On writing well and living well: Julio Scherer Garcia and the art of the interview
Farewell to the Grand Old Dean of Latin Journalism
In an age where stay-at-home plagiarism has become the pattern in journalism in the US, these words remind journalists of their calling -- Censored News
By Kent Paterson
From the Editor
"Those that say Julio Scherer Garcia has been a reference for the Mexican press during the past half-century or more are wrong and those that affirm that he’s been a master teacher of new journalists in Mexico are equally wrong,” wrote columnist Eric Nepomuceno on the January 7 death of an old friend at the ripe old age of 88. “They are wrong because he’s been much more: a reference for many generations of journalists in all of Latin America, and an example of value and dignity.”
Nepomuceno’s words were among the many homages this past week that flowed like the rivers of history which boiled from the pen of Julio Scherer Garcia. Simply put, Don Julio’s chronicles are required reading for any serious understanding of contemporary Mexico, Latin America and, indeed, the world as we know it.
Born in 1926, Scherer Garcia came of age at a time when the Mexican press was firmly under the thumbs of the government. “In Mexico of the ’50s, journalism had its taboos: the President and his family, the Army and the Virgin of Guadalupe,” wrote legendary Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, another friend of Don Julio’s. The popular media, Poniatowska added, was characterized by its fawning over an “institutionalized” revolution turned government, as well as “ass-kissing,” “much superficiality” and “little investigation.”
Scherer Garcia was a pivotal figure in the transformation of the Latin American press. Rising through the ranks of the Mexico City daily Excelsior, Scherer Garcia became director of the newspaper in 1968. The year was a monumental and tumultous one: Vietnam, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Russian invasion of Czechoslavakia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, student rebellions worldwide….
In Mexico, 1968 culminated in the massacre of hundreds of students by the army and security forces. All these events and more shaped the independent streak of Scherer Garcia. In 1976, the government of President Luis Echeverria finally moved against Scherer Garcia’s Excelsior, organizing an internal coup that forced the director and 200 workers into the streets.
In hindsight, the Excelsior coup was a godsend for genuine journalism. Undaunted, Scherer Garcia and his defiant colleagues founded the newsweekly Proceso the same year and filled its pages with the writings of noted journalists, pundits and cultural critics from all over Mexico and Latin America.
Comparable to the national impact of Time or Newsweek during their U.S. heydays, Proceso has documented-and shaped- the major developments in Mexican cultural, political and economic life since 1976. According to Reforma’s Jorge Ricardo, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army once heard a criticism from a man about the timing of the Zapatistas’1994 armed uprising on a weekend.
“Proceso’s weekly deadline is Saturday and now, who knows if you all will last until next week?” Marcos said the man told him.
Recent editions of Proceso have featured investigative pieces on the murders and disappearances of the Ayotzinapa college students in Guerrero; conflicts-of-interest in the Mexican White House; the ordeal of a woman in U.S. immigration detetion seeking political asylum; the controversy over illegal German weapons transfers to Mexico; the thawing of U.S.-Cuba tensions; and the raging debate between poet and activist Javier Sicilia and Marti Batres, leader of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s new Morena political party, over whether Mexicans should boycott the 2015 mid-term elections.
During his long stint with Excelsior, Scherer Garcia interviewed JFK, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, Augusto Pinochet, Olaf Palme, Chou En-lai, Pablo Neruda, and other movers and shakers of the 20th century. Later in his career, an aging but still feisty journalist would sit down with Subcomandante Marcos and “El Mayo” Zambada, one of the fugitive leaders of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The author of 22 books, Scherer Garcia made the men in power uncomfortable. During the Vietnam War, he reportedly asked U.S. official Paul Warnke, “Is it legitimate for the United States to go 10,000 miles from its border to fix the foreign affairs of other countries?”
Don Julio insisted that it was the duty of journalists to interview all, and that he was prepared to go the depths of hell itself in order to interview the devil if necessary.
Scherer Garcia set new standards for Mexican and Latin American journalists, with uneven results to this day.
While many more publications and journalists take independent and critical stances, others are still under the sway of the State or dependent on the “chayote,” the disguised and undiguised bribes still doled out to Mexican reporters and editors. Though the Mexican press is not the same one of the 1950s as described by Elena Poniatowska, press freedom is still an elusive goal as evidenced by the murders of and attacks on scores of journalists in recent years, including Proceso correspondent Regina Martinez.
Ironically, Scherer Garcia’s passing came at a time when another great round of repression against students and renewed struggles over democracy, justice, land and freedom are testing Mexico. A few weeks before his own death, Scherer Garcia wrote some words on the occasion of the death of a close friend and Proceso colleague, Vicente Lenero, who passed on last month at the age of 81.
“Julio, our time has come..,” Scherer Garcia recalled his sick friend telling him.
Lenero, who resisted another government attempt to undermine Scherer Garcia, this time during the Proceso years, once said, “Journalism is not called upon to resolve crises. What a fallacy; it is called upon to tell about them, to measure their weight, to cry out what is hidden or simulated…”
Lenero and Scherer Garcia joined a growing list of Mexican literary and journalism giants who departed this earth in recent years, among them Carlos Montemayor, Miguel Angel Granados Chapa and Jose Emilio Pacheco.
In her homage to Don Julio, Elena Poniatowska quoted the grand old dean of the news room:
“The world has become harder and I think journalism will have to become harder to stay faithful to reality, its window that can’t be bribed. If the rivers turn red and extend to the valleys populated by the dead victims of hunger and disease, journalism will have to tell about it with images and words. It pains me to say: a government that values itself for its image is a frivolous government. Heavy tasks await journalists. That is your passion.”