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Veteran Brazilian journalist to take home Maria Moors Cabot Prize

Veteran foreign correspondent Lucas Mendes left Brazil for the United States almost 50 years ago. Every week he discusses news about New York City, Washington D.C. and the rest of the world for Brazilians more than 4,000 miles away. For many, he is a link connecting the two biggest countries of the Americas.

The Maria Moors Cabot Prizes recognize outstanding reporting on the Americas and journalists that contribute to better understanding between the countries of the region. Mendes and three other journalists will be presented with the honors on October 14 at Columbia University in New York City.

Ahead of the ceremony, The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is speaking with each recipient about their career and the state of journalism. For the first entry, we asked Mendes to reflect on his decades as a journalist.

Since 1993, Mendes has been the host of “Manhattan Connection,” a weekly television magazine program on which he moderates a panel that debates politics, economics and culture from New York City. Mendes is also a host of the interview program Milênio and works for BBC Brasil.

“A gifted writer and editor, Mendes has informed millions from his adoptive New York and inspired generations of young Brazilians to embrace journalism with substantive news stories, commentary and interviews that mix information, analysis and humor to illuminate pressing contemporary issues,” the Columbia Journalism School said.

Mendes started his journalism career at Brazilian magazine Fatos e Fotos and then worked as a New York correspondent for Globo before he started as host of “Manhattan Connection.” He has covered revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Watergate, numerous U.S. presidents, the Iran-Contra affair, the September 11 attacks in New York City and more.

In an interview with the Knight Center, he recounted how he entered the profession and his most memorable stories.

Knight Center: When and why did you decide to enter journalism?

Lucas Mendes: By opportunity and by fraud. I had moved from Belo Horizonte to Rio to study for the diplomatic corps exams. It was in 1966, I was 22 years old.

I did odd jobs during the day and took the courses at night. My roommate, a very dear cousin, was an excellent writer and journalist  (he has won the top prize for journalism in Brazil twice and has published several books since then). He worked at publishing company that had several magazines. He told me I should apply for an opening in one of them, Fatos e Fotos.

I told him I could not write for magazines. He said anyone who can tell a story, can write one. I had nothing to lose and the pay would be good.  I would write, he would rewrite and explain to me what he had changed. The editors also were very helpful. After three months, I was hired and typing solo.

KC: You were born in Brazil and got your start as a journalist there, yet you have lived and worked in the United States - New York, specifically -  for 40 years. You are a link between those two countries for your audience. What kind of responsibility comes with that role?

LM: I have always been concerned about writing good and correct stories. In the process, it was necessary to explain the differences between both countries and in some cases the similarities, so that Brazilians would understand the context of what I was writing.

KC: How has journalism - foreign correspondence in particular - changed since you first started? What has stayed the same?

LM: Brutal differences and similarities. When I started our instrument abroad was the Telex, not easy to find in poor countries. In television the equipment was a 16 mm camera, black and white. One satellite feed cost $5.000 dollars for 10 minutes , a phone call $12.00 a minute. In Brazil, I would have never made it nor my cameraman. We knew nothing about our new media and once, for a 3 minute stand up in front of the White House, we burned more than half an hour of film. One of us always screwed up. In Brazil, a reporter would leave in the morning with a ten-minute roll (400 feet) and come back with 3 stories.

KC: When you think of all the people you’ve interviewed and all of the stories you’ve covered, which were the most interesting or which did you learn from the most?

LM: Our profession is insatiable. The important story is always the next one; I learned that in the very beginning. There is no time to linger on anything because you need to be always looking for what is next. The next one matters most. It is impossible to say which was the best interview. The one with [Yasser] Arafat [former president of the Palestinian National Authority] was difficult, the first to a Brazilian journalist, but the Israeli ambassador had powerful friends and it was cut from 30 minutes to four and followed by the ambassador himself calling Arafat a terrorist, which, of course, he was.

The many trips to Central America to cover El Salvador, Nicaragua and other conflicts did teach me about human misery and survival, dignity and abuse, fear and courage. The relationship with other correspondents, one helping the other, was a lesson for life and journalism.

KC: What is the most important story in the Americas today?

LM: How to end poverty, disease and ignorance.

KC: What does it mean to you to receive this award?

LM: I never submitted my work for an award before and I did not expect to win the Maria Moors Cabot, the biggest in the Americas, which puts me in company of people who have accomplished and contributed much more than I have.

A friend congratulated me for winning the Oscar for journalism in Latin America.

I am and have always been terrified of public speaking. I will be very, very happy when it is over and I don’t embarrass myself, my family and my friends during the ceremony.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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