Q&A: Pablo Calvi

 “Convincing yourself that you have no point of view is the worst possible thing you can ever do. Because you always have a point of view.”

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That’s Pablo Calvi, an associate professor at Stony Brook University School of Communication and Journalism. For him, having a point of view is crucial to good journalism — without it, he said, reporters end up indiscriminately transcribing what is told to them.

Calvi’s point of view has been honed by his study and practice of literary journalism across Latin America and the United States. He’s the first non-native English speaker to receive a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship and chronicled the history, development, and ongoing impact of literary journalism in Latin America in Latin American Adventures in Literary Journalism, published in 2019. 

For Calvi, studying journalism in Latin America has been a lens through which to examine where the U.S. press falls short in its aim to interrogate and disrupt existing social structures. 

The Objective’s Janelle Salanga talked with Calvi about what U.S. media workers can learn from journalism beyond U.S. borders, moving toward journalism less focused on American exceptionalism, and more. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What lessons can the U.S. press learn from looking at the press in other countries? 

I’m thinking of an article for Current Affairs that a friend and former student of mine wrote recently. His name is Mike Adams. And he wrote about this very important figure in Latin American testimonial literature, a trend that starts in the ’50s, probably like a little bit earlier than the “new journalism” in the United States.

One of the top figures in that movement was Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentine writer who became a journalist. He realizes that there’s some illegal detentions and abductions and killing of people that is happening. And he starts writing about it and develops a book that’s called Operation Massacre, published in 1957. It’s a few years before In Cold Blood, which is supposedly the first work of new journalism here in the States, according to Tom Wolfe. 

What is interesting is that when I first presented that book, years ago in a conference, most colleagues of mine were unaware testimonial literature existed or, in general, predated the New Journalism. Mike is bringing up the book because he brings up Walsh, who did an entire trajectory from writing that book into becoming a more active member of a revolutionary force called Monteneros, which was opposing the de facto government of Argentina back then. He actually got killed by the government. And before he got killed, he wrote this letter addressed to the military, which is a letter that delineates what was the strategy of the military junta and why people had to oppose it, what was the final goal, which was turning the economy against the people and creating a highly concentrated economy, etc, etc. 

I think that Walsh wrote that and became an active revolutionary was in part because there was a disengagement, or a disconnect between journalism and the revelation of truth, right? What you do as a journalist is basically reveal the truth. In the political landscape at large, whatever he did in terms of discovering the truth had no impact or bearing whatsoever in the political landscape. It had no impact … because it was basically a military dictatorship. Mike brings up that book, Walsh and the letter to the junta — in particular, he calls it like the blueprint that, like young American journalists should be looking at. So Walsh and his trajectory was one of the blueprints. 

What we are experiencing here in the United States right now is that there’s also this disconnect between the revealing of certain truths and political action. Even though we know that the power is concentrated in a few hands; even though it’s clear that say, inflation is not triggered by the increase of salaries but by the encroachment of corporations in decision-making and the maximizing of their profit on the shoulders of consumers; even though we know there’s white nationalism and racism, and we can reveal and show those things, it doesn’t seem to have too much of an impact on what’s happening on a political level.

I guess what I’m trying to say is there are no real models or no clear precedent in the United States for a form of journalism that has political engagement and pushes the political realm to action in things that have to do with benefiting the population at large. I mean, you have to go back to the ’60s to see journalism that really had a political imprint on the electoral level.

If anything, it seems like mainstream journalism has full synchronicity with what’s happening in the political arena. They never question, for instance, that there has to be an invasion of Afghanistan or like, [that the U.S. will] keep sending money to the Arab countries to bomb Yemen, or the many other atrocities in which the government is involved. People know it, and sometimes they disagree with their pundits and they don’t want the United States to be involved in the war, or say they want Medicare for All. 70% of people want Medicare for All, but that has no bearing in the political decisions at large. So there seems to be a disconnect. 

At that point, you start experiencing types of journalism that are more moralistic. They retreat more into the moral and the things that should be happening, the things that are correct, the things that are right. There’s not a very clear model for that in the United States. That’s why I think it’s important to look at other models of journalism that are happening abroad. 

The second thing, I think, is: There has been very little reflection on what is the origin of journalism, as one of the main practices associated with conquest … Journalism appears within [capitalist and empire-building] practices as part of the empire’s symbolic mechanisms to encroach, survey, and itemize whatever was discovered in the new territories that would be colonized by the central metropolis. …Journalism has never had that discussion of what type of practice is journalism and in what historical context it appears, and how valuable it is today in a world that is trying to shake off the historical burden of colonialism and offer some type of penance for what it’s done in the past, in terms of reparations, or in terms of acknowledgment of peace, etc, etc. 

So what type of acknowledgment is journalism offering at this point? 

And you look back and you see the coverage is of what was happening, say in Libya or Syria in the ’70’s and ’80’s. And you look now and what’s happening with the coverage of Iran now, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and there’s not a lot of differences. So there’s not a lot of real change. Or you go look at how the coverage of Latin America is today, and it seems like it’s always the same. Like, “Let me show you the shiny little weird thing that’s happening in Latin America.”  

… You see the traces of empire many times, like what happened in Guatemala in the ‘50’s. Or what happened in [El] Salvador in the ‘80’s. All those things are never put in the foreground, and they’re never part of the explanation [of] why people are migrating to the United States or [why] they want to cross the border. 

What do you think might get journalism to a point where we have those discussions about what it means as a practice? Where people are questioning all these assumptions they may have about America?

I always start with that Audre Lorde maxim. “How can you fix the master’s house using the master’s tools?”

First, we have to assume that there’s at least a potential for us to fix the master’s house with the master’s tools. One of the tools has been higher education and another one has been journalism … the ideological apparatuses of the state. Are those tools suitable vehicles to operate significant change?

Let’s assume that we can bring those questions into higher education and bring those questions into newsrooms. As a journalist, when I worked on different stories, I tried to be aware of those things. Because of the scope of what journalism as a practice should be interested in, maybe because of its [journalism’s] limitations in terms of approaches, maybe because of the structures in place, editors, publishers, etc. there’s little opportunity to bring those topics. Sometimes you can. And sometimes, when those topics appear, say, in print matter, or published online or as news segments, they are also shaped in the form that is the most digestible to the audiences and more agreeable with the publications that let them run. There’s already a frame within which you are operating. 

I think the most important thing to do is just first question the framing mechanisms. When you see the word “clash” — so the “clashes” between the police and the people at Standing Rock — is that a real clash? The clashes between the pallbearers and the people bearing the journalist in Jerusalem in the funeral, are those real clashes?

We can bring questions to those framing strategies and narrative frames. Now, is there room for showing the alternative narrative or a different point of view within the mainstream media?

I’m not sure. … I used to work for mainstream media … and the more I read and the more I try to internalize and assimilate these ideas, the more they become familiar to me. I at least believe that mainstream media is a good place to present those new views. Even when mainstream media brings in people from diverse backgrounds, they usually bring people with diverse backgrounds who — by sheer nature of the way in which they entered the mainstream media — will try to conform to structures in place. There’s nothing wrong with that, I mean, you have to respect your editors. 

I think I have more optimism about publications like yours, who are revealing the problems. Media that is alternative by sheer existence because they appear in a more liminal way. They’re not geared to the mass public because there seems to be a little bit of air in that area — new podcasts, etc. etc. Regions that are not totally colonized by the mainstream narrative. 

I don’t discourse my students when they are aspiring to get into the New York Times or NBC. But I try to remind them that they’re not coming from an Ivy League college — Stony Brook is a public university, and that’s why I like it, people from all places can come to our school and it’s not too expensive. When they go to say, NBC or MSNBC or Fox News, or wherever they go, I try to remind them that they come from a place and that place has a point of view. That point of view is baked in — they’re going to look at things differently than, say, Anderson Cooper who grew up in the Upper East Side [of New York]. They’re going to look at things slightly different or radically different because their experiences of the world and their interests are radically different. So [I tell my students] don’t lose that. And try to be in contact with that because diversifying the point of view — not just the color of a newsroom or the accent — you get to create a richer experience to a viewer of what America, New York, the United States is. 

Where do you see more mainstream media shifting? 

There are institutions that have — the structures of those institutions have existed since times immemorial, hundreds of years. So it’s gonna be hard to change them, but like, for instance, the new dean of the journalism school at Columbia University was named Jelani Cobb, just recently.

I attended Columbia as both a master’s student and a PhD student, and it was a bastion of white journalism, right? It still is, if you’re in the Twittersphere or Facebook sphere, because most people in Columbia are publishing on Twitter and Facebook. There are still very entrenched views of objectivity and … now we know it was more a narrative and a framing device. There’s no objectivity when it comes to white supremacy, right? There’s a good side morally. 

So it was hard, 10 years ago, to think of Columbia as an institution that would shift to a degree — at least now they have a person of color as a dean and a person who has experienced firsthand the problems that being a Black man in the United States brings in terms of access to education, in terms of access to working in a newsroom, as a journalist. And in terms of presenting your point of view of a certain situation before an audience because you are different from the white imagined audience of a certain publication. I think that there are moments in which you see, well, there’s actually effective change happening, even in institutions that have historically been a little bit reluctant to that type of change. So in that sense, I don’t think all is lost.

I think a harder take is, maybe at some point, to question or to allow for the questioning of that nationalistic approach and point of view that the United States news or mainstream media have — American exceptionalism. 

How do you trouble for your students the idea that the only lens that can be looked through is one where the U.S. is at the center? 

What I try to do is show them, what are the limiting factors? Let’s start with that. Like linguistic access to the news — usually, Americans, unless you are a first-generation immigrant or your parents were concerned with you learning a language other than English, for the most part American readers don’t speak more than English.

I’m lucky in that sense, because my students are usually first-generation or sometimes, direct immigrants. So they do speak English and a different language. Accessing the news in a different language offers you the possibility to compare how things are covered here, or in the Philippines, or Indonesia, or read historical documents and newspaper clippings in multiple languages and see how things were covered differently. 

I’ve seen it in millennials, who look at historical events like the invasion of Iraq or the invasion of Panama and ask, “How were those events covered by the foreign press, by the Panamanian or the Iraqi? How were those things covered here? What was the sourcing?” [They’re] looking at the world from the point of view of American empire and from the point of view of the receiving end of the American empire — how things were interpreted in Panama or Indonesia or the Philippines or Guatemala, etc. 

I think it’s very humbling, especially for the person who’s doing that research, because on the one hand, you see the Washington Post has hailed us [the U.S.] as the savior of the Panamanians from the Noriega dictatorship. When you read it from the point of view of the Panamanians themselves, they say, “You basically blew up an entire neighborhood and killed how many people? … There must’ve been something else that could be done instead of invading the entire country.”

There’s that possibility now, because of the volume of the archives and the access the internet offers you to actually go into historical documents and the possibility to read and translate from different documents. That’s what we, I, try to do in my class.

I give my students, say, access to the New York Times clippings on the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, right, but also point them in the direction of “What was the Cuban press saying at the time?” and then read them at the same time and see what are the differences? And what do you think was going on? Then go into historical archives and historical references, and looking back into coverage, asking, “Which one do you think was the more accurate? Or which one do you think reflects more the ideas that you have after reading all of that?” I think that without forcing your hand on them, but just giving them all the information and just showing them what is accessible now and letting them make their own decision. There’s a lot of clarity that comes with that.

You mentioned Rodolfo Wolfe as a potential blueprint for American journalism — who are your blueprints? 

I never thought I was going to theorize about journalism, because I did it in practice. But then, when I started doing it, it was interesting to see that I could understand and analyze my own practice and understand why I was doing what I was doing. In terms of who I aspire to be like, I love what [Current] Affairs does and what Jeff Cohen has done over the years, like media criticism. I think that there’s a great amount of resources in terms of Latin American journalism. You can look back for Elena Poniatowska in Mexico, Cristian Alarcón in Chile and Argentina, Pedro Lemebel in Chile, Gabriel Lavinas in Peru, Leila Guerrero in Argentina — I worked for a magazine called Gattopardo, for which she was South American editor. 

You cross paths with people who have interesting takes and you try to copy some of their tics, some of their practices. But at the same time, you need to be able to articulate the practice and you need to be able to understand your practice in the larger context. So, I took a really amazing class with Michael Taussig, who is an Australian anthropologist. He’s a post-structuralist. Todd Gitlin, who recently died, was very important for me. He was my mentor at Columbia … he shared a lot of theoretical background that informed the actual practice for me.

A lot of these folks aren’t strictly journalists. Why do you think it’s important for journalists to have that breadth of ideas and to look outside their field to learn?

One of my main inspirations, even though he’s not a journalist, is Marco Montahuano, who is a leader of the Sápara Nation in Ecuador, and Manari Ushigua, another one of the leaders of the Sápara Nation. I learned how to re-evaluate the journalistic contract and at least try for the discipline, for my practice not to be extractive — not to go and drill the narrative out of them the same way the oil companies were drilling the oil in their territory.

I think that it’s important, because one of the things I question is that “view from nowhere,” right? That we are objective, we don’t have a point of view, we’re telling you the truth. 

But convincing yourself that you have no point of view is the worst possible thing you can ever do. Because you always have a point of view. And if you’re convinced that you don’t have a point of view, then you’re going to be transcribing blindly whatever point of view is imprinted on you. You need to be aware of what your point of view is and you need to let your audience know what that point of view is, because that pretense of neutrality doesn’t help the furthering of the truth. 

So I think that’s why it’s important to look outside of journalism, to understand you actually do have a point of view and maybe try to understand why you have that point of view and articulate it. And to be able to do that in maybe a subtle manner, or maybe in a clear manner, to actually express that you do have a point of view and the reasons why you have it whenever you write about something. 

It’s important to look at where you’re coming from right — to be able to see the color of the ink and what you’re printing. What color are you choosing and why? Where are you making your statements from?

I think that helps you and helps your audience too. You may not be heavy-handed about it, and you don’t need to take pre-eminence on the narrative, but at least be candid about it. It’s a courtesy to your readership, because you probably have got a different point of view on the burglaries on pharmacies in San Francisco, for example. Your point of view will be influenced by where you come from. But I think looking outside of yourself and trying to inform your point of view with more contextual and theoretical information will probably help you understand why you say what you say and think what you think. 

How has your understanding of objectivity and points of view changed over the course of your journalism career?

I think it was important to first to be reporting from the United States to Latin America. At some point, I was writing from here to there. At some point, I was writing from there to here. So I would understand what the differences were and what people wanted to hear about. When I covered the Argentine crisis of 2001, what were people interested in? When I was covering New York for Brazilian or Latin American audiences, what were people interested in hearing about?

There was emphasis on different things and getting a bunch of stories rejected, a lot of stories rejected and ideas rejected because they didn’t quite conform to what readers wanted to read. I remember proposing a story about regeneration of our forest system accomplished by indigenous people but there were no scientists involved. The story was rejected because there was no scientific proof, even though you could see the photos of a forest before and after and you could see the process and the documentation. 

So understanding why those stories are rejected gives you a sense of the scope of the publication but also: What are readers thinking? What are the editors thinking? Where and what is the gatekeeping process and how is it happening? 

For instance, when I was in Argentina, if I had to write a story about how the government was collapsing because there was a lot of corruption, which in part was true — I chose not to write that story, or I chose to write the story of how a certain policy imposed by vulture funds was impacting the possibility for the government to maneuver around debt payments and how that would impact inflation. And, in turn, how that inflation would impact people.

You’re always making a choice on how to cover things. 

For example, with the Buffalo shooter, you can cover it as the “lone ranger” or you can cover it as a white supremacist. However you phrase it and however you present this story will have an impact on whether the story is picked up or not. If you have a white Associated Press editor, probably the Associated Press editor will go more with the “lone wolf” narrative than with the white supremacist narrative, even though there may be enough documentation to show that the guy was a white supremacist and he was concerned about the replacement theory. 

Maybe all those things will not be put to the fore in a certain context for a certain newsroom. And then it’s on you — what would you want to do? Would you want to publish a story with the Associated Press or do you want to publish the story according to what you see it is? And then you have to decide, “Well, if I have to follow the AP Stylebook, then I’m not going to be able to say this person is a white supremacist.” Those decisions probably are not as clear to your readership as they are to you as a journalist. And that’s kind of unfortunate because I think many people would change their news consumption habits if they knew how the framing of these stories is put into place. They might think, “Okay, if that is the policy of the Associated Press, maybe I should read something else too.” 

I think it’s often easy for those decisions to feel disconnected from the masses, but what material impact does that shift in framing have on readers?

There’s many more, but [I’ll talk about] two things that I’ve been unpacking.

One is that, in order for these discussions about framing to have an impact on real-world issues, you have to see how the changing of framing impacts real stories. Say, “a lone wolf,” white supremacist terrorist: How would that change people’s perception or gun violence? How would that change people’s perception on background checks or stuff like that? Which one would be more beneficial in terms of, say, ending gun violence or ending racism? The practice of discussing and thinking about framing and theorizing about framing has to be accompanied by a change in the craft — in general, a change in the profession, real change in how the stories and new stories are presented. 

The other thing is that it’s difficult to do that due to the level with which our newsrooms are pressurized today. Any change is going to be difficult to implement; you’re going to be subject to a lot of criticism or attacks from the audience. And if that voice is not protected, if you can fire journalists at-will and not with just cause, you’re … creating a much weaker platform for ideas. I think there’s a problem in newsrooms today because people are afraid of a barrage of tweets that either “cancel” their opinion, attack them, or undermine their livelihood. That creates a lot of reasons for self-censorship, because you are afraid that if you say what you’re thinking, there’s going to be a pile-on of tweets in your inbox and on your editor’s inbox that ultimately are going to result in you getting fired and not being able to make a living. I think it’s difficult to implement change in precarious conditions like that within the framework of mainstream journalism as it is working today.

But I think that’s why people like you start new organizations with new goals and hopefully a new ethos. Because you’re looking at what’s happening elsewhere and you’re trying to move in a different direction. 

What are you hoping for from other newsrooms, from communities working to envision the media landscape as something that does not cause harm the way it has in the past?

I have a lot of hope. I was telling somebody recently that I really liked this new generation of post-millennials, Zoomers or whatever the name is, the new generation, because I think that they are very politically engaged and aware. That’s very similar to what I experienced when I grew up. I mean, it’s very difficult to not be politically engaged during dictatorship or regimes that are already being forced in and out. I think that there’s some commonality — there’s the idea that we’re living under very extreme historical conditions, highly concentrated wealth, highly concentrated power, like a monopoly of the means of communications and the means of production. And there’s a lot of solidarity happening at the lower levels, because people are aware that things are rough and hard for everybody.

Your generation came from somewhere. It’s not self-generated. The fact that you’re embodying this desire of change, makes me think that probably society is getting ready to change. Maybe we will stop talking about objectivity. And we’ll start talking about fairness.

What I think is that this monolith, which seems to be impervious to anything, and impermeable to new approaches, is not as impenetrable as we see it. By sheer work, we’re gonna be able to crack it, and I have hope in my students. I think that there’s a lot of desire to change things and engage in politics and understanding [of] the nuances of voice and point of view. I mean, your generation is not as naive, I guess, as previous generations. I think that you come with the wisdom that has been instilled in you, because of the living circumstances that you have to endure, right. And the things that were taken away from you, and I think that that makes for a very powerful new generation and, and a really heightened desire to change things to make things better. That kind of gives me hope.

This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee. 

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