Daily coverage cannot match the depth and nuance of a New Yorker piece, but there are examples of efforts by newspapers to break free of the narrow, simplistic storyline on the drug story. Consider the video series produced by Travis Fox for The Washington Post’s “Mexico at War” project. By making the experiences and perspectives of Mexican citizens the central focus, Fox blurs the easy distinctions between bad guys and good guys, explores the fear and distrust of the government, and explains the myriad reasons why the drug business thrives: a confluence of a lack of social services (education) and good-paying jobs, poor social mobility, and indifference on the part of the police. We meet one family trying to protect its little girl from the “war” outside, and then learn that many parents in the violence-ravaged town where this family lives work for the “narcos.”
Such deeper reporting of Mexico requires a critical perspective on U.S. policy—a perspective that doesn’t fit the simplistic good guy/bad guy paradigm. The drug issue is too often cast as a Mexican menace, with breathless stories of the looming “spillover” of violence along the border reinforcing the notion of the U.S. as a bystander to a Mexican problem. Sam Quinones, a Los Angeles Times reporter assigned to the paper’s “Mexico Under Siege” series, which began in June 2008 and is ongoing, says that without “continual coverage” of Mexico, “what you end up getting is big boom and bash, and you don’t get a lot of subtleties.” Despite the significance of Mexico as a trade partner and a neighbor with whom the U.S. shares a two-thousand-mile border, Quinones finds that among some readers there is “a lack of knowledge that we are part of the war, the drug demand, the guns, the money.”
Part of the reason, I would suggest, is articles like a May 31, 2009, piece in The New York Times, under the headline “In Heartland Death, Traces of Heroin’s Spread,” which linked the overdose death of an Ohio drug user to the rapacious tentacles of the drug cartels. This perspective reflects the U.S. government’s own war-on-drugs mentality, with its emphasis on punitive policies and on supply rather than demand.
When the Times interviewed my great-great-uncle, he introduced himself as a fellow journalist, the publisher of several Spanish-language newspapers. But the nterview was conducted in English because Garza understood that the media’s presentation of issues had considerable influence in shaping U.S. attitudes and policy toward its new neighbor. Today, language is less of a barrier to understanding. The problem is a distorted and invisible wall of perception, a wall the press must dismantle to truly see our neighbor—and ourselves.