October 18, 2009 (audio file)
Lorimer Chapel

Thank you. You’re about to learn that I’ve not won any awards for public speaking.

I’ve been told by a friend here that the mascot of Colby College is a white mule, which is interesting. I have some experience with those animals.

As it so happens, a few years ago I got the notion inside my head to ride a mule, in this case a black mule, from the Arizona border to southern Mexico. Two thousand kilometers on mule back. The day that I left was a May morning in the Chihuahuan desert, it was right where the nine wires divide the two countries, and a Mexican cowboy friend and my sister dropped me off with a horse trailer and said goodbye, and I waved goodbye to them and watched them disappear into the heat waves of distance. Climbed aboard the mule, swung him around, and touched him up with the spurs. He immediately bucked me off, broke my nose, and knocked me out cold. This was about 15 seconds into the expedition. I hope that I don’t provide a similar ludicrous performance tonight, although I have to say that facing an ornery mule still seems easier to me than standing before you.

First things first. I want to thank President Adams for his gracious words. I want to thank the Lovejoy Selection Committee, Colby students and faculty members, and all the good friends of Colby present here tonight for giving me the opportunity through this remarkable honor to help celebrate the legacy of one of our nation’s bravest defenders of freedom of speech and, indeed, freedom of conscience, Elijah Parish Lovejoy. What a man. What an agent of justice.

Lovejoy, as we all know, died for his convictions 172 years ago this November. He was slaughtered in a river town in frontier Illinois, shot five times for daring to challenge, without fear, without compromise, the greatest evil of his time: slavery. Nothing I have ever done can remotely approach that fierce moral purpose or that level of sacrifice for an ideal. I simply cannot claim it. Likewise, I feel humbled to be standing here tonight admitted to the company of some of the finest reporters of our generation, icons of our small church of truth-tellers, such as Daniel Pearl, Anne Hull, and the great Studs Terkel. And also two of my former colleagues from the Chicago Tribune, Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, whose groundbreaking reporting of wrongful death penalty convictions in Illinois literally saved men’s lives. Saving the doomed and the innocent-that is Lovejoy reincarnated.

You’ll have to take me at my word when I tell you that I feel unequal to such talents, and I indeed have two reasons to feel uneasy up here. The first is that I consider myself foremost merely a storyteller, a clumsy megaphone for a multitude of voices that rarely get heard. For the people who live on the ragged edges of the world where few reporters ever go, either because going there is too difficult or because the great political and economic powers of the day have few interests there. So I am no crusader. I’m a messenger from the edge.

Second, I’m not even really a foreign correspondent, even though everybody calls me that. Let me explain. I grew up in the global south. I was raised by my family on the central plateau of Mexico. My childhood is a pastiche of images, of rain on cobbled streets, of towering blue volcanoes, and of playmates who died young and mysteriously from disease. Many of my friends had pale blotches on their bronze skins from vitamin deficiencies. When I was six I thought that was cool. I wished that I could have them as well. I envied them. So from the very beginning my world view has been shaped by what Mexicans call los del abajo – literally “those from down below.”

Today, about two thirds of the human family, or roughly four of the world’s 6.7 billion people, qualify as los del abajo. The overwhelming majority reside in the developing world. We’re talking here about that huge subtropical belt that stretches between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer and that girdles the planet around the equator. It is a world where most of the people who live there earn less than 10 dollars a day, and, according to the World Bank, that figure covers about 80 percent of our species. It is where more than two billion people get by on two dollars a day. It is a world of countless villages and exploding megacities. It is a world of sprawling slums and hand-plowed fields. It is a world of power blackouts and kerosene lamps. It is a world of outhouses instead of plumbing. It is often a world of callous governments and weak public institutions, but also of strong, seemingly indestructible families. It is a world of unprecedented migrations; the largest movements of people in our history are happening today, in our lifetime-some 330 million people on foot in the global south, more than the total population of the United States. And, sadly, it is often a world of injustice, social upheaval, and war. But also of great joys and fantastic dancing. What I never remind my readers enough is just that: how places like Africa, where I usually live these days, are the happiest places I know.

And such is my beat. It is not foreign to me, but let me be clear. I have operated with luxurious backing of American media institutions that offer resources undreamed of by my local colleagues. But their story is to some extent also my story. I am a local reporter who covers what is familiar to him, and that happens to be about two thirds of our family tree and the bulk of our inhabited planet.

More important than my biography, however, is my thesis, which didn’t emerge at the beginning but has gelled over the years of my reporting south of the Tropic of Cancer. It is that, whether we are paying attention or not, I honestly believe that the developing world is where our species common future is being scripted, if only by shear weight of numbers alone. And, of course, the south is no longer the south. It’s in the north. With the census bureau estimating that the U.S. will be a minority-majority country by 2042, largely due to immigration, I would advise any ambitious young reporter today not to head to Washington or to London to launch a career, but to light out for the south, because that’s where the global narrative is rapidly taking shape.

Which brings me back to Elijah Parish Lovejoy. If Lovejoy were alive today, I would like to think that he would be from the global south. He would be a Zimbabwean newspaperwoman or an Iraqi television producer or maybe a Somali radio reporter. Our American press freedoms, as entrenched as they may seem, can never be taken for granted. They’re always under threat, especially in an era of two wars when the public has grown either too cynical or too polarized to trust what is reported by us anymore, or when the national security policies of our country try to squeeze off the oxygen-the free speech that keeps our democracy healthy. And of course especially in these recent years when traditional media is threatened by what astronomers call an ELE-an extinction level event-and that is a meteorite called the Internet slamming into a planet called the newspaper, wiping out most existing life forms. The United States does not lack examples of courageous reporters who continue to battle for openness in our society. They are the toilers at small and large newspapers who laboriously break through the walls of government secrecy with the flimsy crowbar of Freedom Of Information requests. Or who go to the dock and face jail time for not revealing confidential sources. Or who struggle for years to document the true pain of war-pain that cannot be airbrushed away with sweeping Orwellian restrictions on photographs of the dead.

You have honored many of my finest contemporaries right here in this chapel. This weekend one of them should be standing in my shoes tonight, and he’s even a Mainer: David Rohde of the New York Times, who was held by the Taliban for seven months. And his sense of mission, of truth-telling in journalism, was abundantly clear today in the pages of his newspaper.

But tonight, shifting from American journalism, I want to spend my last few minutes of this talk, before we go to questions, paying due to our partners and colleagues in the rougher corners of the world. They put not only their careers but also their very lives, and the lives of their families, on the line to deliver the truth. I work with them often, and they humble me. They share our ideals. Elijah Parish Lovejoy would recognize them as kin.

Some of you have just heard that I was captured and spent time in a Sudanese prison while covering the war in Darfur. That was a harrowing experience, and I will never forget how my family and colleagues moved heaven and earth to free my team. I was ambushed with my Sudanese interpreter, Daoud Hari, and my Chadian driver, Idriss Anu. We were held for 34 days, some of it in Sudan’s dreaded secret prisons called ghost houses, and we faced a 22-year sentence for espionage and a variety of other charges. None of us would be back home safely today if it weren’t specifically for two women sitting in the audience: my wife, Linda, who reached out to Governor Bill Richardson of my home state of New Mexico, who eventually negotiated our release, and Ann Marie Lipinski, my editor at the Chicago Tribune. Any reporter in harm’s way would be lucky to have Ann Marie at his or her back. So I’d like to offer another round of applause.

But as terrible as that experience was, and never to downplay those fearsome days, I must be honest in saying that what happened to me pales in comparison to the travails of the reporters I’ve worked with throughout my career in the developing world. Last year, according to Reporters Without Borders, at least 62 journalists were killed doing their jobs. The year before it had spiked to more than 100 reporters killed doing their jobs, largely due to our Iraqi colleagues murdered during the worst of the sectarian violence in Iraq. I’m talking here, of course, about targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and executions carried out with impunity. Their self-sacrifice is inspiring. Let me just name a few.

I met Alfred Taban, a longtime Sudanese radio journalist, in Khartoum in 2003. Alfred had just gotten out of jail. He was smoking cigarettes and sipping tea telling me he’d been imprisoned so many times that he knew all the jailors, and their families, by their first names. He had lost count of how many times he had been thrown behind bars. Yet there he still is, battering away.

There is Ali Eman Sharmarke, a Somali radio journalist who was killed when his car was hit by an IED-or improvised explosive device-in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2007. Ali was killed while driving home that day from a funeral of another Somali journalist, Mahad Ahmad Elmi, who had been shot in the head only hours earlier. My Somali colleagues now tell me that the reporter’s ranks in Somalia have been largely wiped out. Eighty percent of the reporter corps in that devastated country are gone, either through targeted killings or by fleeing for their lives for exile in neighboring countries.

There are, of course, more famous assassinations in recent years, such as Anna Politkovskaya, a dogged reporter of human rights in Russia, gunned down in cold blood in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow in 2006. Her killers remain free.

And, of course, there are countless obscure deaths, such as Mark Chavunduka, the editor of the Standard newspaper in Harare, Zimbabwe, who was tortured with electric prods after defying Robert Mugabe’s government for years. They finally let him go, but he soon died thereafter, quite probably from the injuries sustained while he was detained.

Or, closer to home, there is a Mexican colleague I can only call Arturo, because he’s been threatened by drug cartels in Juarez, where reporters are shot dead as they leave their front door to commute to their newsrooms. Arturo has temporarily stopped his reporting and is lying low, waiting for things to cool off before he writes again.

I want to close with one other anecdote. Not so long ago I traveled across the Sahel on assignment-and the Sahel, of course, is that huge swath of savannah that stretches all the way across northern Africa for about 5,000 kilometers. In it live about 50 million of the poorest, most disempowered people on Earth. In Niamey, the capital of the country of Niger, I had a chai with yet another southern colleague. His name was Maman Abou. Maman ran a newspaper, he was not an old man, but his hair had turned grey prematurely. I asked him why. He said that he had just been released from four months in prison on trumped up charges for exposing a corruption scandal at the ministry of education. Officials there had pocketed millions of dollars in aid. “What dates?” I asked him. August 4 through November 27, he said. “And you?” he asked me. August 6 through September 9, the Sudan, I told him. And we sighed and we sipped our tea. Conversations like these between reporters in places such as Africa can often go like that. We seem to be chattering the chatter of ex-convicts.

I would like to think that Elijah Parish Lovejoy would find them familiar. And I would like to say that all these inspiring colleagues from the global south, from my beat, from the developing world, are up here too.

I thank you.