Paid Off in Passion: The Life Lessons of John Ross’s Rebel Reporting

Book Review: Rebel Reporting: John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists, Edited by Cristalyne Bell and Norman Stockwell. Hamilton Books, 2016

There is an amusing exchange between legendary journalists Studs Terkel and Hunter S. Thompson during a celebrated 1973 radio interview. Terkel comments on the notoriety of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author.

I just thought of a phrase for you – a disturber, you are a disturber, and that is probably what a journalist should be all about.”

Thompson quips back: “A lot of people are very insulted by my kind of journalism. But I am insulted by some of their stuff too…”

John Ross is of this ilk, this is his constituency. A little bit of Terkel’s folksy bard of the people storytelling, and a lot of Thompson’s gonzo-style frontline reporting. And in Rebel Reporting, Ross enters into the realm of academia to pontificate on journalism to a class of students, and lecture them on how most everything they know about the craft is wrong. John Ross, a disturber? Certainly!

Pearls of Useless Advice

John Ross worked as a freelance journalist for 50 years, right up to his death in 2011, wrote ten volumes of fiction and non-fiction and penned numerous books of poetry. Rebel Reporting is a posthumously published series of lectures first delivered at San Francisco‘s New College in 2006, and quite unlike anything previously produced by Ross. To call them lectures is probably a misnomer – in reality they are a series of provocations, or incitements.

“Now we come to the part where I emit pearls of useless advice,” he tells the no doubt bewildered students, “Useless because you have to live this stuff to know it.” Indeed his empiricist philosophy makes for a remarkable and stirring series of interventions, a tour-de-force encompassing anecdotes and storytelling, interspersed with a medley of his inimitable beat poetry.

At root, Ross’s Rebel Reporting is a passionate plea — a howl– against conformity and complacency and an unrelenting attack on formal journalism as represented by J-School.

“Avoid J-School like a poison,” he counsels. “J-School teaches you how to lie for a living, how to sell your skills to transnational media consortiums for an ounce of flesh. J-School teaches you how to promote class oppression, consumerism, racism. How to justify genocide and the destruction of the planet. The status quo.”

Don’t hold back, John. Tell us how you really feel.

“J-Schoolers are not reporters.” he rages, “—they are careerists. J-School teaches you how your career is so much more important than speaking truth to power.”

John Ross is all about speaking truth to power. This is why the series is entitled Rebel Reporting, invoking his own book Rebellion from the Roots (1994), about the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. For Ross, journalism is not a profession but a moral responsibility. “The first thing you need to know is that you do not have a career in journalism. Forget about your career. You have an obligation—to tell the story of those who entrust you with theirs, to tell the truth about the way the world works.”

He delivers his talks like a poetry slam, his sentences read like melodic progressions and he habitually employs repetition to craft rhythmic cadences. “Rebel reporters are storytellers. Rebel reporters are poets. Rebel reporters are travel writers.”

His journalism is a world of freewheeling bards, not desk-bound hacks churning out fillers between the adverts. His reporters are vitally active participants in society at large: “Rebel reporters are all Joe Hills, trouble-making troubadours moving from town to town singing out the news in public plazas. The emphasis is on singing here.Rebel reporters put the music in the news.”

Ross was an engaging public speaker – a skill honed as a tenant organizer in San Francisco in the 1960s, even running for public office as supervisor – and this volume captures the essence and vigor of John Ross speaking live. All that is absent on the page is his signature self-effacing charm, as well as his stoical gait – a rough and tumble life had left him marked and visually impaired; he inevitably crouched closely to peer over bunches of papers.

Rebel Partisan

Having impressed upon the students the potential folly of pursuing a journalistic career, what alternatives does he proffer?

For John Ross, nothing less than total emersion is enough. Reporting is a way of life, not a job, and intrinsic to that is taking sides – on the side of truth and against power. A good reporter is a partisan who, he asserts, “makes people angry, encourages organization, offers them hope that another world is possible. A good rebel reporter is a participant in rebellion, or resistance or revolution or whatever you call the struggle for social change.”  

Good rebel journalism incites rebellion, he declares. These are no idle words and Ross’s lectures begin with one reporter languishing in jail for withholding sources, and ends with the death of another, shot down in the line of action. The stakes are raised and the role of the reporter is magnified.

Risk — both personal and economic — is inherent in Ross’s proposition to reject J-School and eschew a formal career. In this sense, Rebel Reporting reads like a manifesto for freelance precarity, a double-edged sword at once righteous and perilous. Ross describes it thus: “I am free to choose what words to use, and also free to sleep under bridges and lose all my teeth.”

Clearly for him, the wager is worth it, and the fruit of the labor is serving the people. “The coin of our realm is passion,” he writes, beautifully. It is worth quoting this passage in full:

While corporate journalists bask in the bland neutrality of their vaunted “objectivity,” dabbling in a language drained of all outrage for fear of damaging their career track, rebel reporters, who know only too well they have no careers but rather a responsibility, are paid off in passion —passion for language, passion for telling the story with passion, passion for struggle and change, for sharing spirit, solidarity.

Handing it Down

Ross titles his series of talks “Handing it Down”, and in four installments explores various angles of rebel reporting – from how to cover global resistance movements (embed with them), to how to be an Anti-War Correspondent (never embed with them).

Ross’s mantra is “ir a lugar del los hechos,” go where the story is, and this he does with some prolificacy, managing to place himself on the frontlines of countless rebellions around the Americas and as far afield as Baghdad.

He covers the use and abuse of language, and ostensibly, gives advice to students on how to document injustices and pitch stories — although he has already made it clear that all this can really only be learned in practice by doing.

What he is actually “handing down” are a series of musings on his life work, serving as a kind of pep talk and motivator for activists already engaged in the field of rebel reporting – his ‘community.’ John Ross, in his wisdom, has left us a somewhat reflective, somewhat instructional document outlining what it is to be a rebel reporter, what he has learnt from experience and mistake, and how to go about it with integrity.

Some might say his is a dying breed of on-the-road reporter, with pencil and pad churning out stories for disappearing newspaper outlets. Certainly some elements of John Ross’s repertoire have become superannuated through technology, but the rebellious impulse remains as prevalent as ever. Rebel reporting is thriving, and is everywhere evident in decentralized, dispersed and autonomous media networks online and in print.  

The spirit of John Ross lives, and one similarly courageous reporter immediately springs to mind. In terms of speaking truth to power, Barrett Brown’s reporting for The Intercept is exemplary. Although somewhat unfortunately hostage to the concept of ‘ir a lugar de los hechos,’ Barrett’s prison writings are subversively acerbic and captivating. Good rebel journalism incites rebellion indeed, something the prison authorities have noted, resulting in Barrett’s frequent sojourns in the hole.

Throughout the book, John Ross extolls us to follow in the footsteps of rebel reporter luminaries — Joe Hill, Live like him! Brad Will, Live like him! He would undoubtedlyand unequivocallyhave added one more name: Barrett Brown – Live like him!


Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).