I don't even pretend to understand what this must be like. The daily, bone-deep fear, the struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds, the exhaustive effort it must take to write about all the deadly truths and violently unethical agendas all around your city, and I mean corruption at all levels, from military to government, police to drug cartel and back again, impossible to distinguish between each, and therefore rightfully fearing all.
It's a ridiculously privileged position I and nearly all other columnists, journalists and bloggers in the West inhabit, despite the vicious media downturn, despite slashed budgets and the total lack of benefits, despite busted unions and gutted newspapers and the Internet making it almost impossible to have a stable, long-term career in journalism anymore.
But comparatively speaking? I live a charmed, wildly blessed media life. Because here I read about Mexican journalist Marcela Turati, who just won the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism (file under: obscure but highly respectable) for her reporting on the Mexican drug war currently ravaging her country and who, in her acceptance speech, spoke of the 80 or so of her fellow journalists who have gone missing or been brutally murdered in the past handful of years.
Repeat: 80. Repeat: Not Syria. Not China. Not Iraq. Mexico.
Turati included a harrowing "generic" example of how the typical story appears in regional papers: Reporter gets abducted right in front of a police station, in broad daylight, dragged away and massacred right in front of his daughter on their way to school. Reporter harassed and family threatened, car burned, home shot up, reporter soon "disappears" for daring to write about the drug wars in a way apparently savagely displeasing to the overlords who currently run the place. Reporter's body is found days later, tortured and slashed, with a gruesome warning note. And so on.
I try, for even a moment, to imagine what that must be like, to write in daily fear of harassment and death over... what? Revealing harsh truths everyone already knows? Exposing realities few in the world seem to care about anymore? Identifying sources and naming names of those involved in payoffs and the corruption (read: most of them)?
I've won a few wonderful awards and accolades for my work so far. I've been, in turns, hugely proud and quickly humbled, honored beyond belief, thrilled when someone tells me my work has inspired change or induced a profound realization. In my line, this is all you can really ask for.
I've also been reviled by the Christian right, called the anti-Christ more times than I can count; I've been verbally spat upon by extreme right-wing knuckle draggers, threatened with lawsuit by Mormonism and Scientology, had the head of SF's Catholic archdiocese complain, multiple times, to Chronicle HQ about my ongoing and enthusiastic condemnation of the church. High badges of honor, all.
And yes, I've even had a couple straight-up death threats, but they came from neck-deep in the heartland muck, from sub-humans who are, I'm convinced, far too terrified to come anywhere near San Francisco lest they turn instantly liberal or gay. So it's never been a serious concern.
But then again, I've never been involved in the kind of reportage that has you dodging bullets while interviewing surviving family members of a decapitated police captain, or that has you hiding out in a cave to write your report on the Chinese military beating monks in Tibet, all for little pay, for the sheer need to get the story out to a numb and wary world that doesn't really want to hear it much anymore.
On one hand, I suppose it's morbidly reassuring to learn that in the age of Facebook boredom, hashtag overload and infantile meme gluttony, the written word can still wield that kind of power, can still induce corrupt governments and narco thugs alike to murder the lowly, underpaid reporter merely for daring to reveal the truth to a wary and exhausted readership.
Of course, I also realize it's nothing new. War zones and deadly hotspots the world over are famously attractive to thrill-seeking writers and photojournalists exactly for their high-adrenaline, death-wish risks. But it's one thing to knowingly incite the fundamentalist clods in Iraq or Pakistan, quite another to face death in a fast-developing first world democracy, a land of ravishing beauty and fine arts, intellectual power and tremendous urban development.
This is, perhaps, the most harrowing aspect of the killing of journalists in Mexico (now second only to Iraq as the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter): We are not that far removed. Despite America's "maturity," despite all our supposed First Amendment protections and moral righteousness, we are but a few small steps away from Mexico's brutish violence and ingrained political dishonesty.
We get it. We feel it, breathing down our necks. We are certainly not lacking in corrupt civic leaders, in slimy, on-the-make politicians, in rabid cults of hate and violence, all coupled to a decaying educational system and a wild love of numbing out, dumbing down, racing to the moral, reality-TV bottom.
It also begets a strange and tragic irony: I recall a study not long ago from an American Ph.D. student who examined terrorists the world over and found something rather surprising.
All those sophisticated, calculating, evil masterminds orchestrating vast, intricate networks of educated rebels in the art of fear and violence? They don't really exist. There are no smarmy, highly-educated James Bond villains, no evil Die Hard-type Russian masterminds trying to hack the mainframe of international conglomerates, no evil genius sitting in a leather armchair, arming nukes while stroking a hairless cat on his lap.
There is no Scarface. There is no Tony Soprano. There was no Wild West. With rare exception, the romantic American notion of shrewd drug kingpin, sly mastermind terrorist, suave nightclub gangster is pure violence porn, just dumb Hollywood fantasy.
The truth is far more banal...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. He's also a well-known E-RYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...