1972: Get the Story or Don’t Come Back

June, 1972. I had turned 24. Vange was due with Laura, our first, in a month. I’d been Night Editor, Mexico City, fox six months. Denny Davis, the Mexico City bureau chief, decided to send me to cover the anniversary of the San Cosme riots of June 10, 1971. Also called El Halconazo, the Corpus Christi Riots … which were depicted in the 2018 Alfonso Cuaron oscar-winning film, Roma.

Denny was hard for me to like. He was a former military man, middle forties, dark brown hair with a brush cut, straight laced, impersonal. A dedicated journalist, though. He believed in the tradition and the value of what we were doing. Looking back from decades later, his off-putting manner may have been shyness. And an odd factor in a boss-underling relationship, for the setting of UPI in Mexico City, is that my Spanish was fluent and I was totally integrated into my Mexican family. Denny always sounded, looked, and acted like an outsider.

What he said, though, has stuck with me for life:

“You’re mainstream now. This is real journalism. It’s not ‘do it or have a good reason why not.’ It’s ‘do it or don’t come back.

“Go a day early if you want, check out the area, give somebody with a second floor apartment and a phone a hundred pesos in advance, and another hundred on the day, to let you watch from the second story with a phone in your hand.

“Or do something else. I don’t care. But do understand that you can’t just have a reason why you didn’t get the story. Reasons why not don’t matter. If you don’t get the story, don’t come back. You’re fired.”

It turns out that during the real riot, in 1971, my predecessor, Paul Wyatt, was late with the story. He didn’t get fired mostly because he stumbled into the office late wearing a white dress shirt covered in blood. He wasn’t wounded but a student protestor standing next to him was shot dead. Paul was covering it from the ground, mixed with the crowd. That was obviously traumatic in the UPI bureau. Denny didn’t make it about him, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me dead. So he wanted his advice taken seriously.

This story here isn’t about my riots, or my news report, or what happened to me on June 10 of 1972. There was no story. The protest fizzled out quickly, without making anybody’s news. I did go a day early and scope a second-story apartment, and paid the occupant 100 pesos. I did go before the announced demonstration and get settled in my watching post. I did call in the story. But it was a non-story.

The actual history of the 1971 event is shown very well in the movie ‘Roma.’ The Mexican government turned to the fascist playbook back then, after the riots of 1968, and trained a paramilitary force of young men who wore khakis and white shirts. Those men attacked the rioters, right-wing disguising itself as left wing, killing about 140 demonstrators.

And the nugget here is not what happened, but the fallacy of equivalence: too many people think they can get away with not getting things done if they have a reason why not, instead. I don’t. Denny Davis taught me that lesson and it stuck.