This is a blog for journalists, authors, and those who enjoy reading and learning. Here you will find a variety of posts about all forms of writing--from fiction and non-fiction to the news media and journalism. It is produced by a former foreign correspondent and journalism school dean.
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(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
"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.
''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
"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
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
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.)
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
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
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
People who want to scrap or dilute the Second Amendment should
take a few moments to reflect on that.
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."
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
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
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
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.