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William Wheeler: The Extraordinary Life of an Intrepid Journalist


Photos by Mary Hurlbut and the Wheeler Family

When I interviewed William (Bill) Wheeler from his brownstone apartment in Brooklyn, his first book was five days away from publication. Bill had recently returned from Hong Kong, where he covered the escalating protests for an upcoming documentary. The following day, he planned to leave on a family trip to Costa Rica and, from there, to the Sundance Film Festival, where his Showtime documentary The Trade – a series chronicling human trafficking – would premiere. In the midst of it all, Bill was launching the book and beginning his promotional tour. 

This relentless schedule is typical for Bill, a freelance journalist whose work has spread across four continents, covering wars, natural disasters, gang violence, environmental threats, immigration issues, human interest stories, and more. 

William Wheeler close up

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill Wheeler returns to Laguna to promote his book, “State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence” at Laguna Beach Books on Wednesday, Feb 5 at 5 p.m.

Bill’s written work has won numerous awards and appeared in such publications as the New York Times, TIME, Foreign Affairs, the New Republic, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and Playboy. His 2018 documentary Who Shot the Sheriff – a film about the Cold War assassination attempt on Bob Marley –received an Emmy nomination. In addition to producing several other documentaries for Netflix over the years, Bill also hosts the podcast “Detours: Conversations with Global Storytellers on Craft, the Road, and Bumps Along the Way.” 

How does all this happen for someone who hasn’t yet turned 40? In Bill’s case, it might be the perfect combination of nature, nurture, and the supportive seaside town that launched him. 

A courageous and tenacious nature

Apart from the exhausting balancing act, it takes tremendous bravery to ride into the gang-thick countryside of El Salvador – face concealed, bulletproof vest donned, notepad ready. Walking into the center of Libya’s civil war without the backing of a press corps or news agency requires a unique kind of courage. 

“Bill is intense,” says his mother, Reverend Virginia (Ginny) Wheeler. “Intense to talk to. Intense to look at. It’s been both a gift and a challenge in his life.” 

He’s also tenacious. In the late 1990s, Bill was one of only two football players who stuck with Laguna Beach High School’s losing team, serving as their captain to the bitter end. “Three years of varsity football without winning a game,” says Ginny. “He showed amazing tenacity and perseverance through adversity.” 

William Wheeler football

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Courtesy of Wheeler Family

Bill Wheeler, Laguna Beach High School’s 1998 football captain, with his mom, Reverend Ginny Wheeler

His high school work ethic earned him the Yale Book Award, the Irvine Spectrum Leadership Award, and his appointment as Junior Citizen of the Year in Laguna’s annual Patriots Day parade. 

That budding tenacity would become essential to Bill’s career. “He stuck with journalism when he had no business doing it,” Ginny says. “He called me from Columbia [University] in 2008. Everything was going digital. He asked if he should be going through their journalism program, taking on debt, when the industry was changing so dramatically.” 

As predicted, there were no jobs when Bill graduated. Veteran journalists were laid off everywhere. Several news outlets folded. “I didn’t see much future in the old career ladder approach in journalism,” Bill says. “The bottom was falling out of the industry.” 

After a year of working odd jobs around Laguna, including for local papers where staffers were being let go, Bill decided to take control. He packed a bag and began walking into the center of some of the world’s most fraught political conflicts and devastating natural disasters with no assignment and no news organization to back him. “He hung in there with crisis reporting,” Ginny said. His intrepid nature paid dividends.

How his mother’s ministry fostered global awareness

Nurture played its own role in forming Bill’s identity. In the early 1980s, when Bill was still a toddler, Ginny began her theology studies in pursuit of becoming a Methodist minister. They lived in Washington DC and 3-year-old Bill attended preschool on the seminary’s campus. The environment was vibrant, academic, and extremely diverse. Bill’s babysitter came from Ghana. “He was introduced to an international culture on campus,” says Ginny. “It opened him up to different cultures, intellectual pursuits, and campus life.”

Bill also received preschool training in social justice issues while accompanying his mom to anti-Apartheid protests, holding signs, and chanting alongside her. Then he applied what he’d learned to his bedtime routine, chanting: “Go to bed: No! Stay up: Yes!”

As Bill grew, Ginny’s missionary work took them to Cuba, Fiji, and Mexico. It also led them throughout Africa – Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. “It was a precarious time with bouts of violence,” Bill says of their 2000 trip to Zimbabwe. The Wheelers spent three weeks building housing for the faculty at Africa University, where Bill came to understand the political tensions burdening the country.


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Courtesy of Wheeler Family

Bill’s missionary trip to Cuba with Ginny, circa 2006

“Those trips were instrumental in giving me a perspective on the wider world and a real interest in learning about it,” says Bill. “They played a big role in shaping my career.”

Laguna’s important impact

Laguna became the perfect incubator for Bill, who grew up with the benefit of a tight-knit village community, plenty of supportive teachers and coaches, and a number of locals who encouraged his talent. 

When Ginny married Jim Jones in the mid-1990s, Bill was introduced to more of Laguna’s many facets. “Jim came to Laguna in the early 1970s and developed a sense of connection to the thread of old Laguna,” Bill says. “He was also a successful baseball coach and knew all the kids and their parents. Between all these worlds, we had this entrée into multigenerational, old-style, village Laguna life. It was a cool way to grow up.” 

Bill also credits a number of his high school teachers with encouraging his talent and shaping his career. Among them, Rodrigo Ortiz, Dee Brislan, Cathy Dunlap, and Jonathan Todd. 

When he graduated, Bill received the Festival of Arts annual writing scholarship. The award, first granted in 1957, boosted Bill’s confidence. “I understand that I was in the top half of one percent who have access to this kind of education and these kinds of opportunities. The Festival of Arts puts real skin in the game to support and nurture people pursuing creative paths. I can’t overstate how influential that was on me at ages 18-20. Not only was it economically significant, but it gave me the courage to believe this career was something I could pursue.”

This strong academic foundation paved the road for his undergraduate degree from Berkeley and his graduate degrees in international affairs and journalism from Columbia.   

The story behind the stories

Often surviving on little more than protein bars and scooter transport, Bill’s days aren’t all glamorous. But from that first trip to Beirut in 2007 to his recent work in Hong Kong, Bill has covered stories throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. More important than the pieces he’s reported is his careful approach to how he covers them.

Reputable reporters bring with them no preconceived notions. “People often think journalism comes from a place of assumption or bias,” says Bill. “Good journalism changes minds. It’s evidence-based and informed by the data I pick up while I’m reporting,” says Bill. “If I’m doing it right, my initial conceptions are usually either wrong or more interesting in ways I haven’t considered.”

That scientific detachment allows Bill to see patterns emerge, even when the details look different. “I was in Libya during and after their civil war and could begin seeing the rise of fascism in Europe,” he says. “Libya revealed the cracks in Europe. I could see what was coming when the Syrian refugee crisis increased those fissures. The far-right populace groups grew in Greece and Hungry, and used that division to come to power.”

State of War: The past as prologue

In many ways, Bill says, all this prior work topically culminated in his newly released book. State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence tracks the brutal gang and its near 40-year history that spread across the United States and back to Central America. It debunks many myths and misconceptions about how the gang operates and thrives. 

William Wheeler bookcover

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

“State of War” was published last month by Columbia Global Reports
Background photo of Bill in Zimbabwe, circa 2000

“The book I started to write is very different from the book it became,” he says. “I got so much material. The only way I could tell it was to dutifully give a record of what happened.” Bill recognized recurring patterns from previous reporting and understood how governments often exerted their power to perpetuate violence. 

“I’m proud of the sum total of what I set out to do with it and, to a greater extent than I had expected, what I was able to achieve,” Bill says. “The book offers a glimpse of what’s going on behind the curtain in these Central American countries, what our own very real culpability is, and the tragic costs – measured in human lives. I feel privileged to have been able to document that reality and have a venue to convey it to a wider audience. That’s the kind of journalism that I find the most inspiring, the kind I get excited to practice. When you’re able to accomplish something that feels meaningful, it makes the other tribulations along the road seem worth it.” 

William Wheeler holding book

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Assessing the real risks

How much danger does Bill actually experience? “The sense of threat can be misleading,” Bill says. “The things you expect to go wrong don’t, because that’s not how the world works. Until they do.” 

El Salvador provides the perfect example. Bill drove around for two weeks in a bulletproof vest and balaclava, following gangs who kidnapped off-duty officers and buried them in shallow graves. Nothing happened. “But sitting in coffee shops, talking to drug lords, I realized I’m on all these dangerous men’s radar. When you follow corruption up to high and scary places – that’s what people are getting murdered over.” 

In Libya, the real danger came when locals thought the violence might be over. They celebrated by shooting massive antiaircraft guns into the night sky. Bullets rained down over Tripoli, killing civilians where they stood. Bill hid in his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey. “What else are you going to do?” he laughs.

Still, Bill says, he’s never felt particularly scared. “The danger isn’t as monolithic as we think from watching Jack Ryan films.”

We talk about tense moments covering Libya and Gaddafi. We talk more about El Salvador. Then Bill turns serious. “I want to be very clear on this point,” he says. “If you go into places like Libya or El Salvador, you’re supposed to brand yourself as a ‘dangerous places’ journalist. People lean into that. That can be misleading. The people I know and respect – journalists who have done this for a long time – are risk adverse. They’re calculated and conservative in their decision-making process. They don’t like to play up the danger at all.”

William Wheeler working

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill at work at Jim and Ginny’s home on Jasmine Street

The future of journalism

Meanwhile, journalists have other burdens to bear. The media industry is shifting beneath them. Financial incentives have fallen away. Journalists are often targets, and fewer institutions remain committed to protecting them.

“The issues are partly economic,” says Bill. “The Internet killed our advertising model. It’s also partly our leadership, which translates into real risks when you’re out in the field.” 

It’s the freelancers who usually pay the price, Bill says. “You don’t have $1,000 in your boot to get you out of trouble, or a prestigious media organization to go to the mat for you if you get picked up by a hostile foreign country or terrorist group.” Overlaid over that, he says, is a lack of commitment by our government to help American journalists kidnapped abroad. 

Finally, of course, is the escalating issue of confirmation bias. “Everyone is going into like-minded corners of the Internet to reaffirm their beliefs,” Bill says. “Both Boomers and Millennials have a real distrust in mainstream journalists. Then you have fringe groups fueling their own propaganda. And now you’ve got someone in the White House and other Parliaments who are actively painting journalists as the enemy.

“It’s difficult when no one cares and no one trusts you. It’s hard to measure the impact. At the same time, without anyone telling these stories, there’s another kind of impact.”

With print publications faltering, Bill sees real opportunity for evolving multimedia platforms. “Documentaries are a new frontier in storytelling,” he says. “I see some interesting opportunities there.”

In the meantime, the state of our complicated world will keep him busy. “It’s harder to do this job than it’s ever been,” Bill says. “But it’s also more rewarding.”

William Wheeler living room

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Bill at his high school home on Jasmine Street 

Bill will discuss and sign State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb 5, at Laguna Beach Books, 1200 South Coast Hwy.