How the School of Authentic Journalism Changes Veteran Reporters, Too
Five Years of Reporting I Wouldn’t Have Been Able to Do, If Not for the 2004 Narco News J-School in Bolivia
By Bill Conroy
Treasurer, The Fund for Authentic Journalism
October 22, 2009
Five years ago, I traveled to Bolivia to get schooled in a craft I thought, at the time, I had already mastered – given my 20-plus years of professional experience as a journalist.
Boy, was I wrong.
What I discovered during that trip completely altered my approach to journalism. The best way to describe it is to share the realization I had one day during the 10-day in-country education I received in Bolivia: While looking up at the crisp-clear evening sky of Bolivia, it dawned on me that I had never seen the stars from this perspective before. I was standing in an ancient land south of the equator, and my whole view of the world was turned on end, as of that moment … and going forward.
When I returned to the states, I wrote about that trip — a journey that took me not only to a far-away land but also to some unexplored regions of my mind.
Here’s what I penned, in part:
I recently traveled to the land where Ché Guevara’s ghost still breathes with the people. I was a guest of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, a gathering of more than 60 journalists from around the globe.
The journalists — representing radio, film, Internet and print media — had come to the school in Bolivia in early August to explore strategies for advancing credible media coverage of the war on drugs and democracy movements in the Americas.
I came as a green gringo, who spoke only English, to this school where Spanish, Portuguese and my native tongue all were in play, constantly, with interpreters building the communication bridges for all present. The school was host to a slew of prominent Bolivians, including community activists, professors, political leaders, farmers, workers, writers and musicians.
We convened in the Bolivian Andes, in Cochabamba, the country’s third largest city, behind La Paz and Santa Cruz. However, at one point, the entire entourage of journalists was transported by bus eastward over the peaks of the Andes to the Chapare region, where the Amazon jungle begins to snake its way into the mountains.
You see, during my journey to Bolivia, to attend the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, I learned a valuable lesson about reporting the news and the truth about objectivity and the mainstream media’s devotion to that myth. To be objective in the United States, from the U.S. point of view, is a completely different act than to be objective about Latin America, about Bolivia in this case.
More from my story:
During the bus ride, several of us discussed the killing of the mayor of a municipality called Ayo Ayo, which is located in northwestern Bolivia near La Paz. … We showed a local newspaper around the bus that detailed the carnage.
… About a week later, after we had returned from the Chapare, the state authorities accused … a leader of the Bolivian land-reform movement MST, of orchestrating the killing. The facts supporting the charges, in my view, are paper-thin. The populist leader was not even in Ayo Ayo at the time the crowd killed the mayor, according to his defense attorneys. The charges were brought only days before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was to face a divisive Aug. 15 recall referendum, a vote pitting shanty-dwelling Chavez backers against well-heeled Chavez haters.
… I sensed the pending recall vote in Venezuelan was having an energizing effect on popular movements throughout Latin America, so I suspected the status-quo power elite in Bolivia were trying to make sure, at least in part, that matters of conscience didn’t spread their way.
But if that’s the case, the elite are ultimately fighting a losing battle. The people’s movement in this part of Latin America, from everything I experienced, is in the zone — and time will tell how big that zone becomes with Chavez’ recent, convincing victory over the neo-liberal forces seeking to expel him from office.
This is a movement rooted in real bottom-up participatory democracy and struggle — in which the people understand that the price of victory is not only measured in rhetoric, but, unfortunately, at times, in blood.
Please, bear with me, and I will explain why this all matters. You see, what I wrote some five years ago after returning from Bolivia could never have coursed from my pen prior to that journey. And I think what I learned there — from the wealth of experiences and generosity of spirit I encountered among those attending the school and from the people of Bolivia themselves — provided me with an insight that informs my journalism to this day. I was taught, forced, for really the first time as a journalist, to listen.
And so, with my ears and mind opened, I came back with a new sense of urgency about what I do with my craft, a renewed faith in what journalism can do, when authenticity replaces objectivity.
And so I wrote at the time:
After some 10 days in Cochabamba, I had finally started to get used to the thin mountain air in the Andes. More importantly, I had spent days breathing in another culture, one that is experiencing democracy in a more vital way than I have seen play out in the canned elections we experience in the United States.
In Bolivia, it seems to me, the stakes of the game are very real, very much in front of the people. In my short time in this country in the heart of South America, I heard about the struggle to change the country from the bottom up. Although divided at times over strategy, labor and farmers are unified in their quest to return control of the nation’s natural resources to the people in an effort to foster job creation, enhance living conditions and ensure a brighter future for Bolivia.
… But unlike in the United States, where labor and farmers have been marginalized, in Bolivia they represent powerful and growing sources of political power. Their movements — speared on through social warriors like labor leader Oscar Olivera and national congressman Evo Morales — are using the tools of democracy and community action to reset the table of the status quo.
Remarkably, during my short time in Bolivia in 2004, I was a witness to history. Morales was ultimately elected president of the country — not long after those attending the Narco News Authentic School of Journalism took part in an exclusive sit-down with Morales as part of the curriculum. And Olivera also was at the School in Bolivia, interacting with students and professors alike, even as he was, at the time, still a target of the existing ruling regime.
And come this February, when the Authentic School of Journalism convenes once again in Cancun, Mexico, Olivera will be there again. And even though the struggle for justice in Bolivia continues, as it does in all nations, he now finds himself not a target of a corrupt government, but rather a victorious figure in Bolivian history in helping to transform his country through democratic action.
You see, in Bolivia, I came to realize that there are a lot of brands of “journalism” practiced in this world, most simulations of the real thing. At the Narco School of Authentic Journalism, simulation is not an option. You will be confronted with history as it is happening, with a larger truth that demands an equal measure of honesty on your part. It is a transformative experience, even for an old dog like me.
So, kind readers, if you want to have access to better journalism, to authentic journalism, then you could make no better investment than to throw a little cash into the kitty to help send some more students to the upcoming Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, to help them become journalists who listen, who are not afraid to speak truth to power, who are in touch with the struggle for a better world.
What I wrote in 2004 remains true today, only I now have five years of practicing authentic journalism under my belt, five years of reporting that I never would have been able to share with you, kind readers, had it not been for my journey to Bolivia, to the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism:
This is what I saw in Bolivia, in this nation in the mountains, in this place somewhere in America, in an ancient land whose people have the same dreams and hopes for their future as do any people in this world.
Please donate today so that another generation of journalists can see and learn for themselves in ways that will surely change and improve their work, as attending the school five years ago did for mine.
You can donate online at this link:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 241
Natick, MA 01760 USA
Treasurer, The Fund for Authentic Journalism
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