Threats and Deadlines

I don’t anger easily.  But every once in a while, somebody will push the wrong button and Bruce Banner will turn into the Hulk.

Right now, I can feel my skin turning green.

The last several days have seen windows shot out at a newspaper office. They’ve seen a bomb threat at a newspaper printing plant. And most famously, of course, they’ve given us the reporter that was knocked down by an angry Congressional candidate (now Congressman). Incidents aren’t automatically a pattern, of course, but these sorts of incidents put my teeth on edge.

I spent too long in the profession to react any other way.

I worked as a newspaper reporter for 16 years. It’s a fascinating profession that can tap you into the beating heart of a community. It also means you can wind up on the edge – or in the middle – of a number of risky situations. You may be witnessing a fire, a police standoff, a tornado, even a 500-year-flood that’s swallowing up the roads as you watch.

And once in a while, the risk comes to you instead.

I was one of the lucky ones. Over my career, the worst I ever ran into was occasional harsh words (amidst many kind ones) and one flaming bag of dog poop left on my front porch.  But it can get worse very easily. Newsrooms aren’t high-security areas, and more than one paper can tell stories about the angry reader who got within three feet of a reporter’s desk before anyone knew he or she was there. Those sorts of moments leave you anxious afterward, and watchful.

And sometimes watchful isn’t enough.

The Committee to Protect Journalists publishes a list each year of reporters and media workers around the world who have been killed as they did their jobs. They’ve tracked over 1,800 since 1992, including over 800 murders. Small numbers in a global sense, perhaps, but sobering as you read the names and stories of each, and realize how quickly a situation can turn bad.

Why make the list? Because press freedom is important. Because someone has to be able to tell the stories that a country needs to hear, without fear of reprisal or intimidation.

Don’t get me wrong. I know the press corps isn’t full of Woodward and Bernstein clones. We all know the ones who are superficial, or lazy, or heartless enough to ask “How do you feel?” to someone who’s just lost their family in a hurricane. We know the mudslingers and the loudmouths. Crackerjack reporters are still out there, doing more with less every year, but as in any profession, they often share space with the mediocre and the outright bad.

None of that justifies a blow, or a threat, or a shot in the night.

It’s OK to get angry at the press. I’ve been there myself. It’s all right to be upset with an outlet, or a media chain, or even the entire institution. Sometimes anger is justified, a necessary step in order to bring about change. It’s true of government, so why not of its watchdogs as well?

But when that anger crosses the line into violence, that’s it. The story is over. At that point, you are not my friend, nor any friend to democracy.

It’s been said that politics is based on the conviction that talking is better than fighting. Arguments need not bring warfare, disagreement need not provoke violence. That’s an ideal, of course – our country has seen the process break down into duels, riots, and even civil war – but it’s a vital one to hold.

And once held, it must be defended. Or else the conversation cannot happen at all.

I hope these are isolated incidents. They’re certainly good reminders. No rights are guaranteed; they must be claimed anew each day or they become simply words on paper. Someone will always test the boundaries and the boundaries must hold.

At its best, our country is a Banner achievement.

Don’t let Hulk smash.

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