Thursday, July 05, 2018

Rope, Tree, Journalist



This year (so far) 53 journalists have been killed around the world. Eleven have been killed in Afghanistan, one in Syria, seven in the US, five in India, four in Yemen, six in Columbia, six in Mexico, two in Brazil, one in Liberia, one in Iraq, one in Pakistan, two in the Philippines, and one in Nicaragua.  Last year 46 journalists were killed, worldwide. The International Federation of Journalists promotes a free press and keeps track of journalists who are  killed in every country. 

Every Friday, this newspaper asks a question, and readers are encouraged to call in with answers, that are then published on the following Tuesday. The question asked last week was: “Do you feel the political climate in America puts journalists’ lives at risk?” The answers were troubling. Most blamed journalists for the current violent climate. In other words, if journalists are killed, it’s their own fault. It’s the old “she was asking for it, dressed like that” justification applied to reporters.

The Capital Gazette in Annapolis seems like a good community paper, the kind of paper any metro area would be proud of. An angry, unbalanced guy was mad that the paper covered a 2011 court case where he pleaded guilty to harassing a former high school classmate. Like most mass shooters, he was a misogynist. He began stalking her online in 2009. Her lawyer called it the worst case of stalking he’d ever seen.  Jarrod Ramos harassed the lawyer and members of his family. Ramos went on to try to sue the woman for perjury, and tried to sue the paper for defamation. After his suit was dismissed in 2013, he turned to making verbal threats against the paper, the publisher, and various reporters. Last year he legally bought the gun he used to kill 5 people. It took him a long time to take action. Did the president calling the press “enemies of the people” set him off? We’ll probably never know. It sure didn’t help. 

The Tele-Talk responses illustrated how desperately we need to teach media literacy in school. Many people don’t know the difference between a reporter and an opinion columnist. (I am an opinion columnist. I am not a reporter.) These days news someone doesn’t like is “fake” or “lies.” Over 30 years ago the radical right began to undermine the press, beginning with Rush Limbaugh and his howls about “the liberal media.” His propaganda worked brilliantly. Soon right wing radio sprouted across the land, and the war on truth began in earnest.

The slow, painful death of the newspaper hurts our communities and our nation. Since the beginning of the United States, newspapers and other print media kept us informed. They weren’t known for being fair and balanced back then, either. (Read some of Ben Franklin’s work.) The undermining began in earnest with the election of Barack Obama, which spawned a cottage industry of stories about his fake birth certificate, his fake Social Security number, Michelle Obama really being a man, and so on. It’s become so ubiquitous that now any new story that you don’t like is labeled as fake news. 

No news source can be all things to all people. Readers are going to see stories in newspapers that tick them off. Coverage of arrests and court cases is an area fraught with peril. It’s a sure bet that someone involved with a case, especially a case related to violence against another is going to get mad about the way it’s covered. That’s always been true.

The difference now is that after 30 years of intentional undermining, the mad are even madder, and the current political climate has given them permission to not only threaten violence, but to accept it as being justified. In 2016, tee shirts reading, “Rope, Tree, Journalist: Some Assembly Required” began appearing at Trump rallies. It’s just a joke, you say. Tell that to the five dead people at the Capital Gazette.

Many of us who put words out in public are familiar with death threats. There are many, many unstable people out there with guns, which is why the Tele-Talk responses were so disturbing. Angry, unstable guys with guns and defamation suits are not as unusual as one might think, and there’s no way of knowing whether they’ll come calling with a gun or not. So far, as a nation, we seem content to ignore warning signs. The signs were certainly there in the case of Jarrod Ramos. It seems we’d rather ensure the right of a guy like Ramos to purchase a firearm than ensure the right of others to keep on living.

This nation used to pride itself on a free press. We used to venerate the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Somewhere along the way, we decided the Second Amendment was more important, and that if we didn’t like the practitioners of the First, we could use the Second to eliminate them. This, dear readers, is not what democracy looks like. 



Published as an op-ed in the July 6 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper.



This is the Tele-Talk column that got me thinking.