Heroes in journalism are rarely American

Sunday, June 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:38 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

During my years in journalism, I’ve met a few heroes, people who have been willing to risk their lives for something they believe in. Not many of those heroes have been journalists.

In the United States of America, journalists are a privileged class. True, you might not guess that if you saw our paychecks. It’s also true that, especially in recent years, we’ve taken our fair share of abuse.

Still, generally speaking, American journalists can count on the protection of the law and the support of society — however grudging that support may be — as we go about our work. We may be abused, but we’re hardly ever assaulted, arrested or killed. With exceptions so rare as to be newsworthy, we can go to work every day with the reasonable expectation of getting home safe and sound.

It was not always thus in our country, and in much of the world it isn’t that way even today. I was reminded last week that there have been, and are, real heroes in journalism.

The first reminder came here in Argentina when I met one of those heroes. He’s a crusty old guy named Andrew Graham-Yooll. He is the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, the city’s English-language daily.

At my urging, Mr. Graham-Yooll recalled what it was like doing journalism and trying to stay alive during the dictatorship that ran Argentina and its neighboring countries in the 1970s and ’80s.

One day in 1975, a package arrived at the Herald’s office. He and colleagues opened it and discovered a collection of “subversive” publications that were getting journalists arrested. He was being set up.

He too was arrested, and he had been on the list to be eliminated.

The Herald continued to be a thorn in the side of the dictators. Mr. Graham-Yooll had to leave Argentina in 1976. His boss, Robert Cox, was forced to flee a year later. Only after the dictatorship collapsed in 1983 did censorship ease and the press here begin its move to the “partly free” ranking it gets today from Freedom House.

Mr. Graham-Yooll tells his story with the self-deprecating understatement you’d expect from a real hero.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian.

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