First Amendment casualties on the home front

A Capital Gazette newspaper rack displays the day's front page, Friday, June 29, 2018, in Annapolis, Md. A man armed with smoke grenades and a shotgun attacked journalists in the newspaper's building Thursday, killing several people before police quickly stormed the building and arrested him, police and witnesses said. (Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

A Capital Gazette newspaper rack displays the day's front page, Friday, June 29, 2018, in Annapolis, Md. A man armed with smoke grenades and a shotgun attacked journalists in the newspaper's building Thursday, killing several people before police quickly stormed the building and arrested him, police and witnesses said. (Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

With five people dead at an American newspaper, from an attack that would seem more shocking if it didn’t feel so inevitable, I can’t help but remember an innocent bygone era.

I began my journalism career — this Monday marks my 45th anniversary — fresh from college at a small Connecticut paper roughly the size of the Capital Gazette. There was no security. It never occurred to us that we would need security. Anyone who wanted to visit the newsroom could simply walk past the classified ad desk, take the tiny elevator to the third floor, and when the door slid open, there we were, frantically typewriting the local news with the help of scissors and glue.

Anyone and everyone exited that elevator — the Chamber president, the city manager, the certifiable nuts. As the new kid, I was sometimes tasked with talking to the nuts. They typically had grievances about stories that had appeared in the paper; sometimes they were furious about stories that never appeared at all. I’d humor them, take a few notes, and they’d wander out the way they wandered in.

One of my colleagues did investigate some very dicey characters, one of whom threatened her, and for a brief time she’d start her day by checking beneath her car for bombs, but we thought she was paranoid and it turned out she was. None of us feared a gunman. None of us feared that a significant segment of the citizenry was hostile to our basic mission. President Nixon was talking trash about the press, Vice President Agnew had called us “nattering nabobs of negativism,” but there was a baseline of decency beyond their shrinking base, and we all took that for granted.

Nixon hated the networks and big eastern papers, but he never smeared all journalists as “enemies of the people” (as a student of history, he would’ve known that “enemies of the people” was a Leninist phrase), and he never incited his crowds to heap hate on the attendant press corps. Perhaps I’m giving him too much retrospective credit, but I believe that if a mass shooter had ever targeted a newsroom in 1973, he would’ve responded by reminding all Americans of the vital constitutional role that the press plays in a democracy. He would’ve said (in roughly these words) that despite his own grievances, “journalists tell the stories of our communities, protect democracy, and often put their lives on the line just to do their jobs.”

That quote, reacting to the newsroom deaths in Annapolis, comes from Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

That was the classy response. The classless response, yesterday on the White House lawn, went like this:

“Can you please talk to us about the dead reporters in Annapolis?”

Trump keeps walking.

“Do you have any words of condolence for the families, Mr. President?”

Trump keeps walking.

“Why are you walking away?”

Trump keeps walking.

Nobody is suggesting that the Annapolis shooter was specifically inspired by Trump’s relentless invective (he had a vendetta about a 2011 story that mentioned his guilty plea in a criminal harassment case), but you need only spend five minutes on social media to find comments from Trump supporters who say that newsroom shootings wouldn’t happen if the press wasn’t writing “fake news.” Most importantly, Trump himself is ill positioned to educate his fans about the press’ vital role in a democracy, because it was just four days ago when he railed at a rally about “enemies of the people” and “fake newsers.”

So my nostalgia for my vanished era is trumped by the reality that everyone in journalism today, typically working long hours covering their communities for modest pay, is on the front line. Take a moment to read some of the stories that yesterday’s First Amendment casualties have left behind, and ask yourself if this is the America you want.

I vote no.

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