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Jon Alpert: His Aim Is True

What makes television’s most controversial newsman tick?

Jon Alpert, HBO Documentary

Jon Alpert attend the HBO Documentary screening in New York City on October 6th, 2008.

Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic/Getty

Tall hills of garbage. A Filipino woman, a girl actually, explains to Jon Alpert that because she is three months pregnant it is important to eat well. She is squatting over a constellation: a hacked-up grapefruit, a lemon or two, a mango. Her lunch arrayed there on the dirt.

Cut to Alpert, now seated half a world away on the set of the Today show in New York. He tells Jane Pauley, “People get born in the dump, they grow up in the dump, and they die in the dump.” This assessment concludes his week-long series of preelection reports on the Philippines, one of the thirty or so he has made on various topics for NBC during the past year. A seven-time Emmy winner and the only freelance journalist employed regularly by any network, Alpert, 37, has probably scored more news scoops worldwide than anybody in television. He and his wife, Keiko Tsuno — his collaborator and former camera operator — were the first Americans allowed to film inside Castro’s Cuba and the first allowed to shoot inside postwar Vietnam, where they found Robert Garwood, the last known American POW. And during the 1979 China-Vietnam border conflict, they were the only Americans reporting from the front lines. In 1981, Alpert became possibly the first American newsman to file reports from inside Afghanistan after Soviet troops invaded.

But Alpert is more than a scene stealer, as his startling video images reveal: A junkie firing up by candlelight in a Bronx tenement building. Sandinista rebels huddled in a slit trench as one of General Somoza’s warplanes drops its bombs over them and screams away across the Nicaraguan sky. The corpse of a Honduran farmer freshly executed by the Salvadoran national guard. The gleeful owners of a Vietnamese restaurant loosing a cobra on the floor of their bistro before grabbing the snake by its swaying neck and whacking off its head with a meat cleaver. Filipino girls flashing their breasts for American GIs, who inform Alpert’s camera that everything in the Philippines is, basically, for sale.

In a television-news milieu more and more dominated by blow-dry haircuts, tailored suits and happy talk, Jon Alpert is in ways a throwback to the era of Sixties activism. This former college jock’s work is pure elixir of Mass Comm. 101. Just this aggressive guy with a high-pitched voice and a camera. Asking all these questions as if they’d just jumped into his head. This leads some to regard Alpert as either (a) a sort of perpetually precocious amateur or (b) obnoxious. In his five installments on the Philippines, he painted the country as a Shangri-La for the rich and privileged and a brutal Oz for the poor and disenfranchised. You didn’t have to be George F. Will to figure out where Alpert’s sympathies lay.

Because of this, perhaps, a lot of fat cats, dictators and oligarchs don’t cotton to Jon. Some conservatives consider him a commie symp or worse.

Screams. A bloody hand in midair, skin peeling from it in a long translucent sheet. Doctors in white gowns. People wheeled around on gurneys. This is the emergency room at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, where the doctors are now huddled around one patient in particular. The camera moves closer and Jon Alpert says, “This man, Mr. Spinelli, has just had a heart attack. He has already stopped breathing.” The doctors say, “Pump ’em and shock ’em!” Mr. Spinellis brown body jackknifes on the gurney.

This is the opening scene from Alpert’s Healthcare: Your Money or Your Life. Within minutes Mr. Spinelli has died. On camera. Probably as a result of inadequate medical supplies and broken equipment. This exposé of the disastrous conditions at one or America’s largest public hospitals remains Alpert’s favorite piece of work. He shot it in 1977 with Keiko, whom he met in Manhattan after attending Colgate and New York University. She was working as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant, and he was driving a cab. “It was her idea to make videos,” he says. “I wanted to sell her equipment to make the rent.” Tsuno convinced him otherwise. Together they made a series of video documentaries and founded the Downtown Community Television Center in 1972. (The center now trains 3000 students a year, more or less for free, in the use of video equipment.)

Their big break came in 1974, when they became friendly with members of the Cuban mission to the UN: “We were able to convince them to allow us into the country with our camera,” Alpert says. Their Cuba documentary ended up on PBS (The New York Times called it one of the ten best television shows of the year), as did their subsequent Healthcare: Your Money or Your Life. Alpert doesn’t think PBS gave the show enough exposure. “We went after the drug companies, and the drug companies were patrons of public broadcasting. Public broadcasting is basically real chicken. If they could get away with just opera and ballet, they’d put it on twenty-four hours a day.”

Meanwhile, though, Alpert and Tsuno had solicited the attention of the Vietnamese delegation to the UN with a documentary they made about Manhattan’s Chinatown. And in 1977 they became the first American journalists allowed into Vietnam since the end of the war. They returned to Vietnam two years later and from there went to Cambodia, which was being devastated by war. “That’s where we had an important impact,” he says. “We could see that if they didn’t get some food in there, things were going to get a lot worse than they already were. We’d seen mass graves with just thousands and thousands of skulls, and that year their rice crop had been a disaster. The U.S. was refusing shipments of food on the grounds that it would all be appropriated by the Vietnamese or something. We were able to show that was just ridiculous, that other countries were getting food in. The U.S. policy was changed.”

Alpert was also able to talk his way into Iran. “I hooked up with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after I did my stories in Tehran. A big mistake. I wanted to get into Afghanistan, and they said they could help. We yo-yoed back and forth across the desert for a week. It turned out they didn’t want us in Afghanistan at all. Because the Revolutionary Guard is fighting inside Afghanistan alongside the rebels. They don’t want anybody to know that, because throughout all this they’ve maintained relations with the Afghanistan government.” Alpert ended up going across the border by himself after being arrested, then released, by the Iranian army. “The whole thing was a big joke. I’d met these Afghani rebels who … said, ‘We be marching ten days to Kabul. We control whole country.’ Then we crossed the border, and five minutes later they wanted to go back to Iran. For lunch! I say, “Whatareya, kiddin’ me?’ They say, ‘Very dangerous.’ I say, ‘Then I’m going in myself.’ They say, ‘Are you nuts?’ So I start marching over the first sand dune and get to the top, and all of a sudden chi! chi! chi! — machine-gun fire. They didn’t control anything. The Russians or whoever they were had a machine gun on the next sand dune…. It was the funkiest, shortest trip into Afghanistan ever.”

By this time Alpert was ricocheting all over the globe. He hooked up with the rebels in El Salvador and nearly got killed. “They said we knew too much. That we’d have to wait until they attacked this town to slip over to the other side. They went in in two columns. I wanted to go with the column most likely to see combat but got talked out of it. They ran into tanks and were annihilated.” By this time Alpert had established himself as a man who would and could do almost anything to get a story on tape. Get bombed, strafed, you name it. He had a growing reputation as one of the best foreign correspondents in the business. For good or ill, he had developed an ability to do business with leftists, to parlay a sympathetic ear into access to their inner circles and to their wars of subjugation or liberation. Then Alpert found himself in the middle of another kind of shoot-out entirely.

Reed Irvine is chairman of accuracy in media, A Washington D.C.-based media “watchdog” lobby not known for its affection for liberals in general and liberal journalists in particular. Irvine believes Alpert may have precipitated a murder. Alpert had returned to Vietnam in late 1984 to do a series of reports for NBC. He asked to see a “political reeducation camp” for members of the former regime still held in custody and there interviewed a former major in the South Vietnamese army. “[Alpert] kept drilling, zeroing in on the guy,” Irvine says, “trying to get him to say things he didn’t want to say because he was afraid he’d be punished. So Alpert finally extracted a statement from him…. His relatives in the U.S. feared for his life after the interview aired…. NBC said they’d make contacting this major a priority when they sent a news team over soon afterward for the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. They told the Vietnamese they had to see him, but they never saw the guy…. He’s probably dead or not in shape to see anybody…. Alpert wasn’t trying to help the guy, he wasn’t sympathetic to his plight…. I never heard a word of apology or… concern from Jon Alpert that this fellow may have been killed as a result of that interview.”

Alpert strongly disagrees with Irvine’s charge. “We felt it important to show that people were still imprisoned. Of course the major was scared, and you have to make split-second decisions about how far to push. It’s very rough.”

The situation itself was pretty simple. Alpert was shown what appeared to be a model camp. “My guide wanted to make it look like what I was seeing was a resort. Which it clearly was not.” So Alpert said on camera: “Well, listen, this place looks too good, the people in the United States aren’t gonna believe it…. It looks like Miami Beach.” With that he steered his guide toward a barracks, where Alpert encountered the former major lying on a mat on the concrete floor. How long had he been confined? Alpert asked. What was his rank, did he get enough to eat, did he get medicine, had anyone beaten him up? The major, who had answered in monosyllables, said, finally, “You know I can’t answer about your questions.”

Alpert said: “Why? Because the guys standing around here make you nervous? A lot of people feel abandoned by the Americans, okay? Please give a message to President Reagan.”

The major, who seemed to be on the verge of tears, replied: “Every prisoner … would like to have freedom life. I think the freedom world can save us. Bring us out as quick as possible.”

“Anyone who has an understanding of the communists knows this is a very dangerous thing to do,” says Irvine. “Alpert is so naive that he really thinks that these communists … treat people well.”

Alpert disagrees: “I think I have an unbelievable responsibility. I’m not naive about the power of television — that reports like these can have the power of life and death over people. We’ve talked to people on many occasions in which, by what they’ve said to us, they’ve put themselves in considerable risk. We’ve taken considerable risks ourselves. But these kinds of conditions must be brought to public attention…. Can you imagine how Reed would have squawked if we’d gone to that prison camp and just accepted those great-looking conditions at face value? Irvine is a bully with a word processor. He screams and screams. He’s trying to get people with ideology he doesn’t like off TV.”

As to whether his “sympathetic” reports from developing countries make him a communist dupe or fellow traveler, Alpert cites the conditions he found in the Philippines to explain his views. “The communist threat there comes from within. From the poverty and lack of opportunity that force fourteen-year-old girls to come all the way across the country to become prostitutes for American soldiers. If I were a communist recruiter, I don’t think it would be very tough for me to talk to the parents of one of those girls and say, ‘What’s happening to your life? Can’t we offer you a better opportunity?’ I’m extremely patriotic and get very upset when people attribute un-American motives to me. I love the United States, but if I see an injustice, I’m gonna say something.”


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