looking for "subversives.

Left-wing guerrillas blow up somebody's house or place of business just about every night. And out on the streets, you learn to examine every car that passes you for the barrel of   a rifle or pistol pointed at your belly.

"I don't think El Salvador has ever been more unhealthy," said Chong, relighting his pipe. "People don't come in my place after 8 at night anymore because they are afraid somebody is going to throw a bomb through the door. People are scared.  I've never seen them so scared."

Outside the Canton China Bar and Restaurant, three government soldiers with semi -automatic rifles slung over their shoulders stood on the corner talking. Chong watched them for a moment.

"When I left China, it was during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria," he said. "The war was terrible. I wanted to find a peaceful place to live, so I came to Central America. What a mistake. Of course, I'm too damned old now to care. But sometimes when I see bodies in the streets with their heads chopped off, I think I should have stayed In China."

(POSTSCRIPT: More than 75,000 civilians died at the hands of government forces during the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992). These 12 years of violence were punctuated by three well known atrocities: the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero that sparked the conflict, the rape and murder of three American Maryknoll Nuns and a lay missionary that caused international outrage and the 1989 Jesuits Massacre that finally compelled the international community to intervene.) 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

No Easy Answers for Sandy Hook Tragedy

The massacre of 26 children and adults at a Connecticut elementary school Friday has left us searching for answers. Why did it happen? How could it have been stopped? Is there a way to avoid such tragedies in the future?

Predictably, the first knee jerk reaction to such a heartbreaking event, was for more gun control--or, as some have suggested, the prohibition of all guns in the United States.

That, of course, would require the elimination of the Second Amendment which says, in part: 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.'

Let's look at some facts about gun ownership in the United States.  According to the  General Social Survey (GSS), there are approximately 44 million gun owners in the United States. This means that 25 percent of all adults owned at least one firearm.

The National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms (NSPOF), conducted a few years ago, reported that Americans own 192 million guns, with 36% of these consisting of rifles, 34% handguns, 26% shotguns, and 4% of other types of long guns. In the United States, 11% of households report actively being involved in hunting, with the remaining firearm owners having guns for self-protection and other reasons.

Imagine trying to confiscate 192 million guns. It simply will not happen--nor should it. After all, gun owners are not criminals. And while criminals do use guns to commit crimes, criminologists have  found no correlation between overall firearm ownership and gun violence.

It is interesting to note that at the outset of World War II the Japanese scrapped plans to invade the West Coast of America because they knew there were some 80 million guns in the hands of American citizens. That was not the case in places like China, Southeast Asia and other countries occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army.

That aside, what can possibly explain the massacre of innocent children, teachers and others at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and other places such as Virginia Tech University in 2007 when 32 people were killed and 17 others wounded by a deranged student who was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder.

What caused Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old killer in the Sandy Hook shootings, to first shoot his mother in the face and then drive to the elementary school and slaughter defenseless children in their classrooms?

We may never know what demons infected Lanza's mind, though I am sure in the next several days and weeks armies of psychiatrists will offer up their opinions.

No matter what motives and reasons are put forth for such a horrific crime, there is little doubt that some will argue for changes to the Second Amendment and others will blame guns as the sole cause of such terrible violence.

This is simply wrong-headed. What about Hollywood's pandering to audiences with violent movies? What about gangster rap? Or the increasing violence in sports?  

And what about those graphically violent video games?

Scientists have long debated whether violent video games have an adverse effect on young people and recently the Supreme Court overturned a California ban on violent video games.

The court said that video games, even offensive ones, were protected by the First Amendment, and that there wasn't clear evidence that playing games such as Grand Theft Auto and Postal really harmed people.

However, research has shown that immediately after playing a violent video game, kids can have aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and physiological effects such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, studies that survey large populations of kids on their game-playing habits and measure aggressive personality traits or self-reported aggressive acts — physical fights, arguments with teachers — often find an association between games and aggression.

Other known factors more strongly linked to child aggression are a history of abuse, poverty, genetics and personality — and the risk climbs higher when several factors are present in combination.

For example, the continued destruction of the traditional family in which children are reared by two caring and responsible parents has been linked to children who are overly aggressive and angry.

In the case of Adam Lanza, for example, his parents divorced in 2008. Studies have shown that many children of divorced parents have difficulty adjusting and often blame themselves for the breakup. That in turn leads to feelings of hostility, bouts of depression and a sense of isolation.

Is that what set Adam Lanza off on his mission of murder and suicide? Once again, we may never know definitively.

But what we do know is that the Second Amendment was put in the Constitution to allow Americans to defend their lives and property from the aggression of individuals or government.

In the history of the world it has been governments, not individual gun owners, that have been the greatest origin of genocide and oppression. When governments want to control their populations, the first thing they do is eliminate the ability of individuals to defend or protect themselves.

People who want to scrap or dilute the Second Amendment should take a few moments to reflect on that.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Old Journalism or Impartial Journalism?

There has been a lot of criticism leveled recently at journalists and the craft they practice--and in some cases, rightly so.

However, a lot of that criticism is coming from academia and professors who tell students that they need to go "beyond reporting the news"--code for what they think news organizations should not keep doing: traditional news stories with traditional structure and content.

They like to refer to that kind of journalism--the kind that I and thousands of my contemporaries practiced, as "old journalism"--as if somehow journalism today has shifted into a higher gear and the fundamentals we all learned are simply passé.

For example, they talk disparagingly about conventional newspaper journalism: "stories that package painstakingly gathered facts on current events -- what happened, who said what, when -- have lost much of their value. Journalists must "stop romanticizing the mere gathering and organization of facts." 

 New Journalism has advanced beyond the old Who, What, When, Where, Why and How era into this new realm that values subjective interpretation and analysis, they insist. Where I diverge from these critics is in the way that analysis and interpretation has been allowed to seep into what should be thoughtful, balanced reporting that allows the reader or viewer to form opinions without having them jammed down his or her throat. 

Recently one journalism professor at New York University wrote that "the extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events — insights, not just information; wisdom, not just facts."  I have no argument with this.

But thoughtful and incisive aren't enough, he added. Insights must be speedy as well.

"Being fast with the analysis is as important today as being fast with the news has been for the last hundred years," he said. 

  In theory, that may sound plausible. But the problem is that fast and thoughtful seldom go together. Fast and wise is even more improbable. 

 I speak here as someone who has worked in both worlds--some 27 years with the Chicago Tribune, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America (and as a national and metro editor) AND as a professor and Dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois for 13 years. The classes I taught were heavy in fundamentals.

We talked about careful sourcing of stories, of fairness, of keeping biases out of what is produced. We talked about not rushing to judgment, of making sure that you got as many of the facts as you could and that no matter how complete a big story may seem to be on the first day, it will become more complete with time and more reporting.

Stories that are not carefully sourced or that are too subjective are highly unlikely to contribute wisdom, especially in the first hours of a big breaking news event. What they are far more likely to be is wrong or misleading. Rather than adding value for the reader, trying to write analytically before enough facts are in will usually result in the kind of shoddy, careless journalism that journalists are often criticized for producing today.

I am aware that those who taught in our Media Studies program focused more on the perception of news rather than the old-fashioned donkey work required to gather it with speed and accuracy. They came up with books that lambasted journalism and journalists for failing to generate national conversations about issues, when in fact, that is exactly what good, incisive reporting does. As someone once said: "A good newspaper is, I suppose, a nation talking to itself."

For folks who think in terms of semesters and six year tenure clocks the idea of being first with a story is a quaint image that belongs in an old movie like "Deadline USA" or "The Front Page." Most have never worked in a professional newsroom with its attendant pressures of deadlines, accuracy and skilled writing. Or if they have, it may have been for a year or two until they decided this kind of work was "not suited" to their more cerebral, languorous brains.

I bit my tongue more than once during my time in academia because, just as a soldier can never explain what it is like to be in combat to someone who has never experienced it, I found it impossible to impart to academics the rush and sense of satisfaction a reporter feels when he or she is first with a breaking or exclusive story.

It isn't just the fact that the reporter was first with the story, there is also the aftermath of the story--that it will possibly have a positive impact on people's lives, or that it will right some wrong, or that in some other way it will make a difference because the reporter was there to witness and report.