Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
—First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
The local community newspaper is a beautiful thing, the living, breathing spirit of democracy. It follows, therefore, that an assault on the press is a grievous attack on the freedoms we cherish.
On June 28, a gunman walked into the newsroom of a Maryland paper, the Capital Gazette, and began shooting people. We were all in his sights that day. The crazies, the fanatics and the demagogues who target journalists take aim at every man and woman who values a free press.
Whether for grievances real or imagined, the shooter went on a rampage. It was reported in The New York Times that he had sued the Gazette for defamation at one time, and had issued threats up until the day of the killings.
The attack did not happen in a vacuum; it happened amid ginned-up anger at the press coming from the Trump administration. I’m not suggesting cause and effect; I am merely observing that a president has immense power to sway public opinion for or against any institution, including the press. And that may create fertile ground for violence.
Coincidences abound. This week we marked the Fourth of July, the birth of American independence and the confluence of leadership and timing that led eventually to the drafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing our rights to a free press and free speech.
And how did the Founders spread news of the emerging United States of America? How did they gather support for this great experiment in democracy? They used the newspapers of the time, the most vital link in the communications network of the late 1700s.
The quintessential expression of democracy is the local newspaper. We journalists write about our own towns and villages, and we report on friends and neighbors we see at school board meetings, football games or the local supermarket. We are the sounding board for anyone with a cause or a gripe. We give voice to citizens who advocate for everything from new traffic lights to better schools. We write stories about Everyman and Everywoman as they go about their lives, start new businesses, run for office, commit crimes, achieve greatness or infamy. We publish photos of their children. In their obituaries, we write the very last accounts of their lives.
Community newspapers don’t pay well, and often require unconventional working hours. Fires and car crashes don’t always happen between 9 and 5. For many, journalism is more of a calling than a job. Working for a local paper feels like a mission one accepts to gather facts, report them accurately and get them to press.
Those of us who write for the opinion pages have a different responsibility. We interpret the news through an individual prism and offer our thoughts about events and leaders. A good newspaper, like the Herald, invites different perspectives, so that readers can follow Alfonse D’Amato and me and get opposing points of view.
Do Herald readers get angry? All the time. Sometimes the letters I get are disturbing, but I imagine D’Amato gets his share as well. As I tell my readers, the greatest service of a newspaper is to provide a place for people to disagree openly, peacefully and without fear of retribution. The specter of violence in any form has a chilling effect on free expression.
Reporters for the Capital Gazette took shelter under their desks as the shooter moved through their newsroom, and crouching there, they took to social media to get the story out even as shots were being fired. While survivors were still in intensive-care units at local hospitals, one reporter vowed, “We will get a damn newspaper out tomorrow.” And they did.
As we went to press late last week, more details of the shootings were emerging. Five dead, two wounded, a suspect in custody. A newspaper under attack.
Whether you’re called the Gazette or the Beacon or the Herald, you are the voice of your local community and the forum for diverse social and political views. You stand between civil discourse and anarchy. Ugly diatribes from the top set a menacing tone in the world of community news. We live and work close to our readers; we have to feel safe as we go about our jobs.
When the president of the United States calls newspapers “the enemy of the people” and paints journalism with the broad brush of “fake news,” it is a direct threat to freedom of the press and an incitement to violence.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.