The jeopardy of journalists in America, then and now

Published 8:20 pm Sunday, July 8, 2018

In 1837, a pro-slavery mob killed abolitionist newsman Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.  Neo-Nazis assassinated a Jewish radio show host, Alan Berg, in the 1980s. And the massacre in Maryland is yet another sad chapter in this story, where our free press, even our free speech, protected by the U.S. Constitution in the First Amendment, is under fire.

If anyone thinks the killing of five journalists for The Capital Gazette in Maryland had nothing to do with politics, you would be mistaken.  I read his Twitter feed, and his anger at the newspaper was laced with politics, frequently connecting his diatribe with quotes and references to political acts, many connected to violence and threats against the press.

With these five deaths, America is now tied for second in the world for journalist deaths with Syria, with Afghanistan taking the top spot.  And we’re not even a war zone.

There is a disturbing trend in democracies.  Politicians running on populist platforms are increasingly demonizing reporters, calling them “the enemy of the people.”  Others, like Filipino President Duterte, said “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a @#^&*!”  Then, murders of reporters began in The Philippines after his inauguration.

You’re actually more likely to see democracies on the list of the countries with the most murders of journalists.  My article in The Observer last year revealed that many of the countries in the Top 16 for journalist deaths were democracies. Some deaths come from investigating the mafia or the drug trade. But many of them are political murders, where reporters are killed for investigating corruption.

On Monday, June 26, 2018, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos wrote to The Observer “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” On June 29, the shooter at the Maryland newspaper posted his first tweet since 2016, and then went on his deadly attack.  It’s a bit chilling, since I write for The Observer.

Sean Hannity took to the airwaves to blame —Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Rep. Maxine Waters for the shooting. Hannity ignored Yiannopoulos’ words, which were far more directed.

Here’s what Rep. Waters had said that led to Hannity’s blame. “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

I completely reject Waters’ suggestion. Nobody should refuse someone a meal or hassle them at home. It doesn’t change any policy, and plays into the hands of those who publicize the incident.  It’s a dumb idea.  But it’s not even in the same league as Yiannopoulos’ direct call for violence.

Yiannopoulos is not the only one.  Cheryl K. Chumley of The Washington Times objected late last year when Wal-Mart pulled the T-Shirt “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” from its sales. She wrote “But why?  After all, what’s good for the First Amendment gander is good for the First Amendment goose,” even though the First Amendment doesn’t cover company sales. Dana Loesch called for journalists to be “curb-stomped,” which is what Nazis did to Jews.

It’s open season on journalists in America in today’s politics. 

Such rhetoric and behavior must stop, lest we become like these partial democracies that are sliding into authoritarianism.