Topic 3: Ruben Salazar's Legacy: A Different Style of Journalism
“Objectivity has been under vigorous attack by the new journalists. There is a growing feeling that newsroom objectivity may result in untruth.” - Ruben Salazar
“In the end he was true to himself. He was neither a pimp for the revolution nor a shill for the establishment.” – Bill Drummond
Often lost in discussions of Salazar’s legacy in relation to the Chicano Movement is his serious engagement with the field of journalism itself. Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle traces the evolution of Salazar’s journalism, from his early days in El Paso which included an exposé of the city jail (and put him on the FBI’s radar), covering the Vietnam War and as foreign bureau chief in Mexico City, to his frank discussions of matters of race and class during his time with the Los Angeles Times and KMEX.
Undoubtedly, Salazar was an important journalist covering significant political and social issues of his time. As Mario T. García notes in Border Correspondent, Selected Writings, 1955-1970, “Salazar was the first journalist of Mexican American background to cross over into mainstream English-language journalism.” At the same time, in a more general sense, he played an important role in the evolution of journalism that was transpiring in the United States. In undergoing his own stylistic evolution, he was both a participant and contributor to what would be the proper and ethical journalistic approach for exploring issues of social injustice. Like the “new journalists” (a term popularized by Tom Wolfe, who discussed this group of writers in his 1973 anthology The New Journalism, a group which included such luminaries as Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer), Salazar questioned notions of objectivity in the media.
This questioning was clear even as early as his El Paso days, when he engaged in a type of immersive journalism where he allowed himself to be arrested and put in jail. Towards the end of his life, Salazar began to embrace a reporting style that veered toward advocacy journalism in relation to his coverage of the Mexican American community. It is a journalistic tradition that pre-dates Salazar’s works and includes examples such as early-twentieth century muckrakers like Upton Sinclar (The Jungle, 1906) and Ida Tarbell (The History of the Standard Oil Company, 1904). Nonetheless, his work is particularly significant for the visibility it brought Mexican Americans in mainstream US media outlets.
Salazar’s journalism and investigative work also brought him, of course, plenty of unwanted attention from law enforcement, including the FBI. The amount of scrutiny he endured contributed greatly to the idea and possibility that Salazar’s death might have been an assassination.
There are many contemporary journalists who continue to report in the service of social justice, putting themselves personally and professionally at risk. In relation to the Latino/a community, there are many writers who are working to expose the truths of contemporary immigration. Some of these journalists have put themselves at risk in various ways in order to advocate for social change in these areas.
Some journalists advocating for immigrant rights today include:
*Jose Antonio Vargas: After having succeeded professionally as a journalist for outlets like The Washington Post, where he earned a Pulitzer Prize, Vargas made the decision to “out” himself as an undocumented immigrant in order to show his solidarity with the DREAMers, who are student activists seeking passage of the federal DREAM Act, which would provide temporary residency for undocumented people brought to the US as children and who join the military or enroll in college. Vargas documented his life in a piece published in The New York Times in June 2011 titled “My life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”
*Sonia Nazario: Nazario won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for Enrique’s Journey, a series published in the Los Angeles Times about the phenomenon of immigration by unaccompanied minors, which focused on the journey of “Enrique” from Honduras to the United States. She not only documented the hardships endured by young people who make their way through harsh conditions and violence across thousands of miles of hostile territory, often with little to no money, but she also made the journey herself in order to better understand the subject. She subsequently released the book Enrique’s Journey.
*Óscar Martínez: Salvadoran journalist Martínez also investigated the risks faced by Central Americans on journeys north. He did so by traveling eight times on the treacherous freight trains (nicknamed “the Beast”), often ridden by immigrants on their way north. Martínez wrote The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail in 2013.
Another important area of investigation and activism for writers on both sides of the border is the “war on drugs” being conducted in the US and Mexico that has led to extreme violence at the border. Just a few of the contemporary journalists and organizations focusing their work on the politics behind this war include:
*Alfredo Corchado: A Mexican American journalist based in Mexico City, whose book Midnight in Mexico chronicles his life in the face of receiving threats of violence because of his reporting on government collaboration with drug cartels.
*Diego Enrique Osorno: A prolific Mexican journalist, who has written quite a bit about Mexican cartels. His website: Diego Enrique Osorno
*John Gibler: Gibler frequently reports from Mexico and who in his most recent book, To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War, looks at the culture of impunity surrounding drug war-related violence.
*Anabel Hernández: The Mexican journalist who in her most recently translated work, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers, discusses the connections between drug cartels and the government. An interview with Hernández on Democracy Now!: Narcoland: Journalist Braves Death Threats to Reveal Ties Between Mexican Government & Drug Cartels.
*The documentary Reportero, looks at the dangers faced by reporters investigating the drug war in Tijuana.
*The Press Freedom Index 2013, published by Reporters Without Borders, collects data on violence against journalists worldwide and ranks nations according to press freedom.
A significant and growing area of advocacy for today’s journalists is that of governmental transparency. Some of the stories recently or currently in the news that have fueled debates over the need for more or less governmental transparency and secrecy include:
*Bradley Manning’s 2010 collaboration with WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website edited by Julian Assange, to which the former US Army soldier leaked thousands of classified documents, some related to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a large number of diplomatic cables.
*More documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, which started to run in The Guardian and The Washington Post in June 2013. These have included information on NSA surveillance operations that surprised and infuriated many Americans and international allies.
*An Associated Press investigation that revealed that Robert Levinson, an American citizen who disappeared in Iran in 2007, was on an unapproved mission launched by CIA analysts.
AP Story: Missing American in Iran was on Unapproved Mission.
*In an age when many cable news channels seem to have a political bias or agenda, people often lament the absence of media objectivity. Should reporters aspire to objectivity? Is it possible for news reporting to be objective?
*Is it appropriate for reporters to advocate for political and/or social causes? Is advocacy journalism effective?
*Should news outlets cooperate with the federal government on issues related to national security?
*Should there be limits on the types of information that news outlets can report?
*How have new technologies and new media (especially Internet-based media) changed the ways in which we are able to receive and process information?