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Trail, continued from page 29 careers like True’s and stellar writing reputations. Within a few years most had left on their own or been fired. Like so many mainstream editors these days, Rivard keeps his eyes sharp on the corporate bottom line and the extent to which the contents of the news hole advance that lineor not. “If you are going to be an editor in today’s newspaper world,” he told a national media conference not long ago, “you have to not only be a journalist, but you have to have a fluency in the language of the business side. …. We came to this calling because we’re people of words, but, in fact, the wars for good newspaper budgets are fought over spreadsheets and numbers.” Obsessive market research is an important component of those numbers, as corporate media outlets continually poll the public about what they like and don’t like. Anything deemed unpopular tends to get dropped from coverageand in most surveys, international news comes in at the bottom. This was especially true in the 1990s, when foreign reporting virtually disappeared from TV and many newspapers. That’s when True’s Huichol proposal was turned down. Imagine if, instead, an editor had appreciated his pitch. That editor would have looked at True’s flaky descriptions of joyful Indians and known enough about Latin America to see a real story. It’s the one described by the anthropologist, and it really is about Mexicanseven Huicholshaving their lives turned around by “newsworthy” things like free trade and political change. \(More neo-liberal democracy means more tourism and more of those rich, peyote-seeking tourists. Opening markets for export of raw materials means more deforestation of the Sierra, An editor who appreciated True’s work would have okayed the story after helping him retool the proposal and contact the anthropologists. Is that asking too much of the mainstream media? Maybe so. Ironically, however, in his pursuit of the story of True’s death, Rivard ended up devoting time and resources to the Huichol story that his reporter could never have imagined. Moreover, had True been given the Huichol assignment instead of being ignored, he would have been joined by a staff photographer. When working in a foreign country, Rivard writes, “one rule is that there is strength in numbers. … People with bad intentions are less likely to act against a pair or groups than an unwary individual.” Had True gone to the Sierra with a photographer, it’s likely that they would have kept their journalists’ wits about them, obtained all the required permits from the leaders of each Huichol community, and True would still be alive. Instead, he seems to have ended up thinking of the trip as a retreat. Thanks to former Newsweek correspondent Alan Zarembo, True’s journal was later found in a Guadalajara police warehouse. The journal contained virtually no reporter’s notes; instead it was filled with love letters to his wife. So what about that trail of feathers? It points not just to human remains, but also to the heart of Robert Rivard, who seems to feel guilty about how True got treated on his watch. Unfortunately, he responded with a tawdry, pop-psychology number on True’s past, while at the same time claiming that he and True were kindred spirits in bohemianism and suffering. Rivard tells his readers that he was a blue-collar kid like True. Indeed, both were reporters in Brownsville; both worked south of the border early in their journalism careers. But True didn’t get his first real reporting job until he was in his 40s. Rivard had entered the corporate media world while still in his 20s. Not only do the parallels not hold up, Rivard’s attempts to commune therapeutically with the dead reporterby casting himself as a fellow casualty of bad parentingring embarrassingly false. \(When he misbehaved as a child in the 1950s, he writes, his mother whipped him and sent him Feathers serves mainly as an attempt to aggrandize Rivard professionally. The book narrates tale after tale of his besuited meetings with Mexican presidents and luminaries, and his extensive efforts to have True honored by media organizations as a martyr to journalism. \(According to the New York City-based Mexico is indeed one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters, editors and commentators. Besides True, CPJ counts at least 11 victims in the past decade. Except for True, all of the victims were Mexican journalists. Most of their murders seem directly attributable to their investigations and criticisms of corrupt officials and narcotraffickers. In other words, they were assassinated in the line of professional duty, and not because of dumb, bad In a recent review of Trail of Feathers that he wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones, who worked as a freelance journalist in Mexico City for many years, recalls how when Phil True was still alive, he and other foreign correspondents had a habit of meeting each Friday for drinks at a bar called the Nuevo Leon. “It was a vibrant group,” Quinones writes, “one, I felt, that was becoming aware that a historic story of Mexico’s change was slowly unfolding before it.” But by the time True died, foreign journalists were already leaving the country due to corporate U.S. media’s declining interest in Latin America coverage. The Nuevo Leon salon was further doomed by September 11, which “finished it off as the world’s focus turned elsewhere.” Quinones associates True’s demise with the end of lively journalism in a place long loved by U.S. seekers who dress in Levis and sandals. Or who, if they favor suits, still love to drink cervezas with idealists in huaraches. Despite what Trail of Feathers implies, it was probably the decline of this fine sensibility, and not some tawdry psychodrama, that pushed a good reporter irreversibly into the wild. Contributing writer Debbie Nathan lives in New York City. 32 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 13, 2006