In 1980, I was on adventure in the Cloud Forests of Guatemala by way a bus ride up the windy road from Huehuetenango to Nebaj. Guatemalan buses are built for Guatemalans, which means they are too small for a well-fed, six-foot-plus American boy like myself. I’d figured it out by then though, how to wedge my knees against the seat in front of me in order to take up as little space as possible and also to anchor myself against the turns in the road. I could even doze a bit. These buses were old, gayly-painted in the Guatemalan style, and shock absorbers were considered accessories[i]. This is probably where my lower back problems started, but that’s another story.
On the way up to the little town of Nebaj, my destination, we passed a bullet-riddled bus pulled off the road. It had been attacked the week before, by a government patrol I was told. There was only one road in and out of Nebaj, and I knew about the civil war. I knew that the mountains of Quiche Province was at the heart of the troubles and I had heard about the four Europeans who had been recently killed hiking along the road between Nebaj and the village of San Juan Cotzal, about twelve kilometers from Nebaj. That’s why I was going. I had been treated so hospitably by these people whose height oftentimes only came up to my well-fed sternum for the past month I felt obliged to go and see what was troubling them. And sure enough, passing by the shot-up bus alongside of the only road into and out of my destination gave me a birds-eye view.
The reason the Europeans were hiking to San Juan Cotzal was because it was “along the gringo trail”. A popular travel book by that name was stuffed into the backpacks of most of us first-world pilgrims. This was long before the Internet, smart phones or GPS. In those faraway days, you followed your nose, and the instructions outlined for you in “Along The Gringo Trail”. It was a pre-cyber travel guide, gave you history lessons, directions for the cheapest hostels, places to eat, things to see.
In Nebaj, I ended up renting a room in an informal hostel run by a former Peace Corps volunteer who had stayed after his tour was up to live the rural lifestyle of an expatriot and also to become an encyclopedia of Latin tunes he had learned on his accordion. I ended up learning a couple the tunes from him. A cool guy. He told us this story:
The month before I arrived, the army had come to Nebaj, demanding the physical presence of all the local men in front of the church in the center of town. They rounded them up in the plaza and told them that they had to be “registered” with the U.S.-backed Guatemalan government so that they could be kept better track of. The army brought plenty of troops to do the rounding up--a couple platoons I would guess--and one typist with one manual typewriter. The men from Nebaj stood in line, guarded at gunpoint by young kids mostly recruited from the lowlands, for hours. They had no choice. The women became anxious, demanded answers, got pushy. The officer in charge became annoyed, lined up about twenty women against the wall of the church, and shot them. The Peace Corps expatriot showed us the bulletholes in the walls of the church.
When it was time for me to leave Nebaj--which was soon after I heard this story--I went down to the little tienda which served as the town bus stop at 3 A.M. to catch the only ride out of town down the only road back to the relative safety of the tourist-infested towns around Lago de Atitlan. I was told to get to the bus stop early, to make sure I got a seat. I and another gringo stood with the line of townpeople in the dark for a couple hours. The bus finally came about dawn, and when it was our turn we handed our backpacks up to the assistant who placed them on the roof rack. Then we waited. And waited. And we waited some more, wondering what the delay was about. Finally the assistant reappeared, climbed back up onto the roof rack, and handed our backpacks down to us. He told us we couldn’t take the bus today. We asked him why, tried to explain that we had been diligent, got here early, been here for hours, needed to get back to Antigua. He never explained and finally just shook his index finger at us in the local gesture of “no”, and that was that.
We figured something was going to happen, the bus get shot up again, and my sense of adventure and dread heightened. I stayed another five days in Nebaj. Nothing happened, I never learned why the bus driver had decided to kick us off, but I like to think it was a matter of the same politeness and respect these people had shown me during my short visit to their beautiful, beautiful country. Or maybe the driver just thought if something did happen he didn’t want two gringoes on his bus to screw things up even more than they already were. Nobody ever said in my hearing, and five days later he let us on and down the mountain we went.
Thirty-three years later, last week in fact, I was heading up the mountain behind our place to pick huckleberries. It was dawn, a cup of coffee between my legs and the local public radio station, KUFM, on the news. Pretty typical morning for me, the coffee, the mountains, NPR. A good life I admit, but I feel the excruciating need to claim expert status on bullshit news today. So here goes:
With solid authority and propriety I can say I've long hated Steve Inskeep's snarkiness and corporate bias and whatever happened to Bob Edwards and I've been wondering for the past fifteen years at least who told NPR that they were the Business Roundup news channel. I listen to KUFM a lot. My friends are DJs there, I know people on the board, and the local news is generally good. It's MY radio station, after all, but its national news has been on drugs for a long, long time and I'm always on the verge of disowning it.
I usually get about ten minutes into the news, make sure the world's not about to end and all, before they start up on some puff piece covering (in depth) some corporate shill's giant ego and I turn it off. This morning I got about two minutes in when the host, who was supposed to be doing a 30-second objective play-by-play on Ed Snowden, willfully described the man who almost single-handedly jumpstarted our long-overdue national debate on privacy, as a "self-described" whistleblower. Wait a minute, I thought. What about the whistleblowers who outed Reagan’s Iran-Contra debacle in ’86 and probably saved us a couple hundred thousand boots on the ground in Central America, where our young innocents would have found themselves allied with the annoyed officer who felt free to shoot defenseless women?! Would you call them "self-described"? What the hell? I was driving by a hayfield and my window was open when I shouted at the top of my lungs "I'M CALLING HIM A WHISTLEBLOWER, TOO, YOU SONOFABITCH!! And I punched the radio off. I assume only a meadowlark or two heard me, but millions of people heard that cruel and thoughtless radio sound bite. Not fair to the meadowlarks.
Rios Montt, D'Aubuisson, the Contras. Murderers all. They actually had to do it dirty since they were holding the corporate line in third world countries. Get actual blood on their own personal hands. Jesse Helms many times claimed the butcher D'Aubuisson as his personal friend. The Reagan gang was legendary for bloody glad-handing with client-generals doing the administration’s willful bidding[ii]. You know all this. Where’s the context, then, in today’s news coverage?
The only night I ever spent in jail was the time I got myself arrested for protesting the $27 million in Contra aid in 1985. I was organizing the "Pledge of Resistance" effort in Missoula, got hundreds of people to sign up for civil disobedience if Congress escalated the Central American wars. When it came down to it, there were only eight of us willing to put it on the line, which I fully understand now. But it was the same result throughout the country. We The Alternative People didn't stand up for ourselves. Reagan and company got busted for treason the next year, blew it off, flushed the Fairness Doctrine down the toilet in 1987 and Voila! By 1988 Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and NPR’s cave-in during the first Gulf War became the new "news" norms, and it's never let up since. How we get it back I don't know, but how we tolerate the mainstream coverage of the Snowden and Manning issues is going to be watershed as far as the near future of what passes for journalism anymore.
I have sincerely held NPR accountable for the first Gulf War for the past two decades. They fell demonstrably flat on their mandated job of providing a counter to corporate news for the thinking, caring public who pay their bills, and they've gone barreling downhill ever since. Their coverage of the second Gulf War was only the proof in the pudding. We've been had, and now that the wing nuts want to axe public broadcasting altogether we are compelled to defend them?
Obama's not doing anything original. He's playing the same old shell game and we're the shells. "Liberalism" was hollowed out from the inside long ago, by “liberals”, when "liberals" never effectively questioned what real news was. Why the hell, for example, did we have any business knowing whose D.N.A. samples were on whose clothes when it came to consensual sex between adults, let alone what our listening in to the private lives of adults via the latest techno-wizardry meant to the corrosion of our own core expectations of privacy? When I recall the multi-year coverage Corporate Media and N.P.R. gave the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal when there were legions of real stories untouched during that same era, the word “orgy” comes to mind. It’s like we’re contestants on a T.V. game show called “Who’s More Moral” and the only winner is Ragu Spagetti Sauce. For chrissakes.
Why do courageous individuals like Ed Snowden and Brad Manning, who were only operating within the long-established relationship between whistleblowers and real journalists stand so alone now, in publicly-funded news coverage that is supposed to counter the venal perspectives of the Corporate News Monopoly? Do they think we can’t see? Maybe we can’t.
In these new e-days of smart phones, GPS, drones and zero-privacy, why has hatred of U.S. Imperialism become so suddenly and deadenly quaint? Why on Earth, with the mere seconds a well-paid, publicly-supported "journalist" had to touch on a real news story, did he feel so free or obliged to slam real journalism with his piss-poor journalism? What in the hell do they teach those kids in journalism school anymore? Never mind, I already know.
We gotta demand better. How to do that? Why don’t you kids of this new age tell me. [iii]
[i] This is a bald-faced attempt at creative license on my part. Of course they had shock absorbers, but they were old like the buses they were attached to.
[ii] Chief Justice John Roberts, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Associate justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, all creatures of the Reagan Administration.
[iii] To read the great article that inspired this rant, go to: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/08/08-0