SOLOMON: Poor Journalism South of the Border

Filled with speeches and photo ops, President Clinton's recent visit to Mexico produced a lot of good press back home. Most journalists sang the official tunes about immigration, drugs and corruption. The few off-key notes didn't last long, as when ABC's Peter Jennings reported: "This is where the U.S. gets cheap labor and makes enormous manufacturing profits."Perhaps you saw TV footage of Mexican people living in dire poverty. But it's unlikely that you heard much about why so many are so poor. If the network's roving correspondents knew why, they avoided spilling the beans.But not all the U.S. reporters arrived and left with Clinton. One of the few who actually lives in Mexico is John Ross, a freelance journalist who has been covering Latin America for 16 years. He's committed to probing beyond the conventional media wisdom.When I reached him in Mexico City during Clinton's trip, Ross began by pointing out that "Mexico is a country where 158,000 babies annually do not survive their fifth year due to nutritionally related disease. Two million more infants are seriously harmed by underfeeding."The crisis, he stressed, is growing more severe. "As many as 40 percent of all Mexicans suffer from some degree of under-nutrition. And a report by Banamex, the nation's top private bank, indicates that half of Mexico's 92 million citizens are eating less than the minimum daily requirement of 1,300 calories as a result of the deepest recession since 1932."Imagine the human realities behind the dry statistics: "Mexico's basic grain consumption dropped by 29 percent in 1995," Ross says, "and meat and milk consumption has slipped by an alarming 60 percent and 40 percent respectively during the last three years. The price of tortillas, the staple of poor people's diets, has doubled in the past 18 months."President Clinton's upbeat visit to Mexico is now history. And so is the superficial sheen put on that event by U.S. mass media.Ross -- who wrote the award-winning 1995 book "Rebellion >From the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas" -- refuses to polish the sheen. Instead, he tells about places like the town of San Agustin Loxicha in southern Mexico, "where poverty is so extreme that babies die in the priest's arms during baptism."The town is in a region that supplies coffee beans to cafes in my neighborhood and yours.Those who challenge the conditions in Loxicha face an iron fist, Ross explains: "Fifty of Loxicha's most upstanding citizens, including most of the town government and seven of its teachers, are penned up just outside the Oaxaca state capital, at the riot-scarred Santa Maria Ixcotel penitentiary, behind thick black steel doors in two cramped cells." The pending charge is armed rebellion.Ross adds that "the prisoners tell of classic torture by authorities -- their heads were wrapped in rags and dirty water poured into their mouths; electric wires were attached to their genitals; they were threatened with being hurled from helicopters into the ocean."Far from media spotlights, the Mexican military -- wielding U.S. equipment -- is on the march to bolster the status quo, Ross reports. In Oaxaca, the routine includes "forced interrogations, widespread use of torture, secret prisons and kidnappings of prominent citizens, according to a report filed in February by the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, the state's most active independent human rights group."Today, at least 60,000 troops are deployed across broad terrain to crush resistance. In Ross's words: "From the Huasteca mountains, an impoverished, coffee-growing range that stretches through five states in eastern Mexico, all the way to the Lacandon jungle on the Guatemalan border, the Mexican army moves through indigenous zones, setting up road blocks, conducting house-to-house searches, arbitrarily beating and incarcerating Indians."Meanwhile, Ross says, 27 million Mexican people still labor -- against worsening odds -- to scratch the soil for a living. They do so "despite a decade of decapitalizing the agrarian sector to conform with International Monetary Fund strictures, huge imports of cheap NAFTA grain that is driving small farmers off the land in droves, and forced `association' with transnational agribusiness that gobbles whole farming communities."Do you think such information belongs on the evening news?

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