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Shooting the Messenger 

The challenge facing real journalists

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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I’m embarrassed that I’m getting to this three weeks late. But that’s also part of the story. Writing about Francisco Ortiz Franco could not be postponed any longer after I passed through Tijuana this weekend and saw on the newsstands that Zeta — the crusading weekly magazine Ortiz co-founded — was still in mourning over his brutal assassination on June 22. Ortiz, an accomplished investigative reporter, was shot four times at the wheel of his car parked outside a Tijuana clinic while his two children — aged 8 and 10 — looked on horrified from the back seat.

Zeta’s all-black cover featured a headline calling out “The Suspects.” The inside text focused on the men around billionaire businessman and current candidate for Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon. Back in 1988, when another of Zeta’s founding journalists was similarly gunned down, two of Hank’s bodyguards were convicted of the crime. For the last 16 years, Zeta has fearlessly run a full-page display every week insisting that Hank explain the motive of the killing.

Everyone, of course, knows the answer. With its motto of “Free Like the Wind,” the scrappy, underfinanced and ad-starved Zeta has relentlessly exposed the incestuous connections that link up some of Baja California’s wealthiest citizens with its most corrupt law-enforcement agencies and with the most violent of drug cartels.

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I had never met Ortiz. But just a few months ago I had the privilege of hosting a Tijuana dinner for his partner, Jesus Blancornelas, yet another founder of Zeta. And yet another target of salaried killers. Blancornelas was himself hit with four bullets in 1997, when gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons at his car while he was driving to his Tijuana office. He barely survived, but his personal bodyguard was murdered.

When he showed up for our dinner recently in a small banquet room at Tijuana’s posh Camino Real Hotel, he was preceded by a half dozen heavily armed bodyguards. They cased the whole room, studied the windows, and moved the podium from which Blancornelas would speak, making sure it was out of range of any possible sniper from a nearby rooftop.

For some these might seem rather extraordinary security measures for a soft-spoken, short-statured and bespectacled 68-year-old magazine editor. But many of the two dozen other reporters I had brought to the dinner (as part of a “rolling seminar” co-sponsored by USC’s Institute for Justice and Journalism and the Western Knight Center) were seasoned border reporters and knew firsthand the ferocity of the powerful — especially when riled.

Blancornelas’ talk to us that evening was short and self-effacing. He wanted to retire soon, he said, but wasn’t sure if he could. There was still much to do. And he was only doing, he said, what good journalists are supposed to do. Tell the truth. Expose injustice. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

We sat dead quiet and rather awed during his talk. Here was the conscience of our profession speaking right to us, point blank. It would be impossible for any worthwhile reporter to have sat through that emotional dinner with Blancornelas and not do some serious soul-searching about one’s own role and track record as a reporter. I certainly did.

And I did it again this weekend when I saw the Zeta cover. As I read through it over lunch at the Tijuana Sanborn’s, I couldn’t help but measure the plight of its reporters and editors against the current crop of “controversies” that roil U.S. journalism. Let me be quick to note that truly world-class reporting is produced all around this country every day of the week.

But there is, nevertheless, to quote what one of the L.A. Times’ more perspicacious editors said to me last week, a certain “moral frivolity” that pervades our profession: Beltway pundits from the right and left who have never done a day’s real reporting, airhead broadcast reporters playing an endless game of “gotcha” with equally vapid elected officials, newsroom phobias over “advocacy” reporting, a New York Times unwilling to name celeb-reporter Judith Miller in its “mini-culpa” over having become Ahmad Chalabi’s primary apple polisher, or L.A. Times chief John Carroll sending out harrumphing memos warning that wacko creationist groups have to be given equal weight with scientists and then publicly bloviating against Fox News for essentially doing the same thing.

 

How does an entire national news media, with all of its might, all of its wealth and power and yet with its collective knickers perpetually in a twist over the propriety of once — just once — branding one of Clinton’s or Bush’s lies as, well, a lie, shape up with the 16 years of unbroken audacity displayed by Blancornelas and Ortiz as they publicly called out the most powerful and perhaps dangerous players in Baja? And then paid for it with their own blood?

I’m not suggesting that U.S. reporters rush into suicide missions with either their intended subjects or their newsroom bosses. But as I write this column I have CNN on in the background, and I hear a promo that refers to Wolf Blitzer as the “iron man of broadcast journalism,” and I just have to wonder when was the last time some American politician spent more than a minute worrying about what would come out of an interview with the bearded Blitzer — if ever.

As Francisco Ortiz Franco’s blood was still being hosed off the pavement, more than 100 of his fellow Mexican reporters and editors marched quietly but bravely through the streets of Tijuana holding their pens defiantly high in the air. When’s the last time a similar contingent of American reporters marched together for anything? I’m trying to remember.

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