Why Jose Antonio Vargas Is an American Hero
I first met Jose Antonio Vargas in the fall of 2008, in the midst of the historic Obama campaign for the presidency. At the time, I was a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I was researching the impact of the then-emerging social media on older legacy forms of journalism, such as newspapers.
A woman named Maralee Schwartz was also at the Kennedy School when I was there. Beginning in 1979, Maralee had spent her entire professional career at The Washington Post, largely as a political reporter and political editor. As national political editor, she led the Post’s award-winning teams of reporters in coverage including three presidential elections, the last term of the Clinton White House, and the first term of the Bush White House.
As a “lifer” at the Post, and like many of her peers at the time in the so-called “mainstream, media,” Maralee was, shall we say, extremely wary of the new media. When she heard upon our first meeting that I was researching how social networks were affecting journalism, for example, she promptly fired back, “Social networks? You mean those places online people go to get dates?”
Despite her pronounced skepticism, Maralee was still open enough to at least consider the possibility that there might be something to my seemingly wild contention that social media would have a major impact on the way journalism would be practiced in the near future. A few weeks after we met, she knocked loudly on my office door, and when I opened it, literally shoved a young man in. “This is Jose Antonio Vargas,” she announced. “He gets what you’re doing!” And then she marched off, leaving Vargas in her considerable wake.
We spent the next hour talking, and I quickly ascertained that Maralee was right – this guy really did get it! Quick, articulate, savvy and full of energy, the twenty-seven-year old immigrant from the Philippines had already been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Post — and he certainly seemed poised to attain even greater honor and success in the near future, pursing a career that had already taken him at a still tender age (to me at least!) near the pinnacle of establishment journalism…
Vargas then surprised me by proceeding to castigate his employer as completely behind the curve and mired in a rapidly fading past glory. “These guys don’t understand,” Vargas complained. “They should fire most of the editors and hire a bunch of graphic designers and online journalists,” he announced with the impatience and brashness of youth.
I realized immediately that Vargas, whose Pulitzer participation came about when he cleverly used social media like Facebook to break news about the Virginia Tech campus massacre, was exactly the sort of young, hip and connected reporter places like the Post desperately needed in order to make the transition to a new digital form of journalism. I also realized that Vargas probably was not long for that world.
In short order he did walk away — from what, in an earlier era, would have been seen as the opportunity of a lifetime — in order to join the online upstart Huffington Post. He was among the first, in what soon became a wave, and then a tsunami of journalists, who were abandoning major media platforms like the Post, the New York Times and national television networks to work in a new form of journalism online.
In the years that followed, Jose enjoyed great success at HuffPo, and also began freelancing for major national magazines, including writing a landmark piece for the New Yorker about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. A series of articles he had written about H.I.V./AIDS became a documentary film called “ The Other City,” which opened at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and was broadcast on Showtime – and along the way, Jose also came out as gay and wrote movingly about how he could and would no longer keep secrets about who he was and how he felt.