Every day, and now more and more each year, newspaper reporters and radio, TV and online news reporters across this country get hate mail, even death threats.
An attack on a newspaper is the same as an attack on the Constitution, on the nation’s earliest face of the 1st Amendment.
Thursday’s murders at the local newspaper in Annapolis, Md., were allegedly committed by a man who police say staged “a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette.”
The targeted killing of journalists is something we think of as happening elsewhere — in Mexico, where journalists are gunned down by drug lords and their cronies; in Russia, where journalist critics of Vladimir Putin turn up dead; in Syria and Afghanistan; in France, where Islamic State supporters massacred Charlie Hebdo magazine journalists.
It hasn’t happened to a newspaper journalist in the United States in more than 10 years; in 2007, Chauncey Bailey, who edited the weekly Oakland Post, was gunned down to shut down his reporting about Oakland’s Your Black Muslim Bakery, whose financial and personnel problems Bailey had been covering.
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From 1981 to 1990, in different parts of the country, five Vietnamese American newspaper journalists were assassinated, reportedly by what the investigative news outlet ProPublica called a death squad, an organization that the FBI had concluded was made up of extremist former South Vietnamese military officials. None of the five killings have been officially solved. The gravestone of one newspaperman, shot to death in the driveway of his Houston home, reads: “Killed in pursuit of truth and justice through journalism.”
The man suspected in Thursday’s massacre had a longstanding beef with the Capital Gazette because it covered his criminal case, a matter of public record. That’s what hometown newspapers do routinely every day: write about crime, courts, local government, prep sports, schools, police and fire, the community’s doings.
The paper also covered the U.S. Naval Academy, in its backyard. The academy tweeted Thursday, “The Capital Gazette is our local newspaper and is often the first to tell our story. We are grieving with their staff and loved ones after the tragic events that occurred today.”
American journalism’s first martyr was Elijah Parish Lovejoy. He was a Presbyterian minister and newspaper publisher who wrote so passionately against slavery that, three different times, Missouri mobs destroyed his printing presses. In 1837, he moved to the presumed safety of Illinois, where another crowd of proslavery rioters torched his building, shot him to death and threw his printing press in the river.
To former president John Quincy Adams, Lovejoy was “the first martyr to the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the slave.” A couple of months after Lovejoy’s death, a young Illinois lawmaker named Abraham Lincoln spoke of the incident, and even 20 years later recalled it in a letter as “the single most important event that ever happened in the new world,” because it lighted the fuse that in time exploded the nation into civil war.
Lovejoy’s name appears first on the list of hundreds on the memorial wall at the Newseum, the Washington museum of journalism. Five more names must now be added to that wall — the single biggest number of journalists targeted for death in this nation’s history. (Two of those killed at the Capital Gazette were editors, two were reporters and one was a sales assistant for the newspaper.)
The risk has always been there. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, white Southern newspaper editors and publishers who editorialized support for the civil rights movement faced canceled subscriptions, canceled ads and death threats — still nothing compared to what black activists endured — but the only reporter known to have been murdered during that period was a Frenchman, Paul Guihard. In September 1962, he was found shot in the back in Jackson, Miss., where white protests greeted black student James Meredith when he tried to enroll at the university there. Guihard’s murder is unsolved.
Every day, and now more and more each year, newspaper reporters and radio, TV and online news reporters across this country get hate mail, even death threats. Some are preposterous; some are all too plausible. Within hours of Thursday’s murders, BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen tweeted, “I’ve had people email death threats, threaten to cut my dog’s throat, tell me I’d pay for my fake news.”
We get these threats, but we never get used to them.
A healthy tension between the press and politicians is as old as the country, and actually an important part of its governance. Once in a while, it gets dangerously, disastrously unhealthy.
The second president of the United States, John Adams, threw newspapermen in prison under laws that, like English law, were broad enough to imprison people for almost any criticism of the government. Editors, publishers, a member of Congress and Benjamin Franklin’s publisher (who was also his grandson) were put behind bars, and countless other newspapermen were intimidated into silence, which is exactly what the targeting of journalists is meant to do: to shut them up. The election of Thomas Jefferson and the affirmation of the 1st Amendment soon put an end to this persecution.
And today we have the sneering and insults from a presidential candidate who became the president of the United States. His “fake news” retorts try to diminish stories he doesn’t like, and the “scum” journalists who reported them. When he calls the press “the enemy of the people,” he is deploying the same term used by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union to demonize the leader’s own enemies.
Today, we have a GOP congressional candidate in Montana who pleaded guilty to body-slamming a newspaper reporter who asked him about health care on election night. Greg Gianforte is serving in Congress today.
The New Yorker wrote of a reporter for the hometown paper in Grand Junction, Colorado; the reporter covered a 2016 Trump rally, and saw her fellow citizens screaming at out-of-town political reporters, “Hang them all! Electric chair!”
“I thought I knew Mesa County,” the reporter wrote on Facebook. “That’s not what I saw yesterday. And it scared me.”
Still, we persist. We are the people’s intelligence service, and in an age when social media allow Americans to wall themselves off from information they don’t like, and from people they don’t agree with, we deliver the news version of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s maxim that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Attacks on journalists are meant to silence voices and intimidate others. After Chauncey Bailey’s murder, and after the 1976 bombing-killing of Arizona investigative reporter Don Bolles, reporters rallied to finish the work these two men had started. Their guiding principle: “You can’t kill a story by killing a journalist.”
Its newsroom was still a crime scene Thursday night when the Capital Gazette tweeted the same sentiment, “Yes, we’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”