AU professor Bill Gentile talks conflict coverage in his memoir
The SOC professor discusses his recently published memoir and the importance of diversity in the journalism workforce
School of Communication professor and award-winning journalist Bill Gentile’s memoir “Wait for Me: True Stories of War, Love and Rock & Roll” was published in June 2021.
The book details accounts of Gentile’s months-long stay in the mountains of Nicaragua following his embedment with Sandinista forces and Contras during the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution and the Contra War in the 1980s. For the compilation of the events listed in his memoir, Gentile relied on his recollections and a series of interviews with family, friends and former colleagues.
“I knew when I was covering these conflicts in Central America that they were really important events for Central Americans, for the United States of America,” Gentile said in an interview with The Eagle. “The stories that are the fruit of what happened three or four decades ago, they need to be told now so that decision makers in our country, particularly in D.C., can make informed decisions.”
Gentile said that he compiled tens of thousands of images he took for the United Press International during his time in Central America to reference while writing his memoir.
“I have had the great fortune of still having in my possession scores of reporter’s notebooks, where I can look back as early as the 1980s and tell you pretty much what I was doing on any given day for the past four decades,” Gentile said.
Gentile credited his writing to the compilation of first and second-hand accounts of his family’s background, his upbringing and time in war-torn Nicaragua. It was imperative that his stories be published for the American public's better understanding of the cost of war, and for young journalists reporting in conflict zones, he said.
“I’m sitting at the confluence of a number of processes,” Gentile said. “These processes colluded, or conspired, to force me to get this book out now. Stories, which are the defining threads of our lives, they have a way of pushing themselves out of you.”
Gentile also stressed on the challenges journalists face in the current media and political climate and their impacts on journalism as a field.
“We live in a time when verifiable facts are questioned by many Americans, when we’re accused of being ‘fake news’ and enemies of the people,” Gentile said. “We are targeted on the streets and online, and people don’t trust us. Americans need somebody to push back on these issues, on these notions of fake news and enemy of the people, and I wanted this book to be part of that effort.”
Apart from his narration of war in “Wait for Me,” Gentile also offered ample criticism of the U.S. government’s involvement in the Nicaraguan wars throughout the book, citing the devastation that U.S.-backed Contras unleashed against the Sandinistas, and on Nicaraguan communities. 30,000 Nicaraguans were estimated to have been killed during the war.
Even more important than his accounts of war was Gentile’s vulnerability in writing on the raw, emotional aspects of love, loss and family, allowing his readers the opportunity to delve into the Italian immigrant community he grew up in, and his “adoptive” Nicaraguan family.
“Without the background, without the steel mills, there is no ‘Wait for Me,’” Gentile said. “Everybody has a mother and father. Most people have siblings. Everybody has a background, and that’s what most people can relate to. But very, very few people have actually seen war or been in a place where people are shooting at them, so they can’t relate to these ‘bang-bang’ stories that I have in the book. So the background for this book is just as important, maybe even more so. Without my background … it’s just people shooting at each other, and I didn’t want to write a book about that.”
Gentile, in his memoir, also assessed the shortcomings of the mainstream media in reporting on the Nicaraguan conflicts. For his students, Gentile said he believes connecting to sources from diverse backgrounds, especially in areas of conflict, is a crucial and teachable skill, one he said his more privileged and former colleagues were unable to hone. The second of four children born to Italian immigrants, he attributed his cultural identity and upbringing to his ability to establish profound connections with the members of the communities he reported on.
“For me, as a person who has been around conflict, and has covered conflict, and has seen the results of conflict, I think that I can make an impression on students,” he said. “So I’m coming into the classroom with absolutely first-hand, right-in-your-face information and experiences that I am hoping can make them more attuned to the needs of the people who are the consequences of these conflicts.”
Despite disparities in reporting and the types of stories being told by journalists, Gentile said the growing diversification of the journalism industry points to an improvement in news coverage of the future.
“When I first came to AU, the only people here looked like me,” Gentile said. “Now, you have a vast array of skin colors, of ethnic backgrounds, of languages, of cultures, and it’s so much richer now.”
Gentile said that the diversification of students and faculty at the University and in the SOC is a “deliberate and continuous effort” by the school.
“One of the reasons why we’re doing this, particularly for journalists, is that if we get people who are more diverse and have different experiences that are not ivy league experiences, when they go out to the field and cover things, they’re going to be able to relate to and see things and feel things that people without those experiences don’t feel or see,” Gentile said.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by News Leaders Association, minorities made up 21 percent of newsrooms. Gentile founded and is now the faculty advisor for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. It remains the first and only chapter in the District. He also teaches “Backpack Documentary en Español,” the SOC’s first class taught entirely in Spanish.
Gentile said he has no plans for another book in the future. For now, he said he would like his students to remember him as, “a man who really lived life close to the ground, and was not afraid to write about it and to talk about it.”
In addition to “Wait for Me,” Gentile authored “Nicaragua,” a book of photographs from his time in Central America. His photojournalism collection of over 30,000 images can be found at AU’s Bender Library in Special Collections. More information on his memoir can be found at waitformebook.com.