The Permanent Partnership of War and Media

New Orleans        An interesting conversation with University of Houston professor, author, and poet, Roberto Tejada, on Wade’s World, about his new book, Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness, got me thinking a lot about the fact that the manipulation of media of all kinds is anything but new.  What triggered our speculation was not the constant barrage of Trump-time, but Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, and Cabeza de Vaca, the woebegone and hapless explorer of sorts of much of the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas.

Tejada made the often-forgotten observation in one of his essays that the Mexican Revolution in 1910 was the first area of combat in history that was widely photographed for print and filmed for cinema newscasts.  It was big news for a new media.  As Trump has also reminded us, access was all important.  Francisco “Pancho” Villa amazingly signed an agreement with a film company.  Tejada includes a section of the agreement where Villa  essentially offered the filmmakers exclusive access to his battlefields.  Amazingly, one of the provisos in the agreement encumbered Villa to reenact battles, if the live footage was inadequate or unavailable.  This is stunning to me.  Are you with me?  This is a general in the middle of a revolution with his rebel armies both agreeing and then actually going into the field with their soldiers playacting the previous battle scenes.  Unbelievable!

Tejada and I discussed whether this was “fake news” or not.  He argued that it wasn’t really fake, because it had happened, but since the footage would be presented as if real, to me at least it was artificial news.  I would like to say it would have been beneath modern standards, but all of us have read of TV reporters “manufacturing” settings, scenes, and interviews to give impressions that were equally fabricated.

How incredibly shrewd – and contemporary – was Villa to understand how he could easily manipulate the media?  Taking it one step farther, Villa also agreed and starred in a movie about his own life in order to gain support for his cause by going 100% Hollywood.  For a time, it even worked, changing the global impression of the Revolution and Villa as one of the leaders in attempting to overthrow the government of Porfirio Diaz.

Tejada writes in the title essay, De Vaca’s contribution hundreds of years earlier after having sailed to Florida and later been captured for years, losing almost all of his men in his wanderings, before he escaped, was also something Trump-like folks would have understood.  He wrote of his journeys in a politician’s exercise of spin and rehabilitation.  He likely invented a tale of being treated better as a captive because of a wham-bang piece of field surgery he performed in removing an arrowhead that few imagined possible.  Anticipating future charges of genocide, he even offers some defense for his native American capturers and their situation despite his captivity.

These are all good reminders that all reading, listening, and viewing of media has required a good dose of salt and skepticism forever and always, not just today.

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The Way Governments Chill the Lives of Their People

San Pedro Sula   Driving through the cities of Honduras, there are stretches that seem like fast food heaven for global companies.  It’s hard to know what to make of the many complexes that include Popeye’s, Dunkin Donuts, Subways, and Pizza Hut under the same roof virtually.  Traffic is heavy and unregulated.  Passing on the highways is random and reckless without regard to any road signage.  In short, life in the years since the coup or golpista looks and feels normal.

Talking to people in all walks of life though the new normal post-golpista reality is living in a world with a thundercloud always hovering in the sky above.

Because some radio and television stations were shutdown because they expressed opposition in the coup or allowed contrary voices and opinions to be expressed, one reporter or station owner after another told us what they did not allow on the air.  One mainly broadcast religious programming in Nicaragua because of the government there and had largely shifted that way in Honduras as well after the coup. Journalists would turn off their tape recorders or put the pen down on their pad after talking with us and then describe their interest in finding outlets for their writing outside of the country for fear that another shutdown of papers and journals expressing anything but fawning support of the government could come in the future.

Nothing any of these people had said was out of line or critical.  No new laws were cited that expressly forbade what they could broadcast or print, but everyone seemed to be internalizing the experience of the coup as a permanent warning light instructing caution, drawing lines that should not be safely crossed, things that could not be said.  Talking to lawyers who offered ACORN help in various ways there was always a warning that more care needed to be taken on all documents, because the government was hyper attentive to any nonprofit organizations with international connections.  This is what is meant when people talk about governments chilling the rights of their citizens.

One of our organizers told us a story about going with several leaders to respond to interest in organizing in a new barrio in one of our cities.  They were suddenly confronted by several individuals in police uniforms with guns drawn and pointed at them telling them they had to leave the neighborhood.  Because gangs have regularly infiltrated the police ranks and many have simply obtained uniforms for their work, organizers are unsure if they are dealing with police or worse.  In this case they kept talking so nothing got out of hand, but they kept talking while leaving the neighborhood.  Because the government cannot protect the people and seems to have little interest in doing so, despite the fact that security is on everyone’s minds, we don’t articulate security as an issue, because we never know in our own meetings whether there may be gang members or relatives, so the issues have to be framed carefully.

To say nothing is as it seems ignores the screams masked by the silence shrouded in the fear of a people unsure of their place between a government that does not protect their rights or their safety and real experiences of violence from both the government forces and the forces of even worse evil.

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