"Rebel Reporting" book cover.
In 2005, John Ross wrote an article for The Progressive on the massive and ultimately successful resistance to then-Mexican President Vicente Fox’s vendetta against a popular leftwing mayor. It began: “There are moments here when civil society comes out of its house and fills the streets with righteous indignation, the heat of human bodies fusing into one great fist of frustration.”
It’s a great lead—vivid, evocative, urgent, mindful of a larger context. Ross, who died in 2011 at age seventy-two, went on to note that moments of resistance in Mexico, where the New York native spent much of his life, are rare “and to be savored.” He didn’t just acknowledge his lack of objectivity; he reveled in it.
Ross was a participant as well as an observer, a seeker of justice as well as a witness to injustice. The arc of history was forever revealing itself in dramas playing out before his very eyes. He published ten books, including Rebellion from the Roots about the Zapatista uprising, and ten poetry chapbooks. His work appeared in publications including the San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Examiner, and LA Weekly.
But one of Ross’s most important contributions—a true public service—was the series of four lectures he delivered first to students at San Francisco’s New College in 2006, and later at colleges and universities across the United States. These are collected, along with Ross’s long article on the 2006 murder of Indymedia journalist Brad Will in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a slim but powerful new volume titled Rebel Reporting.
The book has prefaces from its two co-editors, freelance journalist Cristalyne Bell and community radio journalist Norman Stockwell; a foreword by communications professor Robert McChesney; and an introduction by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! All hail Ross as an inspirational figure, then hand him the microphone, to inspire. These are lectures every journalist should sit through, whether or not they choose to follow his example.
Imagine being in a lecture hall as Ross begins his first talk, titled “What Are We Doing Here?,” by posing another question: “Who is Josh Wolf?” Wolf, he continues, is a freelance journalist jailed for refusing to turn over to authorities the video he shot of an anti-capitalist protest in San Francisco in 2004. He was locked up for 226 days, the longest sentence in U.S. history for protecting source materials.
“By resisting such coercion, Josh Wolf is practicing rebel journalism,” Ross declares. “Josh Wolf! Live like him!”
Ross bestows the same acclamation on his other journalist heroes: John Reed, I.F. Stone, Brad Will. He tells stories from his own career, reads poems, challenges his audience to inject their humanity into their reporting. Journalism, he insists, is not a career; it is an obligation.
“Rebel journalism advocates rebellion,” he says. “A good rebel reporter incites rebellion, makes people angry, encourages organization, offers them hope that another world is possible.” The title of his third lecture is “How to Be an Anti-War Correspondent.”
Ross comes by his politics naturally. His mother was jailed for three months for refusing to tell Congress the names of the leftist refugees her group helped to escape fascist Spain in the 1940s (“It made me proud,” he relates). Ross was himself locked up for two years for avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. In 1987, he took part in a twenty-six-day hunger strike, in opposition to global economic institutions.
In explaining his decision to get personally involved, Ross recounts being a witness to the carnage of the first Gulf War in 1991, when U.S. forces slaughtered soldiers who had laid down their weapons and others fleeing Kuwait City: “We walked the shoulder of the highway and I saw a baby’s car seat, a woman’s high-heel shoe, books, evidence of civilian flight. The desert floor was covered with thousands of cluster bombs that drifted down on little parachutes like toys. The children picked them up and they blew off their faces.”
In 2003, when George W. Bush was prepared to launch the nation’s long-running sequel in Iraq, Ross refused to be a mere observer. He joined with others to create a “human shield” to protect targets in Baghdad, “placing our bodies between Bush’s bombs and the Iraqi people.” The authorities kicked him out.
“I had crossed the line from anti-war correspondent to anti-war activist, but still I am a reporter and I couldn’t stop reporting,” he says in his lecture. Nor did he see any incompatibility between those two roles.
Like Ross, I have never taken a class in journalism, although I have helped teach a few. Like him, I have written mostly for the alternative press. I laughed out loud at the line Ross recalls was written about him by John Leonard in Harper’s: “Ross is in no more danger of selling out than he is of finding a buyer.” (I once told a journalist who worked for a major daily that I didn’t think I could ever work for the editors of his paper. His response: “I’m pretty sure they’d say the same thing.”)
But being an outsider can cloud your understanding of what goes on inside. Ross describes rebel journalism as “the polar opposite of J-school journalism, which is all about . . . conserving the power of the class from whose loins most J-schoolers spring.” He continues: “J-school teaches you how to promote class oppression, consumerism, racism. How to justify genocide and the destruction of the planet.”
It’s a harsh assessment, and more than a little unfair, especially given that Ross was at times painting with this broad brush in lectures arranged by J-schools. Most of the mainstream reporters who devote their lives to their profession care as much about truth and justice as Ross. They may not be rebels, but neither are they cheerleaders for genocide.
This is a critical issue. Is there a place in journalism for those who wear their convictions on their sleeve? Of course there is. Always has been. Is everyone else a sellout? Of course not. Great reporters—people like Seymour Hersh, Elizabeth Kolbert, Richard Engel, and Christiane Amanpour, to name a few—play by the usual rules while retaining their humanity and values.
At one point, Ross lays out three “guiding principles” of rebel investigative reporting: “Who is getting screwed, who is doing the screwing, how can those being screwed change this equation?” The J-school-affiliated investigative reporting center where I worked for four years had a remarkably similar mission statement: “Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions.”
But Ross’s lectures are full of good advice for reporters, rebel or otherwise. Go to where the story is. Taste it, feel it, hear it, smell it. Study the landscape. Talk to ordinary people. Embed yourself in the resistance, not among those in power. Protect your sources.
In his lecture on being an anti-war correspondent, Ross notes the baseline requirement—to be against war—but admits it gets tricky beyond that. What kind of wars? All wars? Even the war against Hitler and fascism? Even revolutionary rebellions?
“Don’t look at me,” he demurs. “I don’t have the answers.”
And Ross is mindful of the seductive power of war, why it draws reporters to battlegrounds across the globe. At one point, he starts telling stories, like running into—literally—a Chilean soldier with a gun: “That little tab on top of the barrel actually got stuck up my nostril!” Or having a guide pull a .357 magnum from his waistband and begin firing randomly to protest making the trek to a guerrilla encampment in Colombia.
Then he stops himself. “I’m telling war stories, not anti-war stories,” he confesses. “In the end, it doesn’t matter if we are for war or against it. We hate war, but we can’t live without it.” He reads from a poem that also makes this point:
We love war.
We recoil from its horrors
But always find the words
To speak the unspeakable.
In his fourth and final lecture, “Our Words Are Our Weapons”—much of it delivered in poems —Ross gets down to the fundamentals of the writer’s craft. “Our words should be well chosen,” he says, “considered both for their accuracy and their music. Our words should be ready to paint the picture.”
Pay attention, class! This is important.
Being a poet, he notes, has made him a better reporter. It “enriches and infuses my vision.” He notices things others may miss. Also, “Being a poet lets me vent my outrage at the particular horror I happen to be covering.”
There is an urgency that Ross conjures up in this lecture, a sense of deep purpose—to be a witness to history, to care about its victims. Rebel reporters, he says, “tell you what came before and what could happen next. History permeates their writing. Rebel reporters cannot forget. Rebel reporters fight against amnesia.”
Then he reads a long poem from his chapbook Against Amnesia, about the massacre of Tzotzil Indians in the Chiapas highlands in 1997. It tells the stories remembered by survivors, explaining why these must be told:
They will try and make us forget
The mass graves,
The babies ripped from the wombs,
The wounded families and villages,
The languages they spoke,
They will shrug and say
It never happened,
It is written nowhere . . .
In this lecture and in his article on Brad Will, which serves as an exemplar of his work, Ross champions the independent spirit that seeks to tell the stories of victims of injustice. “It was the people and not the leaders whose story he was committed to telling,” Ross notes of Will. Ironically, Will ended up becoming a victim, someone whose story needed to be told.
Will’s murder by gunfire while covering a labor dispute on the streets of Oaxaca was captured on film; two police officers were arrested. But the charges were soon dropped when the prosecution embraced a ridiculous scenario in which Will was merely grazed by a bullet on the street, then killed on the way to the hospital by labor supporters seeking “to internationalize the conflict.”
Ross laments Will’s fate even as he celebrates his commitment. He quotes from Will’s final dispatch, just days before his death, on the murder of a militant: “One more death. One more time to cry and hurt. One more time to know power and its ugly head. One more bullet cracks the night.” The two men were kindred spirits, part of a tradition much greater than themselves.
“The coin of our realm is passion,” Ross exhorts at one point. “Rebel reporters, who know only too well they have no careers but rather a responsibility, are paid off in passion—passion for language, passion for telling the story with passion, passion for struggle and change, for sharing spirit, solidarity.”
John Ross! Live like him!
Bill Lueders is Associate Editor of The Progressive Magazine.
Visit RebelReporting.com, a site about the tools and techniques of rebel reporting and listing of upcoming events.