Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Rebel Reporter

Free-lance journalist John Ross (1938-2011) arrived in Mexico City one week after the September 1985 earthquake.  Rubble in the streets of the Centro Historico blocked his taxi’s access to his intended destination; he walked the last blocks to Hotel Isabel on Isabel de la Católica Street.  In response to his knocking the bell captain opened the massive door wearing what John described as an uncharacteristic full-dress uniform with shiny brass buttons running up his chest.

“Do you have a room?,” John asked.

“A room?” querried the bell captain.  “I have 75 rooms!”

After weighing the pros and cons of the many rooms and floors John checked-in to room 102, on the second floor with windows opening onto Isabel la Católica street.  It was his home for the next 25 years.

From Room 102 John led his readers through every major Mexican news story - from political upheavals to environmental crises.  John broke the story of the impending Zapatista uprising in Chiapas weeks before it happened and anticipated the negative impact proposed laws would have on the fragile ejido system before they were passed.  John’s first rule of journalism was, “Be there.  You can’t report stories you haven’t witnessed personally.  Develop your sources.  Over the years I’ve maintained sources as diverse as homeless beggars and those in lofty positions of power.” 

John’s last interview was in room 102 on December 29, 2010 with Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins while I moved his archive to a van for the first leg of its trip to the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley.

John, with the distinction of being the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico, checked out of Hotel Isabel on December 31, 2010 – two weeks before his imminent death.  Alive, John was one of our favorite people.  Dead, he remains one of our most admired.

Last Saturday, Carol and I made our way back to the Hotel Isabel lobby for the presentation of John Ross’ posthumously published, Rebel Reporting, John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists.

The “event” began with Norman Stockwell explaining how and why he’d edited and published the collection of journalism lectures his friend John had first given at San Francisco’s New College in 2006 and again in Wisconsin at Madison College in 2010.  “Dissemination of these lectures was the only thing John ever asked of me.  This book is my fulfillment of a promise made.”

A disparate group of eighteen was present -- aged 16-80.  In the once-grand lobby of the hotel, we’d pulled up chairs and celebrated our friend and the publication of his book.

Self-effacing, Stockwell said he’d “unsuccessfully offered the book to every leftist publisher in the United States.”  Just when he thought he’d let John down, a publisher surfaced.  Stockwell gives credit to many but I believe the credit belongs in his corner.  The existence of this beautiful, pithy, 118-page volume is an act of love.  There are two excellent forwards by Democracy Now’s own Amy Goodman and by Robert W. McChesney, University of Illinois professor of communications.

During Carol’s 2010 interview with John he had referred to the lectures now published in Rebel Reporting, “These are the most important of my unpublished papers.”  In a short summary of the lectures John emphasized, “To cover a story, go to where it happened, be a part of it. It’s not your job to be objective.  Find the truth and tell it.  Stand for Something. Don’t write anything you don’t believe.” 

John’s good friend, Hermann Bellinghausen, was among the 18 present last Saturday. John was Bellinghausen’s journalism colleague and godfather to Hermann’s young son, Julian, present at this book presentation. 

For many years Bellinghausen has covered Chiapas, the Zapatistas and sub-commandante Marcos.  He shared humorous and poignant memories of his friend — while deeply lamenting the unavailability of John’s books and articles in Spanish.  “It’s surprising and unfortunate but all of John’s writings about Mexico are in English.  John published three books about the Zapatistas and a novel about Mexico; all are important. 

“It’s also little known in Mexico how significant John was as a friendly interpreter of Mexico to the U.S… There’s never been a journalist like him.  In addition, he was a great poet, one of the last beatniks and a passionate lover of jazz…

“Though relatively unknown in Mexico’s intellectual world, John was well-known among Mexican journalists. John never let himself be tricked by power or fame.  Maybe that’s why he isn’t translated into Spanish – he didn’t have the right friends and he didn’t try to make them. Even though he wrote so well, with such passion and such a good pen, there are only 18 people here today.  We each need to make an effort for John to be better known.”

Carol and I walked away from the Hotel Isabel relishing our own reminiscences of John, glad we’d gone to where the story was, met John’s friends, and, for a bit, again basked in John’s genius.  In my backpack I carried a stash of copies of Rebel Reporting – published by Hamilton Books -- entrusted to me by Norman Stockwell for sale in Mexico.  Let me know if you would like one.

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