Threats to journalists, while not new, take on more significance

July 17, 2018 11:00

During my career as a journalist, long before a gunman blasted his way into the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, June 28 and killed five people – four of them journalists – I, too, was the victim of threats, including a death threat from a law enforcement officer. I was physically attacked. I was stalked.
 
I am by no means unique.
 
It has almost always been the case that an untold number of American journalists who have done nothing more than fulfill their constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth have been subjected to the ire of those who have perceived they were wronged on the airwaves, on cable, online or in print.
 
It has almost never been the case in modern America, however, until now, that someone has taken threats to a tragic, gruesome level.
 
I carefully note “in modern America” because the early history of our republic was replete with incidents of violent retribution against journalists for perceived slights. In fact, as Michael Rosenwald chronicled for the Columbia Journalism Review, the “decorated war general” for whom the city of Denver is named shot and killed a newspaper editor in an 1852 duel because he was upset with a news story of which he was the subject.
 
In my situation, a man once drove to a radio station where I worked as news director and pounded on a locked, mercifully, door trying to confront me. The law enforcement officer threatened to kill me via email because he didn’t like a coverage decision I had made on a story that, in retrospect, was quite trivial and thoroughly inconsequential. The physical attack came in the form of a rock hurled at me by a picketer during a bitter steel company strike. To this day I am grateful that it was winter, and my thick overcoat cushioned the blow to my chest.
 
The stalker was a woman who, at first, said she was infatuated with me. (Go figure.) As I continued to rebuff her advances, she pivoted from being smitten to threatening. Local police did nothing – because, I later discovered, the woman was a confidential drug informant for them – so I had to go to the FBI to get her to back down before the situation escalated to violence.
 
That happened, I should note, in a community where not too long before that woman made me the object of her obsession, a man who’d been stalking a local TV news anchor broke into the anchor’s apartment and attempted to assault her. The anchor’s partner happened to be with her; he was forced to shoot and kill the stalker to stop the attack.
 
I feel confident in saying that a majority of modern-day journalists who have shined a light on problems in their communities have been subjected to intimidation or outright threats. The trite but true fact is that it comes with the territory.
 
Now, suddenly, thanks to the Annapolis gunman, journalists across the land are having to view threats through a new lens. We can no longer afford to use rose-colored glasses.
 
I have often said that journalists should watch their backs, but not back down. By all accounts, the man accused of causing carnage at the Capital Gazette had harbored a years-long grudge against the paper and had telegraphed his intention to slaughter on several occasions. He apparently was not, it appears, motivated by the red-hot anti-news media vitriol being spewed by many of our nation’s elected and other public officials.
 
That, however, is little cause for comfort to journalists, particularly of the local variety, who must be accessible to the public in order to fulfill their duties. POLITICO senior media writer Jack Shafer put it this way the day after the Capital Gazette shooting:
 
No one can directly connect the Annapolis travesty to President Donald Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. … But Trump’s vitriol certainly hasn’t soothed passions. News organizations are the “enemy of the American people,” as he puts it. He’s called journalists “dishonest,” “sick people,” claimed they dislike their country, accused them of “trying to take away our history and our heritage,” and singled out dozens of reporters and outlets for specific abuse. Trump may not be drawing targets on anybody’s back, but he’s got his crayons out.
 
The president did tone down his rhetoric after the Annapolis shooting – for five days. He then returned to tweeting and speechifying about “fake news” to describe news organizations, reporters and stories he either didn’t like or found inconvenient to his agenda.
 
Also on the day after the shooting, former Capital Gazette editor and publisher Tom Marquardt wrote so eloquently in The Washington Post:
 
Those dedicated Capital Gazette journalists, like others before them and surely others after them, fought for free speech at all costs, including death. It’s not prayers their survivors and co-workers need; it’s respect for what reporters and editors do every day.
 
It was heartening to see the community of Annapolis honor the Capital Gazette journalists with a make-shift memorial. It was poignant to see the paper’s surviving employees lead the city’s Fourth of July parade. It was moving when journalists and other Americans across the country shared a moment of silence to revere the fallen. The people of Annapolis, and those elsewhere who payed homage to the dead reporters and editors, certainly showed their respect.
 
One obvious question now is, how long will it be before the names Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Gerald Fischman are relegated to an asterisk, or forgotten altogether?
 
One ominous question is, are they only the first responsible journalists to by martyred in today’s ideological environment?
 
Years ago when I was threatened, assaulted and stalked, I never allowed myself to fear for my well-being. I was younger and had a strong sense that I was a capital-J journalist who was serving the communities where I lived and worked and, therefore, was somehow invincible.
 
That was a different time, when the most serious threat I ever got from an elected official came from a county commissioner who marched into my general manager’s office and demanded I be fired because he thought a story I had reported reflected negatively on him. Never mind that he couldn’t, and didn’t, dispute the accuracy of the report. My GM told him to take a hike.
 
Now, however, journalists and news organizations must be more cautious. They should harden the physical security of their newsrooms and offices. They should provide self-defense courses. They should avoid sending one-person multi-media journalist teams into dangerous areas. They should consider hiring armed security officers when going into potentially threatening situations.
 
If there is cause for optimism in these perilous times, it is that enrollment is increasing at many of the nation’s top journalism schools. That fuels my belief that whatever this is will give way to a renaissance in journalism – and the public’s trust in it – unlike our nation has experienced since the immediate post-Watergate era.
 
It may be even bigger than that.