From TAKE A STAND: Lessons From Rebels by Jorge Ramos, published by arrangement with Celebra, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Jorge Ramos.
Taking a Stand in 2016
“Are you an activist or a journalist?”
I have been asked that question many times recently, and I understand why. When a journalist takes a stand—as I have done when it comes to immigration and human rights—and confronts public figures—as I have done with presidents, presidential candidates, and all kinds of politicians—then the line between advocacy and journalism is a little difficult to define. But there are clear differences. To take a stand does not mean to be partisan. Don’t be a Republican or a Democrat, just be a journalist. To take a stand simply reaffirms the conviction that our most important social role as journalists is to denounce the abuse of power when we see it so that it can be prevented. To always offer two opposing points of view—as is the case in many newscasts on TV—does not guarantee that the truth will prevail.
The 2016 presidential campaign has given us plenty of opportunities to test the ethical limits of what journalists can and should do. So let me start by answering the query at the beginning of this chapter. I am the latter—just a reporter asking questions.
However, I have not stayed neutral about the immigration debate and the importance of Latinos in the United States. I took a stand. And that is perfectly acceptable in journalism. The best examples of great journalism that we have in this country—Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—always involve a journalist making an ethical decision and taking a stand.
To take a stand does not mean that I cannot write, analyze, conduct interviews, and report with full independence like any other journalist. I can and I do do that every night on Univision’s newscast and weekly on Fusion’s America. But the fact that I am an immigrant and a Latino has an influence on what I do as a journalist (and I am completely transparent about it). No journalist works in a vacuum. “I am I and my circumstance,” wrote Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1914.
So let me give you an example of how I have taken a stand during the presidential campaign of 2015–16. During the incredibly intense summer of 2015 when there were seventeen Republicans and four Democrats running for the White House before the election—our country experienced one of the most xenophobic and anti-immigrant moments that I remember since I arrived here as a student more than three decades ago.
Immigrants are an easy target for vote-seeking presidential hopefuls, TV talking heads, and social media pundits. After all, the undocumented amongst them usually cannot defend themselves. When was the last time you saw an undocumented immigrant on TV responding to criticism leveled at him by a candidate vying for the White House? That scenario is extremely rare. A vast majority would rather stay silent in order to avoid deportation.
Many Republican candidates attacked undocumented immigrants, calling them “illegals” and trying to make gains in the polls by abusing a segment of the population that, by definition, has no political representation. At times they seemed to be trying to outdo one another with the fierceness of their rhetoric. Nothing is easier—and more unfair—than to blame immigrants for the worst problems in a country. Crime, unemployment, and budget overruns in schools and hospitals, among many other absurd charges, were being directly linked to the most vulnerable and defenseless group of the population.
In contrast to the Republican candidates, all the presidential hopefuls on the Democratic side supported a path to citizenship for the majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants and offered some temporary protection to those already here (in case Congress didn’t act soon on comprehensive immigration reform). But they did so quietly. Other than giving a few strong responses when asked about the question in the media, the Democratic candidates let Republicans destroy themselves in front of the growing Hispanic electorate. Democrats knew that without a substantial part of the Latino vote, no Republican candidate could reach the White House.
The misinformation about Latin American immigrants was not consistently challenged in the media, in the presidential debates, or at political rallies. Many outrageous statements were being presented as truths. The verbal attacks on Mexican immigrants were particularly violent, accusing some of them of being criminals, drug traffickers, and rapists.
Other than the falsehoods and lack of evidence presented by the candidates, what surprised me most was the silence of the Mexican government and the passivity of many elected officials. They were not complicit with the xenophobes, but their inaction allowed for the anti- immigrant campaign to continue unchallenged
Where was the indignation? In the streets, in almost every conversation between immigrants, in the social media, among artists, writers, and journalists, Latinos were very upset. But many professional politicians, the White House, Congress, and the Mexican government maintained a detached attitude.
Following an old script, they thought that if they ignored the attacks and did not respond directly, the prejudiced charges would disappear in the next news cycle. But that did not happen. The false accusations kept on coming, and the mood of the country seemed to shift to the right before our very eyes. Clearly, the tactics of appeasement were not working. Without any significant resistance, the anti-immigrant forces were having a field day.
The pendulum had swung the other way. Long gone were the days when the Senate approved a plan—by a 68–32 vote—for comprehensive immigration reform. That was June 2013—a lifetime ago in politics. The bipartisan plan—14 Republican senators crossed the aisle to support it—would offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, a new and improved technological system that would verify legal employment, streamline the process to accept legal immigrants, and as a nod to conservatives, reinforce the security at the border with Mexico.
That plan, unfortunately, never came to a vote in the House of Representatives. Despite the fact that many Republicans were willing to join the Democratic majority, the Speaker, John Boehner, refused to bring the Senate proposal for a vote. That was the closest we had been to fully restructuring our broken immigration system since Republican president and icon Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to more than 3 million people in 1968.
There were so many falsehoods and insults being thrown about. So we had to take a stand. And we did.