Gary Webb receives the cane of leadership from Al Giordano
Gary Webb Joins Narco News as Guest Editor
Giordano goes to look for América: "The objective conditions now exist for an authentic revolution against Commercial Media Tyranny"
By Al Giordano
Publisher On Sabbatical
March 3, 2003
Don Andrés Vasquez de Santiago
Photo D.R. Noah Friedman-Rudovsky 2003
ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO; FEBRUARY 20, 2003: On the rooftop of the tallest building on the Caribbean Isle of Women, the Narco News cane of leadership was passed last Thursday to Authentic Journalist Gary Webb.
Gary Webb, the man who broke the back of drug war simulation by exposing the complicity of the U.S. government with drug trafficking in his series Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, will be taking over my editorial duties at Narco News, beginning immediately, through April 15th.
More on this new addition to the News Team in a moment: First, kind reader, we return to a rooftop in Isla Mujeres on a Thursday morning where 26 Authentic Journalism scholars and their professors said goodbye – for now – after ten intense days and nights of working together…
World Wide Webb:
Journalist as Revolutionary
“A journalist,” the 48-year-old Webb told the 26 Authentic Journalism Scholars and their professors on that rooftop over the Caribbean Sea, “is, and must be, a revolutionary.”
It was the final morning of 240 hours of marathon sessions of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. A seabird glided effortlessly over our circle, passing between the scorching midday sun and don Andrés Vasquez de Santiago, our 93-year-old Senior Faculty Member, who had opened the final session by thanking the “young people from so many lands for working so hard” during these ten days on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
Don Andrés then passed the bastón de mando, the cane walked upon by Abbie Hoffman during the last nine months of his life until April 1989, around the circle of Authentic Journalists. Abbie’s widow and running mate, Johanna Lawrenson, had presented this cane to me after Abbie’s death. The cane passed from hand to hand so that each would speak our words, one by one, and that – in the spirit of Authentic Journalism – all voices would be heard.
When the bastón came full circle back to me I looked out at the endless turquoise waters that surround this eight kilometer pencil of an island – the same seas where Colombian speedboats carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine each are still regularly seized bringing their contraband cargos by night – and I explained that my teacher who had once walked with this same cane had taken his own life in part due to the isolation of being an authentic revolutionary in pre-revolutionary times.
“I was going to say that Abbie should have been here this week, he would have loved these ten days,” I thought out loud, grasping the carved hardwood staff that has worn smooth over the past 14 years from the, at times, desperate grip of my calloused fingers. A tear rolled down my cheek: “But now I see. Abbie is here, in Mexico, again. Abbie Hoffman, presente!”
Abbie’s isolation, like that of all revolutionaries, is one I have also felt when I have been seated, too often, at a computer screen somewhere in a country called América over the past three years, or when I’ve been attacked in court by narco-bankers and left to fend for myself, or especially when I have felt, at times, a stomach-growling hunger for food and, always, a thirst for justice and truth, two staples that have become scarce during the long drought of authenticity wrought by the Commercial Media and its simulating machines.
I have loved my moments in the field for Narco News, reporting, listening, learning… but I confess that I already hate remaining seated hours on end with my eyes fixed upon pixels, typing like a woodpecker.
Beginning last Thursday, I felt droplets of freedom in the salty Quintana Roo wind. I knew, for the first time, that this ship of Authentic Journalism had now been constructed so that it could and would sail forward with or without me. It will be in the best of hands in the coming weeks when I slip away from this computer screen and go looking, as I did six years ago, for the news; the immediate news, directly from the masses, with my feet upon the land, without middlemen or other meddlers – or their technologies of domination – coming between that news and me.
Across the circle, Laura del Castillo Matamoros, 22, of Colombia, held the cane and explained, “When I came here, I admit, I was ashamed to be a journalist. I never thought I would ever attend, in my entire life, an event like this where I could learn so much from so many great journalists like Luis Gómez and all of you who would make me proud again.”
Laura del Castillo and Luis Gómez
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Luis Gómez, 36, has been the co-architect of this online newspaper “reporting on the drug war and democracy from Latin América,” for more than a year now: my hard-edged, wisecracking, workaholic, co-conspirator in this M.A.S.H. unit that is the Narco Newsroom. Gómez and I, for the past 15 months, have churned out report after report, translated each other’s work, and we have also spent the past three months pulling the leading voices of drug policy reform and authentic journalism from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, the United States and other lands toward Mérida where, many of them finally met each other and collaborated directly for the first time on February 12th through 15th. A Pan-American drug legalization movement was born here last week, as can be read through so many recent Narco News reports.
But holding that cane on Thursday, even Luis, a genuinely tough guy who – as some of our smartest students had fast figured out – had been assigned the “hard cop” role in this ten day mobile university in order to make me look like a nice guy, he choked in the middle of his stern lecture (Luis was saying something on this rooftop about baby scorpions who eat their mothers in order to survive… and if I understood him right, I think the scorpion mother he had in mind for this metaphor was me… vintage Gómez), Luis fell silent, and he could not stop the smile of the Grinch on Christmas Day that seized his unshaven face. He beamed out toward some of the students he had personally guided: youngsters like Reed Lindsay, 27, who announced, cane in hand, that on his way back home to Buenos Aires he’ll be stopping in Cochabamba, Bolivia – as guest of our elder scholarship student Alex Contreras, 39, a powerful mentoring force to much of the student body – to report from the coca-growers’ region of the Chapare at the edge of the Amazon forest.
(“Reed is in Cochabamba,” Contreras would later write to me, on March 1. “Yesterday morning we went to sample coca leaves with the growers, at noon we ate lunch with labor leader Oscar Olivera, and now Reed is in the Chapare region. Tomorrow we’re going to Oruro and passing through the hometown of Evo Morales with the very same coca growers’ leader. I think this support among the 26 Auténticos is important for our continent. Thanks for all your teachings and your example, a hug from Bolivia, Alex.”)
Alex Contreras and Reed Lindsay
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Another of Luis’ charges, Adam Saytanides, 32, recent graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Chicago’s Northwestern University, has just learned that next week his first published cover story will appear on page one of the prestigious weekly, The Chicago Reader. They and other students were part of the Investigative Journalism working group during these ten days on the Yucatán, led by Webb, Gómez, Jeremy Bigwood, Maria Botey Pascual, Renato Rovai, Kim Alphandary, and other members of our faculty. And now Gómez turns them loose – his band of baby scorpions, I smile to myself – on a world that will never be the same as a result.
Gómez and Webb, who I introduced to each other ten days prior at the gates of the Cancún International Airport, already make quite the team. The Giordano Show now gives way to the Gary and Luis leadership duo. Some of the Brazilian gals have tagged Webb with a nickname: “He’s the Marlboro Man of Authentic Journalism,” say the gatas… he’s tall, handsome, charismatic, and, here’s a scoop; Gary Webb is half Italian, which may partly explain his toughness when the forces of false journalism tried to bounce him from this industry, to destroy him for the crime of having reported the truth. The professional simulators have utterly – it is now official, así hablaba Narco News – failed to take Webb out of the game.
Gary Webb: The Brasilian auténticas
called him “the Marlboro Man”
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
The Comeback Kid of Authentic Journalism, Gary Webb, is here, now, in the Narco Newsroom: Fuerte aplauso, chicos y chicas!
Webb will now, in partnership with Gómez, have the keys to the Narco News battleship, and I have bequeathed total editorial control to the team of Webb and Gómez through April 15th, while I go in the next few days on my South American walkabout.
As Narco News readers know, I appealed to you on Christmas Day to help us to recruit a new full-time drug policy reporter. It goes without saying that, thanks to your support, I was able to go straight to the best. And Webb is just one of the additions made, and yet to come, to our News Team.
“Another good choice,” beamed Narco News attorney Tom Lesser, in his characteristic understatement, who was also with us here on the Yucatán teaching libel law and the Narco News-vs.-Banamex court precedent in a course titled: “How Not to Get Sued, and How to Win if You Are Sued for Libel.”
Tom Lesser and Renato Rovai
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Renato Rovai, the editor of the Brazilian magazine Forum, who edited the many Portuguese stories reported on Narco News over the past ten days, took the cane in hand and spoke, “Years ago, revolutionaries would meet and learn how to use guns. Today we meet and learn how to use computers, cameras, audio recorders, and words.”
Thursday, February 20th, 2003, marked the load-out: A rebel army of Authentic Journalism is prepared, is armed, and now goes on the march to the four corners of our América.
February 10th, Puerto Morelos:
A School is Born
The task of bringing together diverse journalists from so many different countries and seven distinct languages – the native tongues of the participants included Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Italian, Catalan and don Andres’ Otomi-Nahñü – presented definitive challenges for us as people gathered the first night, February 10th, in the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Morelos, south of Cancún.
We brought professors, like me, who feel that working for the Commercial Media is already a venture fraught with peril and better to make our own media than suffer the slings and arrows of corrupted media. We also brought professors like Ann Harrison of California and Sarah de Haro – who covered the Mérida Drug Legalization Summit for Le Monde Diplomatíque in Paris – who, in pluralist counterpoint, coached the students in how to keep one’s dignity and have success working inside the establishment media.
Annie Harrison with her City of San Francisco medical
marijuana patient’s license; John Gilmore with his medical
marijuana care-giver’s license, in Tixkokob, Yucatán.
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Remember, kind readers, that the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism has intentionally and irrevocably broken the rules of academia. Students pay no tuition. Professors are not paid, and, in fact, the great majority paid their own travel and lodging costs to get to Mexico for the privilege of teaching such an all-star cast of students. We had no grades, no report cards, no pass-fail system… no power relationship of professors over students, other than the force of personality and experience, that’s all.
I basically loathe everything that “higher education” has come to stand for because I feel that its goal is to turn students into buyers and sellers of commodities, including buyers of their own “education,” and that the university system does not help young people realize their own dreams and talents according to their own desires. In fact, I picked many students for this school who, like me, had not graduated from any college, but, rather, are Phi Beta Kappa key holders in the School of Hard Knocks.
These people – the autodidacts – have learned and lived a subject not taught in colleges: the ability to be a person of character. But woe to the poor thing that has wasted four years at a university and must then spend still more years unlearning every little piece of bullshit he or she has “learned.” Too many “educated” people have forgotten how to learn, and what they have “learned” (or, better said, what they have been programmed to accept) they now have to unlearn. It’s a “class” thing: If you have difficulty with this concept, kind reader, consult an expert like, say… Eminem. Now that this different kind of J-School is, according to all involved, such a smashing success, kind readers, the empirical data is mounting: The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism will – it must – continue.
We had political differences on campus, too. The college president never sent in the cops to crush dissent. I am a pluralist and I invited professors who disagree with each other – and with me – on basic matters. Last Sunday, a nighttime discussion titled “What is Democracy?” was led by Internet pioneer John Gilmore, a libertarian capitalist, and La Jornada columnist Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, former political prisoner accused as comandante of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army in Bolivia, where she spent five years behind bars. It got everyone talking and thinking and that made it one of the two best sessions of the J-School.
Sarah de Haro (right) covered the Merida Summit for
Le Monde Diplomatique then joined the J-School faculty.
Ava Salazar, our youngest student, addresses the
Drug Legalization Summit in Merida.
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Last Monday night, we all debated the Venezuelan problem of Commercial Media. Blanca Eekhout, of Catia TV in Caracas, Charlie Hardy, the 63-year-old columnist of Vheadline.com, and Kim Alphandary, who broke the news in February 2002 that an attempted coup was coming to Venezuela, with your correspondent moderating, we discussed concepts of “What is Press Freedom?” and at what point, if ever, the people might be justified to make a democratic decision to revoke the licenses of Commercial TV stations.
Another fault line in the line-up was between those professors who believed in teaching the students how to work within the Commercial Media, and those of us who, like your college president, have already rejected it totally (we’d rather dig ditches for a living than put up with that shit ever again). So last Tuesday morning we invited veteran journalist Jules Siegel, 67, who lives in Cancún. After sardonically describing entertaining incidents from his more than forty-years of struggling with the absurdities of organizations ranging from the Westchester County Republican Committee to Playboy, he summed up ruefully, “If you want to succeed, just do what they tell you to do. Otherwise, take your work to a printer and publish it yourself.” Jules made the point that if you work for the Commercial Media, whatever paragraph of your story that you feel is the most important paragraph, will almost always be cut by editors.
Then, that same Tuesday night, we held a discussion with workers inside the Independent Media—Sunny Angulo and Adriana Veloso of IndyMedia, Stephen Marshall of Guerrilla News, and Renato Rovai of Forum magazine in Brazil—about how to make one’s own media. These three nights – What is Democracy? What is Press Freedom? Will we make our own media or will we work for Commercial Media? – were nights of fierce debate, with six or ten hands in the air all at once, marathon sessions where almost everybody present wanted to speak, and did speak. And that was beautiful, in my opinion, because the most serious dangers in this world occur when people don’t feel motivated to speak about what ails them.
And the following morning, Wednesday, February 19, Annie Harrison, who has reported for National Public Radio and others, together with Sara de Haro of Le Monde Diplomatíque, Jeremy Bigwood (who has suffered the slings and arrows particular to being a professional photojournalist), and Reed Lindsay, who slaved at the terrible and now-defunct English-language The News of Mexico City, gave the other side of the coin: how to put up with horrible bosses in the Commercial Media and still practice your trade.
Raquel Gutierrez and John Gilmore debated “What is Democracy?”
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Prior to this now historic gathering, Gómez and I decided to design the first five days of the J-School into such an intensive marathon work session – reporting from the drug legalization summit – that no one would have time for political differences. We put the finest steel through the hottest fire, imposing deadlines and individual faculty advisors on each of the students to get solid reporting and commentary out of them and assure that each of the stellar participants – political and social leaders from all over América – would be interviewed extensively in addition to having their speeches covered.
Jeremy Bigwood, the Washington DC veteran journalist and expert in use of the Freedom of Information Act to bring secret government documents to light, served as Photo Editor of Narco News during these ten days and mobilized a dozen or more photographers with such efficiency that we will have years of archival photos to publish with our reports on Narco News. I would like to make a public thanks to Bigwood: He came, he complied, he conquered, and at future sessions of the J-School, he will always be welcome. I like people who comply with their tasks, 24 hours a day, in ways that help all the other tasks along. Jeremy is top shelf. He’s in. In the immortal words of Salón Chingón, he is cordially invited.
Thanking a team of 26 professors – our student-teacher ratio was one to one – is an adventure fraught with peril because indubitably I will understate or forget the important contribution of somebody. The best I can do is say which of them helped me, personally, above and beyond the call of duty. Old friends of mine like Tom Lesser, since 1977, Libby Spencer, since 1980, Michele Stoddard, since 1982, Ethan Nadelmann, since 1989, Annie Harrison, since 1991… people who taught me, are now teaching my students, too.
A special acknowledgement to the New York City delegation to Yucatán is warranted. There are two who came a few days in advance to help in the preparations and, early on, set the tone that kept me more or less calm and balanced for the ten days: My dear friend Michele Stoddard, former editor and reporter for Covert Action Quarterly, who started working on my ideological development when I was a lad of 23 and thus was able to throw her self into the pedagogy of this next generation of students with experience and gusto. And I am so absolutely thrilled that Annie Nocenti, editor of Scenario magazine, and author of Batman comics for DC publishers, took some days off from her important work – whether showing Francis Ford Coppolla around Manhattan or introducing musician David Byrne to the Zapatistas – to come and grace our students and me with her enthusiastic free-thinking wisdom.
Each student had a faculty advisor. Nocenti coached Brazilian J-student Ana Cernov with great precision and warmth, and the results showed after just a few days, unleashing Cernov’s raw talent while helping her to refine it splendidly. Journalists were born on these days but this could not have happened by my hand alone. The contributions of Stoddard and Nocenti, among many other professors, serve as models for the next time we host the School of Authentic Journalism, and have helped to assure that, yes, no doubt, there will be a next time.
February 11th: Cancún to Mérida
Photo D.R. Noah Friedman-Rudovsky 2003
Salón Chingón Awakens
On the first full day of classes we boarded the 45-seat Narco News bus – non-smokers in the front, thank you very much for your tolerance – to the offices of the daily Por Esto! in Cancún where editor Renán Castro and the news team that first discovered, reported and photographed narco-trafficking activities on the properties of banker Roberto Hernández Ramírez in 1996 – reporters Lisandro Coronado, Gabriel Santos Us Ake and photographer Gonzalo Subirats – told the story behind the story that shook the continent and led to the landmark New York Supreme Court verdict, in December 2001, extending First Amendment protections to Internet journalists.
Renán Castro, Gonzálo Subirats, and Lisandro Coronado at Cancún Por Esto!
Photos of Castro and Coronado D.R. John Gilmore 2003
Photo of Subirats D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Then, back on the smoke-filled bus, we rolled four hours off to Mérida.
For four days and nights in Mérida, nobody got much sleep. The constant hum of laptops and taps of fingers on keypads could be heard from our base campus, the Hotel Trinidad (special thanks to don Manolo Rivera, Yucatán’s legendary patron of the arts and of struggling talented artists, owner of the Hotel Trinidad and the Hotel Trinidad Galeria, where many of our faculty stayed, to don Hernán Duarte, director of Hotel Trinidad, to doña Silvia and to all the wonderful and professional staff, who made our Mérida oasis campus possible), , down to 62nd street to the 24-hour Internet facilities at the Café La Habana.
Our own Narco News J-School lounge – Salón Chingón – captained by our Italian bartender Tiberio (the very same celebrity bartender mentioned in the Mexican cinema blockbuster of the past year, “Y tú mama también“) and my own wartime consigliere Victor Amezcua, a native of Michoacan who helped me construct this event, became the center of intellectual life in Mérida on those nights. Tiberio and Victor served fresh mojitos and caipirinhas – as well as a stock of cold Coronas, Victorias, and the Yucateca beers León Negra and Montejo – and an ever-constant pot of hot coffee, not to mention the nightly pizzas, to the assembled.
Tiberio and Victor
Photos D.R. John Gilmore 2003
I am often asked “What is this Salón Chingón that you are always talking and writing about?” I enjoy being vague about it, especially on the Internet, because Salón Chingón is, by intention, a threat to time spent assuming the position demanded by the screen when we are on the Internet: Salón Chingón, in my opinion, is every life affirming damn thing that happens in life without middlemen and media meddling in between the people and our desires.
Salón Chingón is merely a name – it was invented by our Tina Modotti Authentic Journalism Scholar Zabeth Flores, 22, of Mexico City – as a response to the final chapter of The Medium Is The Middleman, the chapter titled “An Immedia Salon.” It is also, by definition, a collaborative venture among individuals, which I have now handed over to the Authentic 26 to do what they wish, and have told our professors – and, most importantly, my self – to stay out of the way while the students work it out. One thing about Salón Chingón that is constant: the pleasure principal is omnipresent. If nobody’s having a good time, it ain’t Salón Chingón. But life was definitively chingónista in Mérida and beyond.
Zabeth Flores, author of the words “Salón Chingón”
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
The first morning in Mérida, we began with a presentation that I titled “Writing on Deadline: Reporting the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the News Accurately, Conscientiously and on the Same Day.” The first presenter was Gary Webb, veteran of many daily newspapers, of a Pulitzer Prize, of four libel suits, and of what happens to journalists who tell the truth against powerful forces. Webb was followed by Catalan novelist and journalist Maria Botey Pascual – who had worked as Por Esto!’s correspondent on the island of Cozumel, producing as many as eight articles a day – on the same theme; how to meet a daily deadline and not lose one’s soul.
We wanted the students to work as never before to get the news of the Mérida Summit out to our readers across the globe, and many had expressed fears over their inexperience writing short-form fast news journalism in the style of daily newspaper reporting. But Botey and Webb had their impact:
Luis Gómez only had to file one opening report – “Light Speed” – about the opening of the J-School sessions, and I didn’t have to file even one, because the reports fast came pouring in from the students: The Brazilians were first out of the gate; Helena Klang and Karine Muller, reporting in Portuguese, Carola Mittrany in Spanish and Adriana Veloso in English… Narco News’ conversion to a tri-lingual newspaper, now adding Portuguese to our Spanish and English reporting.
The Auténticas from Brazil:
Adriana Veloso, Ana Cernov, Carola Mittrany, Helena Klang,
Karine Muller, and Vivian Mannheimer, with Renato Rovai (back)
Photo D.R. Noah Friedman-Rudovsky 2003
Then, as the Mérida Summit opened, a major conflict exploded in Bolivia. Congressman and indigenous leader from that country, Felipe Quispe, “El Mallku” or Great Condor Prince of the Aymara and other indigenous nations, had been with us for two days now, a guest of honor – with Alvaro Garcia Linares of La Paz, Attorney Rose Marie Acha of Cochabamba, Raquel Gutierrez Aguilar, and don Andres – at our February 12th luncheon with Por Esto! publisher Mario Menéndez, asked if Narco News could spread the word around the world as to what was truly occurring: the conflict had led to 38 deaths, the burning of four government ministry buildings, and the resignation of the entire cabinet of that country’s president.
We translated and published, immediately, El Mallku’s communiqué, “In Defense of Life and Democracy,” in Spanish and English, with reports about Quispe and the conflict by Karine Muller and Alex Contreras, and a background piece on the overall Bolivian coca situation by Reed Lindsay..
And now, in Bolivia, the culmination of our year of intensive reporting has come: the Bolivian government, its hand forced by the democratic will of its own people, has now, for the first time, stood up to U.S. Embassy pressures and will allow subsistence farmers to plant and harvest a small plot of coca leaf on each farm, for traditional use. This, too, happened during these ten days in February.
Felipe Quispe and Anthony Lappé
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Meanwhile, Veloso rattled off an interview with Guerrilla News editor Anthony Lappé, also with us in Mérida, offering a hands-on workshop on documentary filmmaking with a video co-produced by eight students: five women from Brazil – Veloso, Mittrany, Klang, Muller, and Cernov, also with Andrea Daugirdas of New York, Zabeth Flores of Mexico City, and Ugo Vallauri of Bologna, Italy. Halfway through the ten-day J-School, Lappé headed back to New York and was replaced by his partner Stephen Marshall, now putting the finishing touches on the documentary about Authentic Journalism which features interviews with Mario Menéndez of Mexico, attorney Tom Lesser of Massachusetts, Gary Webb of California, and Blanca Eekhout of Venezuela… coming soon to a computer screen and to film festivals near you.
February 12th: Mérida
Paradigm Shift for Journalists and Drug Policy
Particularly memorable among the presentations in Mérida was a standing-room-only late night discussion with Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance from New York. Ethan continued our argument-among-friends that he and I have maintained in various forms since 1989 about whether drug legalization is possible in the United States or whether what is needed, first, is for Latin America to collapse the drug war at its root to force action North of the Border. Ethan and I also continued our long-running debate about whether it is possible to get decent news coverage out of large media institutions like the New York Times. That’s when the first major paradigm shift occurred.
By that late-night session – it began at 10 p.m. the first night of the Mérida Summit – my voice was cracking and beginning to falter from having to whip two different events – the J-School and the less well-organized drug legalization conference – into shape all at once. Ethan, always formidable and fun as a debating partner, was getting the upper hand in the discussion as my voice weakened with every sentence I tried to speak. Other old hands at drug policy reform like John Gilmore of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, Maria Mercedes Moreno of Mama Coca, and the gray eminence of the Peruvian coca plant Baldomero Caceres, looked on, fascinated, by the openness of disagreement yet in a spirit of solidarity and alliance between Nadelmann and I. The concept of Giordano losing his voice had to be somewhat entertaining as well, I’m sure.
Al Giordano and Ethan Nadelmann
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
And then it happened: the first of the J-School students to take her journalism education into her own hands began to teach. My world was changed at this moment, kind reader, and maybe yours too.
Blanca Eekhout, 33, coordinator of Catia TV in Caracas, Venezuela, a young woman who last April marched with the masses to retake the public television station from a military coup, the turning point in the defeat of that attack on democracy, rose to her feet and, translated by Ricardo Sala, 35, of Mexico City, told Ethan and the rest of the assembled precisely why the Commercial Media is structurally incapable of telling the truth.
In other words, bad journalism by mass media organizations is not a matter of mistakes: It is intentional, institutional and by design. And it is, as I said that night in Mérida, the single largest obstacle or wall to systemic change regarding the drug war or any other issue in which El Señor Dictador, don Dinero, has his stubby fingers.
“The media are instruments of economic interests,” Eekhout explained, opening a new strategic front for both the drug policy reform movement and the Authentic Journalism renaissance. Blanca gave me the opening to then compare the behavior of the Commercial Media in the United States in 1989 with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s million-dollar-a-day ad campaign funded by pharmaceutical, alcohol and tobacco companies, to the misdeeds of the Venezuelan media last April: This is your brain, this is your brain on media… Any questions?
On this intense international stage with the movers and shakers from so many lands present and together with our students, Blanca Eekhout drew the lines of demarcation. If the Commercial Media steals the public airwaves to exclude the voices of the many in favor of giving monopoly voice only to those with money, then it is time to confront the Commercial Media directly, to arm the people to fight back with cameras, video and audio recorders, cell phones… to raise all voices.
I sat there with my throat cracked and dry and unable to shout in my normal range of volume and octaves… now I was, literally, one of the voiceless. And Blanca was giving me voice. Every word she spoke seemed to have welled up from deep inside of me, and yet she hadn’t taken these ideas from my texts, but, rather, from her lived experience in Venezuela with the country’s longest running non-commercial Community TV station.
Photo D.R. Al Giordano 2003
I know that my old friend Ethan took notice: He was listening intently to this force of nature who stands in a small olive-skinned frame, her fist on her hip, standing, then kneeling, on her chair, belting a message of such precision and power and the thought occurred to me: In my long and lonely battle launched in 1997 with the manifesto The Medium Is The Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media, could it be that I was no longer alone in this view?
Even the most radical “media activism” or reform organizations have always seemed pale and timid, to me, in their critiques, often replicating or even sucking up to the systems of media dominance that they want to oppose. But Eekhout is something else: an authentic warrior who not only understands that the Commercial Media is commander of the New Tyranny, but who has developed means of mass communication and action to collapse its mediating power. She’s not just about words. She is deed incarnate. And she speaks for me. Somebody in this world, I thought, speaks for me as articulately – or more so – than I have been able to speak for myself.
And she was one of my “students.” That, kind readers, is the essence of the School of Authentic Journalism.
February 12th to 15th: Mérida
Every End is a Beginning
Meanwhile, 26 Authentic Journalism scholars and a cast of hundreds at the Mérida Drug Legalization Summit spoke for me on the issue I have spoken most about in the past 14 years: drug policy in our América. The event in Mérida represents a culmination, in a way, a personal end of one epoch for me.
Six years ago I headed South of the Border into Latin América, spent two years “off screen,” away from the Internet, away from Newsrooms, and lived directly with the people who do not have computer screens in their homes. Eventually, the teachings of so many Latin Americans found their way into publication through Narco News, launched on April 18, 2000. Mérida began the process of bringing together of so many of these sources now, for the first time, to collaborate and work together with each other.
This event was designed, from the part that came from my participation, to eliminate – or at least radically lessen the role of – one Middleman in particular: Me. Until that had been done, there was no way I could leave my post and go on the next mission.
And so, kind reader, you can imagine my pleasure at reading so many reports, now, on Narco News, by others, about the themes and personalities that I have written about for years. Vivian Mannheimer of Brazil reported on harm reduction programs in Latin America. Helena Klang of Brazil and Sunny Angulo of the U.S. interviewed and profiled former Colombian Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff, the grandfather of the Latin American drug legalization movement. Andrea Arenas, of La Paz, Bolivia, reported the words of Nancy Obregon, leader of the coca growers of Peru. Arenas also reported on the work of Peruvian coca scholar Baldomero Caceres, and in yet another story. Andrea Daugirdas of New York and Elizabeth Flores of Mexico City profiled Ethan Nadelmann and his work leading a drug legalization movement in the United States. Dan Malakoff of Washington DC covered our journalists’ panel at the Mérida conference, which I moderated, featuring Renato Rovai, Luis Gómez, Annie Harrison, Carola Mittrany, Blanca Eekhout and Gary Webb. Ugo Vallauri of Bologna and Karine Muller of Rio de Janeiro – who also speaks Italian – interviewed the Italian anti-prohibitionists who came to Mérida. The ever-productive Alex Contreras furnished two articles (1,2) in a series on the legislators who came from various countries and the drug reform laws they propose. Adam Saytanides covered the keynote speech of Mexican Congressman Gregorio Urias, and also reported, in English, an overview of the work of the various legislators from different lands. Ana Cernov, of Sao Paulo, interviewed Maria Mercedes Moreno of the Mama Coca organization. Reed Lindsay covered the speech by Fernando Buendía of Ecuador and conducted a stellar in-depth interview of him.
We can’t forget, either, the Narco News Street Team, led by professor Kim Alphandary, that interviewed rank-and-file attendees of the Mérida Summit, or the stamina of some elder professors like Diana Ricci and Stan Gotlieb of Oaxaca, who despite suffering coughs and colds hung in to participate in this long sleepless marathon. Or former Los Angeles correspondent Bertha Rodríguez, a native of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, who accompanied don Andrés and his team on a side trip to a curandero near Chichen Itza who, with natural medicine, restored don Andrés’ eyesight, also during these ten wonderful days.
Ashley Kennedy and Charlie Hardy
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
And then there was Ashley Kennedy, 33, of New Orleans, who wrote one of the best long-form reported columns I have read in any magazine for years: “The Superior Bush,” about the humble coca plant. Her faculty advisor, Vheadline columnist Charlie Hardy, did an obviously splendid job. I have now contracted Kennedy to write more for Narco News, kind readers, which I know you will enjoy immensely.
If I haven’t mentioned every story yet it’s because there are so many – they all deserve reading and many will be translated into other languages in the coming weeks. And we’re also still editing and posting stories from our students and professors. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, our youngest student, Ava Salazar, 18, of New Mexico, has an extended assignment with our eldest professor. Don Andrés Vasquez de Santiago and don Miguel Alvarez of the Indigenous National Congress have invited her back to their Central Mexican lands to live with their families and peoples, where she will complete her long biographical report on don Andrés for Narco News. There’s a symmetry here: It was Andrés and Miguel who, six years ago, similarly took this gringo under their protection and counsel.
Adriana Veloso and Mario Menéndez
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
There were other, parallel, symmetries: Three of the students, Adriana Veloso, 23, of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, George Sanchez, 23, of San Francisco and Carola Mittrany, 23, of Rio de Janeiro, were assigned to spend extensive time with my co-defendant and mentor Mario Menéndez and report on how he publishes Mexico’s third largest daily newspaper each night. When placing the three twenty-three-year-olds with the old lion of Authentic Journalism, I told him: “Mario, your job is to teach them leadership, as you taught me.”
“Authentic Journalism,” Mario had explained to our students during a February 12th luncheon at the Amaro restaurant in downtown Mérida, “is not about one person; it must be exercised by a team. If you try to do it alone you will end up isolated, alone and cynical like Giordano was when he first came to Mexico.”
George Sanchez and Carola Mittrany
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
It’s no secret to readers that I have grown increasingly concerned – indeed obsessed – with the tyranny of the Commercial Media over life on earth: the colonization of human consciousness to make it serve the inhuman goals of money at a grave cost to basic human needs and pleasures everywhere in our world. Indeed, that’s why we have a drug war, and other warlike policies of domination, causing so much misery for everyone.
I believe that unless and until we solve this problem of Commercial Media tyranny, there will always be a prohibitionist drug policy for as long as the economic elites want to impose it. I believe that if, in the United States, a mass movement for drug legalization begins to take root as it has in Latin America, that the Commercial Media up North will attempt to plaster it. And I believe this sad truth impedes every other decent cause of humanity for authentic democracy, human rights, the environment, equality and social justice. The Commercial Media will always throw a few crumbs to social movements, but if the movement serves the majority and not just the elites, the Commercial Media will, as it does again and again, come down hard, at that moment when victory may be near, to try and prevent popular triumph.
In sum, as a human being I have had it up to here with the Commercial Media and, as already disclosed many times on these pages, I seek to find and develop the methods, means, and collaboration of the masses to destroy its illusory power.
For the last six years my thoughts on this urgent crisis of Media have evolved and refined. The 1997 text, The Medium is the Middleman, opened one flank of thought and action. The April 2000 Opening Statement of Narco News began to form a more specific project which has grown from a little website that could into an international forum with millions of hits per month, and a growing cast of collaborators. The revised Mission Statement of Immedia Summer 2002 – “The Masses vs. the Media” -began the level of thought combined with action that we implemented this month with the School of Authentic Journalism.
And now the words of Blanca Eekhout and her compañeros in Venezuela have lit a fire under me to take this battle to yet another level: a collaboration; the establishment of an international “Estado Mayor” or, more anarchistically described, a mobile “war machine outside the State” that studies, listens and acts upon efforts as diverse as those of the Community Media in Venezuela, of the daily Por Esto! in Mexico, of Forum magazine in Brazil, of the videos of Guerrilla News and others… in sum: How, now, to mobilize the troops that came together for the School of Authentic Journalism, unite ourselves on an even deeper level with the mass efforts across our América to end this Media Tyranny, and collapse it now, already… ¡Ya Basta!
I know where this story is going to be found and reported: Away from the nexi of mediating power… Not here on the computer screen (at least not yet), or on TV or the radio, or in most newspapers and magazines. This history will be made and found in the oasis of lived experience known as Daily Life. And given the Bolivarian nature of this wind from below – springing forward from so many corners of our América – mastery of just Spanish and English is not enough: I must now learn Portuguese, because Brazil, where that tongue is sung, and the social changes underway there right now are absolutely vital to this effort.
The hour has arrived throughout our América in which the “objective conditions” provide a jumpstart to the next level for the Revolution Against Media and Middlemen. But for me to comply with this duty, this Narco News watchtower needs a shift change.
It’s so important, now more than ever, the work of Narco News, and I could hand it over today to our Andean Bureau Chief Luis Gómez with complete confidence except for two factors: While Luis is more functionally bilingual in my native English than I am in his native Spanish, he is not so fluent in it as to do the final copy editing on our English language pieces. And, secondly, his vast journalistic experience has been in his native Mexico, in Spain, in Bolivia and the Andes, but not in Gringolandia – the United States – where vague libel laws can be a real bitch sometimes even when a libel has not been committed, but when rich people send their lawyers to harass journalists.
Then, kind readers, the process came full circle. Our first full day with the School of Journalism at our beachside campus of Isla Mujeres, a series of events brought me rapidly to another decision.
On Sunday evening, February 16th, Narco News counsel Tom Lesser led his “How not to get sued for libel” workshop with assists from Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore and from one of Lesser’s longest-running clients: me. During that discussion, Gary Webb participated actively, telling war stories from his battles in newspapers and with libel lawyers and I thought: “Hmmmmmm. Webb understands U.S. libel law. Webb has mastery over the English language. Webb knows the drug war. Webb knows leadership. Webb is a hard worker. And everybody here really likes Gary Webb.”
Why didn’t I think of this sooner? Here, now, right in front of me, was the Authentic Journalist for the job I need to leave for a short while in order to comply with the opportunities of this moment to bring the war home to the Commercial Media, and to learn the language of the largest country in Latin America – the Portuguese idiom of Brazil – to complete the process began this month of making Narco News a truly tri-lingual online newspaper.
So, if I need to go learn Portuguese and get away from this screen for a while, what then do I do? How do I accomplish placing this radical on sabbatical and still assure that Narco News complies with its readers and mission?
Kind readers: I have met my replacement and his name is Gary Webb.
Gary Webb and Luis Gómez
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
So on Monday night, February 17th, at our nightly buffet dinner at the Sombrero d’Gomar restaurant (special kudos to José Sánchez Matos, the headwaiter and restaurant manager, to don Jorge Gómez Castilla and dona Teresa Martínez Magana, the owners, and to the very special Maria de Los Santos, manager of the Hotel d’Gomar that served as our campus, for their professionalism and service that made so much possible), I came up to Webb’s table, sat down, and asked him: “Gary, how would you like to run Narco News for a while so I can go learn Portuguese?”
We talked about the details – on which we see eye to eye – and set up a meeting for the following day with our News Team. All the English language news stories will now pass directly through Webb, and Spanish language stories through Gómez. Webb and Gómez, together, will make all Latin American editorial and political decisions jointly. Dan Feder will report directly to Gómez, and post the reports, once edited, online to Narco News.
Luis Gómez, Dan Feder, and Gary Webb:
“Master, Webmaster and Webb”
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Kind readers: As you can see from the multitude of reports on Narco News in recent weeks by an intercontinental army of Authentic Journalists, we are growing. In the coming days and weeks we will make more announcements regarding the expansion of our news team.
Kind readers: Here are your contact addresses to reach our News Team during my long walk.
Guest Editor Gary Webb: firstname.lastname@example.org
Andean Bureau Chief Luis Gómez: email@example.com
Webmaster Dan Feder: firstname.lastname@example.org
Letters to the Editor: email@example.com
Webb’s Guest Editorship ends – he says (maybe, kind readers, we can conspire to encourage him to stay longer?) – on April 15th, and by then I (and others, kind readers, whose fulltime presence on the Narco News Team will be announced at a later date) will offer some plans and actions to jump the larger Revolution Against Media and Middlemen into warp speed. Our credo of “reporting on the drug war and democracy from Latin America” will expand to: “reporting on the drug war, the media, and democracy from Latin America.”
Kind readers: I’m not going to be answering much email, if any, for the coming weeks, until mid-April, when I will reappear in public again and Gary Webb will pass the bastón back to me. By then, I hope, I will be able to respond to you not just in Spanish or English, but also in Portuguese.
This is the skeleton crew of a much larger Narco News Team to come, in which many of the students and professors of the School of Authentic Journalism, and many of you who could not be with us on this first voyage, too, will be involved.
I ask you this favor, kind readers: Please give to Gary Webb and Luis Gómez all the support and kindness you have given me for almost three years now. Write to them with feedback, counsel, stories, links and creative ideas. If they ask a favor of you, do them that favor as you have always done so for me. If you want to get a message to me, sorry, my email box is going to overflow constantly in the coming seven weeks, so don’t even bother. Our team is in place to serve you during my walkabout. Anything I can do for you, they can do for you.
Meanwhile, I still have to earn my own Narco News School of Authentic Journalism diploma – our students Sunny Angulo of San Francisco and Andrea Arenas of La Paz, Bolivia, who gave those handsome diplomas designed by Jules Siegel to all the professors, too, said I can’t have mine yet; I have to stay after school – for which I have to go to our Brazilian campus and learn to pronounce: Caros Leitores: Nos vemos em abril!
EmCees Andrea Arenas, left, and Sunny Angulo, right,
made sure the professors got diplomas, too. Here,
receiving her diploma, Michele Stoddard.
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Full Disclosure: The author wishes to acknowledge the material assistance, encouragement, and guidance, of The Narco News Bulletin, The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, publisher Al Giordano and the rest of the faculty, and of the Tides Foundation. Narco News is a co-sponsor and funder of the international drug legalization summit, “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century,” in Mérida, Yucatán, and is wholly responsible for the School of Authentic Journalism whose philosophy and methodology were employed in the creation of this report. The writing, the opinions expressed, and the conclusions reached, if any, are solely those of the author.
Apertura total: El autor desea reconocer la asistencia material, el ánimo y la guía de The Narco News Bulletin, La Escuela de Narco News de Periodismo Auténtico, su Director General Al Giordano y el resto del profesorado, y de la Fundación Tides. Narco News es copatrocinador y financiador del encuentro internacional sobre legalización de las drogas “Saliendo de las sombras: terminando con la prohibición a las drogas en el siglo XXI” en Mérida, Yucatán, y es completamente responsable por la Escuela de Periodismo Auténtico, cuya filosofía y metodología fueron empleadas en la elaboración de esta nota. La escritura, las opiniones expresadas y las conclusiones alcanzadas, si las hay, son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor
Abertura Total: O autor deseja reconhecer o material de apoio, o propósito e o guia do Boletim Narco News. a Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, o editor Al Giordano, o restante de professores e a Fundaçáo Tides. Narco News é co-patrocinador e financiador do encontro sobre a legalizaçao das drogas Saindo das Sombras: terminando com a proibiçao das drogas no século XXI em Mérida, Yucatan, e é completamente responsável pela Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, cuja filosofia e metodologia foram implantadas na elaboraçao desta reportagem. O texto, as opinioes expressadas e as conclusoes alcançadas, se houver, sao de responsabilidade do autor.
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