Honoring (and Welcoming) Juan Gonzalez

BY HANK REICHMAN

Last week two-time Polk award-winner Juan Gonzalez wrote his final column for the New York Daily News, where he worked for 29 years. A former national President and one of the founders of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Juan will continue as co-host of the popular independent global news show Democracy Now!  Last June Juan delivered the keynote address at AAUP’s centennial banquet in Washington, D.C., the text of which became the basis of an article, “A Journalist’s View of the Assault on Public Education,” that appeared in the September-October 2015 issue of Academe.  Shortly after delivering that talk, Juan joined Academe‘s advisory board, on which he continues to serve.

I’ve known Juan since we were both undergraduate rebels at Columbia University during the 1968 student uprising there.  Before entering journalism Juan was a leader of the now-fabled Young Lords Party and a major figure on the radical left.  Early in his tenure at the Daily News he helped lead an ultimately victorious five-month strike of newspaper employees of all types.  Juan and I have remained in contact over the years (sometimes off and on as with many college friendships) and in some ways our political paths have run parallel, even if our professional lives have been quite different and my own accomplishments much more modest.

There can be little doubt that Juan has been one of the most important and influential journalists of our generation.  In his final column, Juan wrote, “I opted to become a voice from another part of urban America. Not writing about outcast neighborhoods, but from them. Not simply to entertain, but to change. Not after the fact, but before it, when coverage could still make a difference.”  And what a difference he has truly made!  “Over 29 years,” Juan wrote, “I estimate taxpayers saved or recovered at least $678 million from fraud or financial wrongdoing first uncovered by this column. In addition, individual New Yorkers won at least another $40 million in lawsuits against the city or state after incidents of police abuse, discrimination or malpractice first reported here.”

In those Daily News columns, at Democracy Now!, and in his books — Roll Down Your Window: Stories from a Forgotten America, a collection of his early columns; Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, perhaps the most popular assigned reading in Latino history classes across the country; Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapseand, with Joseph Torres, News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media — Juan has stood up for the underdog, for the dispossessed and oppressed, for minorities, and, in the most profound sense, for the core values of democracy, freedom and plain human decency.

To celebrate Juan’s retirement, Democracy Now! ran this piece:

Last November, Juan was inducted into the Deadline Club’s New York Journalism Hall of Fame, becoming the first Latino journalist to be selected for the honor.  He was inducted along with Charlie Rose, New York Times journalist Max Frankel, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, ProPublica founder Paul Steiger and Time magazine journalist and editor Richard Stolley.  Here is video of his moving acceptance speech at that occasion:

In his final column, Juan wrote that “the stories that stay with you most are the ones about human suffering your stories were powerless to ease.

There was the mayhem on the streets of Los Angeles after a Simi Valley jury acquitted the cops who beat Rodney King. And the Haitians I found executed on the streets of Port Au Prince each morning by the soldiers and right-wing thugs who overthrew President Jean Bertrand Aristide. And the bodies of Panamanian civilians burned to a crisp in Panama City’s Chorillo section after U.S. troops bombed that poor neighborhood during the 1989 Panama invasion. And the unit of New York National Guard soldiers who came home from the Iraq War sickened by exposure to our own depleted uranium shells.

Right here in downtown Manhattan, there were the thousands of rescue workers and neighborhood residents exposed to the toxic dust released at Ground Zero. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I warned in a series of columns that federal and city officials were misleading the public about the safety of the air, that too many people were being needlessly exposed and could face deadly consequences. Some called me alarmist. Well it took years, but we know how that story turned out.

So it ends for me this week, the years of chasing daily events, of finding something to say others will want to read in the next morning’s paper. I’m off to teach the little I’ve learned to college students (though I will return to these pages on occasion).

While New Yorkers and others will sorely miss Juan’s column, news that he will be joining the ranks of the professoriate can only be welcome to AAUP members and faculty everywhere.  He will take on a position as a professor of professional practice at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information.  Juan was a visiting professor at Brooklyn College “back around 2001 and 2002,” and most recently held the Andres Bello Chair at New York University’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, but those were temporary appointments.  Rutgers, however, he says, “made me an excellent offer. Their communications school was eager to provide me a more extended academic appointment, plus additional resources for programming.”

Since Rutgers faculty are represented by a joint AAUP-AFT union, I’m looking forward to the possibility that Juan will bring his immense talents even more to bear on behalf of the faculty, the AAUP, academic freedom, and public education.  And we can hope that his skills as an organizer, as well as a journalist, will help strengthen our movement.  In the meantime, Juan has another book project in the works: His next book, he says, “will chronicle how populist movements that surged after the Great Recession have captured control of City Halls in key American cities and are reshaping our national urban policies from the ground up.”

Both personally and on behalf of the AAUP, I congratulate my old friend on his retirement from daily journalism and warmly welcome him to the ranks of the professoriate.

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