Backgrounder: Ray Suarez
Ray Suarez’s father probably didn’t anticipate that the collection of foreign coins he accumulated while in the Navy would inspire a remarkable journalistic career. But the sack of coins, tucked away in his father’s closet, gave the young Suarez his first glimpse of life outside of Brooklyn. He planned a career around this buried treasure, as a journalist reporting from Africa.
In 1985, immediately after graduating from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in African history, Suarez was living his dream, traveling and reporting from around the continent. He hoped to stay for many years. Too soon, he realized that American news organizations “just didn’t care” about having a correspondent in Africa, which thwarted his plans and prompted him to come up with a plan B.
In 1986, Suarez took a job at Chicago’s WMAQ-TV, where he spent seven years covering local, national, and international stories. When trends in commercial news began to conflict with his journalistic ideals, he opted for a job in public broadcasting. As host of an episode of Talk of the Nation that aired as part of the Hispanic Journalists Convention of June 1998, Suarez lamented the insularity of many commercial news outlets. “I watched an hour of one of the 24-hour news networks this morning,” he said. “They didn’t have any new information. They didn’t talk to any of the principals involved in the story. They talked to other reporters who had covered the story. Anchors talked to reporters, and those reporters also talked to lawyers who have now become television media lawyers.” The public was left to distinguish this superficial quasi-news from serious reporting.
“I went to public broadcasting because I felt those were people who would do the news the way I wanted to do the news,” he said in a 2005 live-audience interview with Patty Satalia of Penn State Public Broadcasting’s WPSU-TV. He operates on the conviction that “in newsrooms, we are working out of good faith,” Suarez told her. “We’re not driving you toward some conclusion about the news...about what to believe about the future of this country. We’re trying to arm you for the work of being a good citizen.”
Suarez hosted National Public Radio’s call-in news program, Talk of the Nation, from 1993 to 1999. At NPR, Suarez had a chance to return to his old stomping grounds, covering South Africa’s first post-apartheid, racially mixed elections and the first 100 days of the 104th Congress from Johannesburg, for which he won the duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Award.
Concurrently, in 1993, Suarez completed a master’s degree in public policy studies and urban affairs at the University of Chicago. His studies led him to write his first book, The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration: 1966-1999, published in 1999.
A Publishers Weekly review of the book comments that, “in a lively guided tour of America’s once mighty, now imperiled urban neighborhoods, Suarez...searches for clues to ‘the great suburban migration’ of the past 30 years. Using his formidable skills as a radio producer, Suarez seeks out the person in the street as he steers through the desolate inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago, by a new housing development in Cleveland or past a derelict public schoolyard in Washington, D.C. Amid ample evidence of the larger, structural issues fueling ‘white flight’…his interviews with longtime urban residents add specificity and character to the great urban debate.”
Now, Suarez scrutinizes American political and social life, foreign policy, and international affairs as a senior correspondent for PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His guests have included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British novelist V.S. Naipaul, and International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed El Baradei.
In 2004, Suarez contributed essays on life in the nation’s capitol to the weekly BBC Radio program State of the Union. Since 2005, he has anchored America Abroad, a monthly foreign affairs program on Public Radio International, discussing current affairs such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and United States-China relations.
His career-long trajectory from New York to Washington, D.C., where The NewsHour is headquartered, has included stopovers in Great Britain, where he covered the Troubles in Ireland and the reelection of Margaret Thatcher; in Rome, where he reported on the attempted assassination of the Pope; and back to his hometown as a news producer for ABC Radio.
In his latest book, The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America (2006), Suarez analyzes the role of organized religion in American political life and examines the ideological and political polarization of secular and religious America.
“We can’t get American religion out of politics, or politics out of religion,” he writes in The Holy Vote. “It’s too late for that. It would be like trying to get the sugar out of a cup of coffee. But finding a way these two behemoth institutions in American life can coexist, while respecting the convictions of believers and protecting the rights of nonbelievers and those who disagree, is the riddle we must solve.”
With the emergence of Muslim and Mormon politicians in the United States, where politics has long been dominated by Protestant Christians, reporters face new challenges in covering elections, Suarez believes. “I think we’re about to embark on 12 or 14 or 16 months where a lot of middle-of-the-road Americans are going to find out about what Mormons do believe,” Suarez said in a March 2007 interview with Texas Monthly Talks, the Austin-based public television discussion series, hosted by the editor of Texas Monthly magazine. “And reporters are going to have to walk this unusual line of asking the kinds of questions that they didn’t have to ask…other people.”
In his September 2006 Washington Post review of The Holy Vote, Alan Wolfe emphasized the continued importance of Suarez’s style of journalism. “Sometimes, as happened when Cronkite questioned the war in Vietnam, we need journalists to tell us what our leaders and even our religious figures have difficulty saying,” Wolfe wrote. "By writing with passion and clarity about our holy wars, Suarez, one of our best journalists, may have given us a Cronkite moment of his own.”
Publishers Weekly. Book review excerpt (author unknown). 1999. http://www.amazon.com/Old-Neighborhood-Suburban-Migration-1966-1999/dp/0684834022/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2/105-6371510-1723624?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1174863959&sr=8-2/
Suarez, Ray. “Common Ground Lobby Talk: A Conversation with Ray Suarez.” Pennsylvania State University Public Broadcasting. 8 Sept. 2005. http://www.wpsu.org/ondemand/streams/Interview_with_Ray09082.html/
Suarez, Ray. “Horizonte interview with Jose Cardenas.” Arizona State Public Broadcasting KAET. 8 April 2004. http://www.azpbs.org/horizonte/transcripts/2004/april/april8_2004.html/
Suarez, Ray. The Holy Vote. Excerpt. Rayo, 2006. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5743149/
“Ray Suarez.” PBS: The Online NewsHour. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/aboutus/bio_suarez.html/
“Ray Suarez” (speaker biography). Keppler Speakers. http://www.kepplerspeakers.com/speakers/speakers.asp?1+EV+2126/
Suarez, Ray. Acceptance Speech text. UCLA School of Public Affairs Department of Urban Planning news release. 9 June 2005. http://www.spa.ucla.edu/dept.cfm?d=up&s=newsevents&f=news.cfm&news_id=12625/
Suarez, Ray. “Status Report and what Individual Journalists can do to Reach Readers: Part 1: The Role of the Media.” National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. 23 June 1998. http://www.concernedjournalists.org/node/355/
“Texas Monthly Talks.” Interview with Ray Suarez by Evan Smith. March 2007. http://www.klru.org/texasmonthlytalks/archives/suarez/intro.asp/
Wolfe, Alan. “One Nation Under God; A journalist argues eloquently for the separation of church and state.” The Washington Post. 17 Sept. 2006: T09.