July 31, 2014

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Another missive straight from the heart

July 31, 2014


I have friends who keep telling me how much it costs them to keep me in poverty
Mohandas K. Gandhi


Alas, nobody lives forever. However, institutions can be set up to survive the people who created them, if there are people to carry them on. These are things about which I have been thinking for a long time, both with respect to myself and The Panama News, and more recently I have also been reminded of it by the cancellation of Miguel Antonio Bernal’s Alternativa radio show by KW Continente, which is now partly owned by the Martinelli family.

We really do need a vibrant alternative media scene here in Panama and there are components of it already in place, mostly as lonely outposts occupied by individuals with help from small circles of friends. There ought to be a broadcast medium to pick up Bernal’s show, but failing that he could go the route of Radio Temblor and become a streaming or podcast medium on the Internet.

However, we have the ad cartel in Panama, the power of which has to be called into question by the results of May’s elections but which still largely dictates the content of television and to only a little bit lesser extent radio and the newspapers. Unless and until an alternative ad agency or group of such arises, there will be insufficient funds for The Panama News, Alternativa and other non-governmental media projects that rabiblancos don’t control. Even then, around the world the advertiser-supported economic basis of news media has been breaking down for some time and it is manifested in many ways, from decades of shrinkage in the teams of overseas reporters fielded by major US news organizations to the dependence that most Latin American news media have on government advertising.

Well, so what? Can’t we have news media without executives pulling down six-figure salaries, staffed mainly by people whose alternative journalism is a part-time pursuit that they balance with their other paying jobs? Can’t we have independent media that are causes rather than cash cows?
I think we can, but it does run counter to what younger generations have been taught and are being taught in the Panamanian schools. To them journalism is this special skill which you learn at a university where the aim is to get this piece of paper that says you know something, redeemable if you are lucky for a meal ticket that may last a lifetime if your publisher is economically stable enough and you grovel enough. Never mind the lessons of what has actually happened to the best journalists in Panama over the past 20 years. Any morals to be drawn from those stories seem to be taboo in our deficient local academia.

I started out as a teenager in the US underground press in the early 70s, in economically unstable and thus mostly ephemeral publications. Back then I was a high school dropout and learned about the craft of journalism from elders, developing it over the years. Later I took some college courses in journalism but got my undergraduate degrees in history and political science and a doctorate in law, honing my craft as a politician, campaign press aide, law review writer and associate editor of an alternative monthly as I went. All of the other jobs — janitor, cook, security guard, politician, lawyer and so on — gave me helpful insights that they don’t teach in Journalism 101. In the US tradition, media seeking to hire a journalist are mostly interested in work samples and not so much in CVs or diplomas. (Falsified credentials, however, should be of vital interest to every editor and it is telling how in Panamanian culture in general — not just in the media — people don’t seem to get this.)

This December I turn 62 and The Panama News turns 20. I don’t plan to go away but I do want to make sure that the torch gets picked up and carried when I am not around to hold it anymore. Meanwhile, at a certain point I will be eligible for a small pittance from US Social Security, but so long as I keep working I can’t collect until age 66. (Yes, there would be those who ask “Can’t you just lie?” and maybe I could but I won’t, nor do I heed advice about anything at all from people whose thinking runs along those lines.)

I am single without children, but with a dog and now two cats who depend on me. Accumulating property to pass onto heirs is not one of my ambitions. I do have “living will” concerns and want to see to it that the animals are taken into loving homes when I am no longer around to care for them. But meanwhile I think that I have a few years of useful journalism left in me and it will be better if I have a stable living environment.

For a limited time I have an offer to buy rights of possession in the place where I am at right now for $15,000 — about three times my annual income in recent years. It’s a calm place, I like my neighbors, and such disadvantages of its remoteness — like limited Internet service options — will probably lessen with time. Secure tenure would allow me to develop the gardens and raise some barnyard fowl to supplement my meager income with the proceeds of being a Third World subsistence peasant. And actually, since I don’t have any heirs and mainly want to pass on the torch to another generation of journalists outside the corporate mainstream, I don’t need to own this place although I do prefer not to have some landlord who decides to send me packing over some editorial I may write. A foundation with others involved to use the property for the cause before and after I am gone makes more sense to me.

But is there enough reader support out there to do this? I know folks who do alternative media and public advocacy projects for whom 15 grand is a couple of month’s pay, but then this is not the United States. The amount of money in question is less than most new cars cost, and I am not looking for any luxury wheels, or even using anything other than public transportation. So should my next fundraising appeal be a biggie, the biggest ever, to assure The Panama News a secure home? I am interested in your feedback.


Star appleI’d like to be producing The Panama News here when
this star apple tree that I planted starts to bear fruit.

Eric Jackson
the editor



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