Jorge Ramos

Why journalists have an obligation to challenge power

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Translated by Camille Martínez
0:12

I'm a journalist, and I'm an immigrant. And these two conditions define me.

0:19

I was born in Mexico, but I've spent more than half my life reporting in the United States, a country which was itself created by immigrants. As a reporter and as a foreigner, I've learned that neutrality, silence and fear aren't the best options — not in journalism, nor in life. Neutrality is often an excuse that we journalists use to hide from our true responsibility. What is that responsibility? It is to question and to challenge those in positions of power. That's what journalism is for.

0:59

That's the beauty of journalism: to question and challenge the powerful. Of course, we have the obligation to report reality as it is, not how we would like it to be. In that sense, I agree with the principle of objectivity: if a house is blue, I say that it's blue. If there are a million unemployed people, I say there are a million. But neutrality won't necessarily lead me to the truth. Even if I'm unequivocally scrupulous, and I present both sides of a news item — the Democratic and the Republican, the liberal and the conservative, the government's and the opposition's — in the end, I have no guarantee, nor are any of us guaranteed that we'll know what's true and what's not true. Life is much more complicated, and I believe journalism should reflect that very complexity.

1:52

To be clear: I refuse to be a tape recorder. I didn't become a journalist to be a tape recorder. I know what you're going to say: no one uses tape recorders nowadays.

2:03

(Laughter)

2:04

In that case, I refuse to take out my cell phone and hit the record button and point it in front of me as if I were at a concert, like a fan at a concert. That is not true journalism. Contrary to what many people think, journalists are making value judgments all the time, ethical and moral judgments. And we're always making decisions that are exceedingly personal and extraordinarily subjective.

2:35

For example: What happens if you're called to cover a dictatorship, like Augusto Pinochet's regime in Chile or Fidel Castro's in Cuba? Are you going to report only what the general and commander want, or will you confront them? What happens if you find out that in your country or in the country next door, students are disappearing and hidden graves are appearing, or that millions of dollars are disappearing from the budget and that ex-presidents are magically now multimillionaires? Will you report only the official version? Or what happens if you're assigned to cover the presidential elections of the primary superpower, and one of the candidates makes comments that are racist, sexist and xenophobic? That happened to me. And I want to tell you what I did, but first, let me explain where I'm coming from, so you can understand my reaction.

3:41

I grew up in Mexico City, the oldest of five brothers, and our family simply couldn't afford to pay for all of our college tuition. So I studied in the morning, and worked in the afternoon. Eventually, I got the job I had always wanted: television reporter. It was a big opportunity. But as I was working on my third story, I ended up criticizing the president, and questioning the lack of democracy in Mexico. In Mexico, from 1929 to 2000, elections were always rigged; the incumbent president would hand-pick his successor. That's not true democracy. To me it seemed like a brilliant idea to expose the president, but to my boss —

4:27

(Laughter)

4:28

My boss didn't think it was such a great idea. At that time, the presidential office, Los Pinos, had issued a direct censor against the media. My boss, who, aside from being in charge of the show I worked for, was also in charge of a soccer team. I always suspected that he was more interested in goals than in the news. He censored my report. He asked me to change it, I said no, so he put another journalist on the story to write what I was supposed to say. I did not want to be a censored journalist. I don't know where I found the strength, but I wrote my letter of resignation. And so at 24 years of age — just 24 — I made the most difficult and most transcendental decision of my life. Not only did I resign from television, but I had also decided to leave my country.

5:20

I sold my car, a beat-up little red Volkswagen, came up with some money and said goodbye to my family, to my friends, to my streets, to my favorite haunts — to my tacos —

5:32

(Laughter)

5:33

and I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, California. And so I became one of the 250 million immigrants that exist in the world.

5:45

Ask any immigrant about the first day they arrived in their new country, and you'll find that they remember absolutely everything, like it was a movie with background music. In my case, I arrived in Los Angeles, the sun was setting, and everything I owned — a guitar, a suitcase and some documents — I could carry all of it with my two hands. That feeling of absolute freedom, I haven't experienced since. And I survived with what little I had. I obtained a student visa; I was studying. I ate a lot of lettuce and bread, because that's all I had. Finally, in 1984, I landed my first job as a TV reporter in the United States.

6:29

And the first thing I noticed was that in the US, my colleagues criticized — and mercilessly — then president Ronald Reagan, and absolutely nothing happened; no one censored them. And I thought: I love this country.

6:43

(Laughter)

6:46

(Applause)

6:49

And that's how it's been for more than 30 years: reporting with total freedom, and being treated as an equal despite being an immigrant — until, without warning, I was assigned to cover the recent US presidential election.

7:07

On June 16, 2015, a candidate who would eventually become the president of the United States said that Mexican immigrants were criminals, drug traffickers and rapists. And I knew that he was lying. I knew he was wrong for one very simple reason: I'm a Mexican immigrant. And we're not like that. So I did what any other reporter would have done: I wrote him a letter by hand requesting an interview, and I sent it to his Tower in New York.

7:46

The next day I was at work, and I suddenly began to receive hundreds of calls and texts on my cell phone, some more insulting than others. I didn't know what was happening until my friend came into my office and said, "They published your cell number online." They actually did that. Here's the letter they sent where they gave out my number. Don't bother writing it down, OK? I already changed it.

8:15

(Laughter)

8:17

But I learned two things. The first one is that you should never, never, ever give your cell number to Donald Trump.

8:26

(Laughter)

8:29

(Applause)

8:32

The second lesson was that I needed to stop being neutral at that point. From then on, my mission as a journalist changed. I would confront the candidate and show that he was wrong, that what he said about immigrants in the US was not true.

8:48

Let me give you some figures. Ninety-seven percent of all undocumented people in the United States are good people. Less than three percent have committed a serious crime, or "felony," as they say in English. In comparison, six percent of US citizens have committed a serious crime. The conclusion is that undocumented immigrants behave much better than US citizens.

9:11

Based on that data, I made a plan. Eight weeks after they published my cell number, I obtained a press pass for a press conference for the candidate gaining momentum in the polls. I decided to confront him in person. But ... things didn't turn out exactly as I had planned; watch:

9:36

[Donald Trump Press Conference Dubuque, Iowa]

9:41

(Video) Jorge Ramos: Mr. Trump, I have a question about immigration.

9:45

Donald Trump: Who's next? Yes, please.

9:47

JR: Your immigration plan is full of empty promises.

9:49

DT: Excuse me, you weren't called. Sit down. Sit down!

9:52

JR: I'm a reporter; as an immigrant and as a US citizen, I have the right to ask a question.

9:56

DT: No you don't. JR: I have the right to ask —

9:58

DT: Go back to Univision.

9:59

JR: This is the question: You cannot deport 11 million people. You cannot build a 1900-mile wall. You cannot deny citizenship to children in this country.

10:10

DT: Sit down. JR: And with those ideas —

10:12

DT: You weren't called.

10:14

JR: I'm a reporter and I have — Don't touch me, sir.

10:17

Guard 1: Please don't disrupt. You're being disruptive.

10:19

JR: I have the right to ask a question. G1: Yes, in order. In turn, sir.

10:23

Guard 2: Do you have your media credential?

10:25

JR: I have the right —

10:26

G2: Where? Let me see. JR: It's over there.

10:28

Man: Whoever's coming out, stay out.

10:30

G2: You've just got to wait your turn.

10:32

Man: You're very rude. It's not about you.

10:34

JR: It's not about you — Man: Get out of my country!

10:36

Man: It's not about you.

10:37

JR: I'm a US citizen, too.

10:39

Man: Well ...whatever. No, Univision. It's not about you.

10:41

JR: It's not about you. It's about the United States.

10:47

(Applause)

10:58

(Applause ends)

11:01

Whenever I see that video, the first thing I always think is that hate is contagious. If you notice, after the candidate says, "Go back to Univision" — that's code; what he's telling me is, "Get out of here." One member of his entourage, as if he had been given permission, said, "Get out of my country," not knowing that I'm also a US citizen.

11:26

After watching this video many times, I also think that in order to break free from neutrality — and for it to be a true break — one has to lose their fear, and then learn how to say, "No; I'm not going to be quiet. I'm not going to sit down. And I'm not going to leave." The word "no" —

11:45

(Applause)

11:50

"no" is the most powerful word that exists in any language, and it always precedes any important change in our lives. And I think there's enormous dignity and it generates a great deal of respect to be able to step back and to push back and say, "No."

12:06

Elie Wiesel — Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and who, unfortunately, we lost very recently — said some very wise words: "We must take a side. Neutrality helps only the oppressor, never the victim." And he's completely right. We journalists are obligated to take sides in certain circumstances; in cases of racism, discrimination, corruption, lying to the public, dictatorships and human rights, we need to set aside neutrality and indifference.

12:38

Spanish has a great word to describe the stance that journalists should take. The word is "contrapoder [anti-establishment]." Basically, we journalists should be on the opposite side from those in power. But if you're in bed with politicians, if you go to the baptism or wedding of the governor's son or if you want to be the president's buddy, how are you going to criticize them? When I'm assigned to interview a powerful or influential person, I always keep two things in mind: if I don't ask this difficult and uncomfortable question, no one else is going to; and that I'm never going to see this person again. So I'm not looking to make a good impression or to forge a connection. In the end, if I have to choose between being the president's friend or enemy, I always prefer to be their enemy.

13:30

In closing: I know this is a difficult time to be an immigrant and a journalist, but now more than ever, we need journalists who are prepared, at any given moment, to set neutrality aside. Personally, I feel like I've been preparing for this moment my whole life. When they censored me when I was 24, I learned that neutrality, fear and silence often make you an accomplice in crime, abuse and injustice. And being an accomplice to power is never good journalism.

14:08

Now, at 59 years old, I only hope to have a tiny bit of the courage and mental clarity I had at 24, and that way, never again remain quiet. Thank you very much.

14:23

(Applause)

14:25

Thank you.

14:27

(Applause)

You can kick Jorge Ramos out of your press conference (as Donald Trump infamously did in 2015), but you can never silence him. A reporter for more than 30 years, Ramos believes that a journalist's responsibility is to question and challenge those in power. In this compelling talk — which earned him a standing ovation midway through — Ramos explains why, in certain circumstances, he believes journalists must take sides. (In Spanish with English subtitles.)

About the speaker
Jorge Ramos · Journalist, news anchor

Jorge Ramos's work covers the issues that affect the 55 million Latinos in the United States and immigrants all over the world.

Jorge Ramos's work covers the issues that affect the 55 million Latinos in the United States and immigrants all over the world.