If you distrust the media complex, don’t just resent it. Reinvent it.
Jose Antonio Vargas took that challenge to heart. The 35-year-old thinks of himself as an American without documents. But, as he shows with every project he undertakes, he is also a journalist without boundaries.
Since coming out as an undocumented immigrant in June 2011 in a soul-baring essay for The New York Times Magazine, Vargas has filmed several documentaries, spoken at dozens of universities, written for major publications and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
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The Pulitzer Prize winner describes his newest venture, #EmergingUS, as a media startup that “lives at the intersection of race, immigration and identity in a multicultural America.”
Vargas’ timing is perfect, given that, as the professional storyteller is well aware, we’re in the middle of an election year that could define what it means to be an American.
This journalist of color is not fond of the politically correct assumption that Americans should be segregated into different ethnic silos.
For someone who came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 years old, immigration isn’t just a Latino issue. And police violence isn’t just a concern for African Americans. These topics bleed into one another. As Americans, our experiences are all intertwined.
But #EmergingUS is not just another website. Rather, Vargas says, it’s a “new digital platform that will produce original videos, essays, articles, podcasts, slide shows and more – all in an attempt to understand the new American identity.”
Driving this project are two questions Vargas and his team of reporters, photographers and videographers want to answer every day: “Who are we?” and “Who are we becoming?”
Those are challenging questions. But then again, Vargas is in the business of challenging people and things, including the immigration system, white privilege, traditional notions of race and ethnicity, and fellow journalists.
Which brings us to another reason this project seems well-timed. America has changed radically in the past 30 years in just about every way imaginable. But how we get our news, analysis and commentary hasn’t kept up with those changes. Sure, we have new technology. But we still use many of the same models and paradigms that we did a generation ago.
In this election year, the media have come under fire from both right and left, and for good reason. They have become actors in the drama. They are so eager to see a Donald Trump-vs.-Hillary Clinton matchup – A Clash of the New Yorkers – that they have tried to short-circuit anyone who threatens that narrative.
Now the media seem preoccupied with pushing Bernie Sanders out of the race. The Vermont senator has won 19 states. So why do journalists keep asking when he’s going to get out? Have the East Coast media – based in New York and Washington, D.C. – even noticed that the most populous state in the country hasn’t voted yet? Residents of ethnically diverse California, where Vargas lives, go to the polls on June 7.
There are journalists who bring a different lens to the stories of the day – from the election to income inequality to how trade displaces some American workers. There are stories that some reporters, editors and producers miss that others will catch.
“They see diversity as a slice of a pie,” Vargas said of other journalists. “For me, diversity is the whole pie. They see diversity as islands to visit now and then, niche markets. They don’t see it as an essential part of what they do every day.”
Vargas doesn’t think in terms of opportunities. For him and others like him, telling the untold story is a mission.
“Our job is to stop explaining ourselves to white people,” he said. “We have to explain ourselves to America. That is everything.”
And so while many Americans would like to see him on a one-way flight back to the Philippines, Vargas is convinced that he is exactly where he is supposed to be.
“#EmergingUS is what I’ve been working toward my entire journalistic career,” he said. “This is what I was meant to do, whether or not I came out as undocumented. I never planned to be a media publisher. But, hey, is there anything more immigrant than being an entrepreneur?”
Some people believe immigrants threaten the American way. That’s complete nonsense. As Vargas reminds us, immigrants are the American way.
Contact Ruben Navarrette at email@example.com.