The legacy of a rebel reporter

February 11, 2016

Sarah Lynne reviews a collection of lectures and writings by the late John Ross--a must-read book for any journalist committed to changing the world.

SIX YEARS ago, I walked into my college journalism class to find the front desk occupied by an older, bearded man who was not my usual teacher. The man was slightly hunched, dressed in loose-fitting clothing and wearing what I now know to be a Palestinian keffiyeh.

His name was John Ross. And he had come to teach us about what he called "rebel reporting."

"Ir al lugar de los hechos," he repeated to the class over and over as he wove a narrative of his life into profound lessons for young journalists. "Go to the place where it happened."

Rebel reporters don't hide behind desks, relying only on press releases, Ross explained. They go out into the middle of protests and wars. Rebel reporters travel slowly. They talk with people. Rebel reporters are part of the struggles they cover. They are not worried about objectivity in the classical "non-biased" sense of the word. Rebel reporters are biased toward truth and justice.

Ross was the epitome of a rebel reporter. An anarchist vagabond by nature, he lived mostly out of a hotel, freelancing from the streets of Mexico City and the mountains beyond. In his writing, he personalized globalization and imperialism, rejected imperialist wars, fiercely promoted justice, and gave voice to the voiceless. Ross served time for dodging the Vietnam War draft, went to Iraq as a human shield, and staged various hunger strikes against corruption and injustice.

John Ross
John Ross

Ross died less than two years after I saw him speak, but his legacy lives on in me and in other rebel reporters who took his lessons to heart.

ASIDE FROM myself, one other young woman watched the lecture from the edge of her seat that day in 2010--Cristalyne Bell. In tribute to a man who had changed so many lives, Bell worked with Norman Stockwell, operations coordinator at Madison's WORT FM, to compile a book of Ross's lectures in the years after he died.

Their dedication brought us Rebel Reporting: John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists, published in November 2015 by Hamilton Books. This book is Ross's final gift to independent journalists. Though I did not know Ross personally, I think he would have liked that the book of his lectures was a collaborative effort.

To Ross, journalism wasn't a career for which to guard work and ego with bared teeth. Journalism was a moral obligation--a passion that brings all rebel reporters together in the struggle for a better world.

Part one of "Rebel Reporting" features four lectures, originally delivered by Ross to students at San Francisco's New College in 2006. The lectures, much like the man, are unconventional. They mix Ross' storyteller style with pages of some of his best poetry. Because the lectures were originally spoken, it is easy to fall into the flow of Ross's voice as he rails against the system.

In the first lecture titled "What Are We Doing Here?" Ross challenges conventional journalism and says to "avoid J-Schools like a poison." He defines what it means to be a rebel reporter, and makes an initial rejection of the concept of objectivity. He states, "Rebel reporters say that 'Objectivity' is an instrument of class oppression that gives greater voice to the oppressor than the oppressed."

The other three lectures, "The Global Beat: Covering Global Resistance to Globalization," "How to Be an Anti-War Correspondent," and "Our Words Are Our Weapons: The Language of Rebel Journalism," elaborate themes from the first lecture and provide tips on everything from what to wear and how to stay safe while covering a protest, to how to perform good interviews. All of this information is woven into an autobiographical narrative about Ross's life.

Part two of the book features Ross's long-form article "Who Killed Brad Will?" The 20-page feature tells the story of Brad Will, an Indymedia journalist killed in Oaxaca in 2006. Unlike most reports on Will's death, Ross sets the story in the proper context of struggle, idealism and repression. The reader learns the history of Mexico while following the story of a "bullet with Brad's name on it." What is most striking about the feature is how well it illustrates all of the points made in Ross' lectures.

"Rebel Reporting" includes a forward by Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an introduction by Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!. It contains an appendix with dozens of helpful links and tips for journalists, including suggested equipment, pointers on gathering news, and even guidelines outlining media ethics and law.

Rebel Reporting is an important counterweight to traditional journalism education. The book is inspiring and realistic. It is both a useful tool and a beautiful story. Most of all, Rebel Reporting is a must-read for any journalist committed to changing the world.

¡John Ross, presente!

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