Filming a Philippine Ambush, Lone Reporter Jon Alpert Scores Another Journalistic Coup
After weeks of heady stories about the peaceful triumph of “people power” in the Philippines, the NBC Nightly News report shockingly reminded America of a different reality. In exclusive footage, NBC televised the bloody ambush of a government truck and the massacre of 15 soldiers by Communist insurgents of the New People’s Army(NPA). The jagged, home-movie-style story, which ran nearly three minutes and showed the ambush from the point of view of the rebels, was the work of sometimes controversial freelance journalist Jon Alpert. Carrying a video camera on his shoulder, unarmed in the gunfire, Alpert had charged down a hill alongside the soldiers. “I was so concentrated on getting the story that I didn’t think about being in danger,” relates the 37-year-old. The story ended with a look into the truck where the soldiers lay massacred. “I was horrified when I saw the truck,” says Alpert, “but I kept on filming.”
After the newscast (which preceded a week of the newsman’s other Philippine reports on Today), 150 viewers called NBC to protest the violence. Even within NBC, some questioned whether the vivid scenes had been staged, so Alpert screened his unedited footage for a group of executives. Although he knew of the guerillas’ plans the night before the attack, Alpert maintains, “It absolutely was not staged for our benefit. It had been planned for weeks and would’ve happened regardless of our presence.” Anchor Tom Brokaw defends Alpert’s work. “At great risk to himself, Jon gets into places that others can’t get into,” says Brokaw. “He showed the brutal side of an ominous insurgency that has an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 followers.”
A rare free-lancer in network news, Alpert has won seven Emmys for his scoops. In 1974 he and his wife (and partner), Keiko Tsuno, 39, were the first American TV news team in Castro’s Cuba in at least a decade, and they scored another coup in 1978 when they were the first American TV journalists allowed in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. “Most network news stories could be done from the reporter’s hotel room,” maintains the brash Alpert. “I can wait to get the story, and people will talk to me because I’m not some $200,000-a-year correspondent in a raincoat.”
Alpert’s I-am-a-camera reports from Communist countries have earned him the ire of Reed Irvine, head of the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media. “He’s carved out a niche of providing disinformation to the American people,” charges Irvine, who has attacked Alpert at NBC stockholders’ meetings. The filmmaker says it’s a bum rap. “People know that I’m basically for the common man,” says Alpert, who began as a community filmmaker in New York’s Chinatown. But, he notes, “My NPA report shows these guys are no Boy Scouts, and I’ve covered Afghan freedom fighters as well as Nicaraguan rebels.”
Persistent to the point of obnoxiousness, Alpert wheedles, charms and cajoles his subjects. Fidel Castro showed him his bedroom; peasants graphically describe the effects of poverty. He is openly sympathetic to his subjects. “There aren’t two sides to every story for Jon,” says Today executive producer Steve Friedman.
To get the story of the New People’s Army, a group that had eluded most reporters, Alpert and his colleague, reporter Maryann DeLeo, 33, lived with the rebels in the mountains for two weeks after spending an initial six weeks making contacts. “We ate sardines and rice and slept on the floors of huts,” relates DeLeo, who helped Jon with sound and equipment. “The rebels were as curious about Jon as he was about them.”
Such exploits are not new to Alpert, who was arrested by the Iranian army while trying to get into Afghanistan and had his tapes confiscated for three weeks by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He usually works with translators; on his own he speaks “bad Spanish, French and Japanese” and “really good sign language.”
The son of a baby-products manufacturer, Jon was born in Chicago and raised in Port Chester, N.Y. After graduating with a degree in urban studies from Colgate University in 1970, he gravitated to the ethnic patchwork of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Working as a taxi driver, he became interested in video through his neighbor(and future wife) Keiko, a Japanese artist. Doing odd jobs to support themselves, the couple formed Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV). Their first big break came with Cuba: The People, a 1974 documentary they sold to PBS. In 1980, intrigued by his work, Today’s producers hired Alpert. Last year he reported more than 20 pieces for the show. All of his earnings go directly to DCTV, from which he drew a salary of $19,000 last year.
The Alperts and their 7-year-old daughter, Tami (who wants to be “a network anchorwoman”), live in three rooms in a corner of their loft workplace, a converted firehouse in Chinatown. Keiko, who retired as camera woman when Tami was born, now runs DCTV, which offers free classes to the community.
In the next few months, Alpert will stay closer to home. “It’s like dancing with the devil every time I do one of these foreign stories,” he says. “There are plenty of subjects I want to do in the U.S.” Besides, he confides, “I’m afraid of guns.”