Why we need journalism now, more than ever

The first death threat I received as a journalist came to my three-person newsroom in rural Western New York. There, I served as editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper for a town where I was usually the only attendee at monthly board meetings. We received two kinds of phone calls most frequently: Those asking where to send obituaries and if we could keep their child’s/husband’s/own name out of the police blotter for some weekend alcohol-related infraction. (The answer was always no).

That threat came not from a disgruntled reader, although we had plenty of those, but a former employee. I’d had to fire the guy after several verbal and written warnings, as well as a meeting in which he promised he’d stop ghosting on assignments, start sending them in without factual errors, and on time. He didn’t, so we parted ways. About a week later, he snarled down the line. “You had no right, you stupid c***,” he told me. “You know I’ve got a shotgun in my truck, right? I know where you work. And that back parking lot is awful dark after hours.”

It was.

I know Jake* was all bark and no bite. But I gave his name and photograph to our receptionist, anyway. Parked as close to the door as I could. Looked over my shoulder every time I left after dark, for months. Just in case.

***

When then-candidate Donald Trump first began his attacks on the press, when “fake news” first became a buzzword, I was teaching journalism at Canisius College in Buffalo. Three classrooms of wide-eyed, generally ambitious young journalists greeted me each day. I met them with ethics worksheets, fact-checking exercises, discussion points on how to spot fake news and avoid inadvertently creating it. We talked about the history of the free press and why we call it the “fourth estate.”

And I made sure they saw Trump’s speeches, read his statements, and understood why demonizing the media is so dangerous. Not just to us, as members and prospective members of the institution, but as Americans. I taught them about Signal. About the need for independent reporting. About the nobility of speaking truth to power. And at the end of the day, when I drove home at night, I hoped that all of this, against all of that, could somehow cut through the most heartbreaking noise.

One day, toward the end of the year and several harrowing months post-election, a senior raised her hand in our capstone class. We spent most of that course discussing what life would look like as a journalist, post-graduation. “How can we be journalists, real ones, in this day and age?” She asked. “How can we be honest when people call us fake? Why would anyone want to be a journalist when the people in power hate us?”

“The same way we always have,” I answered. “We do our jobs because they’re necessary, and we do our due diligence to make sure we’re as factual as possible.” But for the “why,” I didn’t have a good answer for her. “Because we have to,” didn’t feel like enough. “Because the country needs us,” sounded like lofty posturing. How could I tell a roomful of 17- and 18-year-olds to enter a field the president of the United States, and a whole slew of his followers, calls “the enemy of the state?”

That student took a job in public relations after graduation. She’s doing well, doing work she loves and cares about. But I still think about that conversation. About what it means to be a journalist in our world, and why anyone would want to.

***

In my last job, we joked about adding a feature to our weekly editorial meetings called the “troll of the week.” Most of us — the female-identifying ones especially — received a healthy supply of angry comments. Because our email addresses weren’t public, they went (at least in my case) to my Facebook page, my Twitter DMs, sometimes my Instagram comments. I refuse to make those places private, to hide myself from the angry (almost always) men who want me to sit down, shut up, and stop challenging their narrow and bile-filled worldview.

We had to make light of the vitriol we received, to keep it from getting too close. To keep it from touching us in that shrinking spot where we’re still tender.

“I hope there aren’t any guns around when someone comes to shoot you and your family,” one memorable Facebook message read.

”You’re a fat, ugly c*** who probably can’t get laid,” read another.

”Kill yourself.”

“Die in a fire.”

“Swallow a barrel.”

And my newest favorite, on a story I wrote about the best regional restaurants, “Maybe you can take the Obamas when you go to [preferred restaurant to the one I listed] you disgusting, bleeding heart libtard.” I doubt they’d accept my invitation, but Michelle and Barack, I’m pretty free in August.

When I read the news of the shooting at the Capital Gazette, my heart broke. When I heard about the threats the shooter leveled against the newspaper, it clenched. Because most journalists know those kinds of threats. We get them every day. And which day is the day you say to yourself, “this one sounds real?” Which day is the day someone’s going to shatter the glass door of your newsroom with the gun he’s threatened you with before, and on that day, will people say you should have seen this coming?

***

As a woman in America, I also wasn’t surprised when I read that the shooter had also harassed a woman online. I know of very, very few women who haven’t been at the receiving end of similar messages. Since the #MeToo movement threw the covers off so many harassment cases, since so many women raised their hands in the very same venue where they’d read men telling them things no family newspaper could print, I wish I could say I’ve been even a little surprised at what some men are capable of.

No, not all men.

But enough.

Enough that my female friends and I can get together and spend an entire evening recounting sordid tales of men who’ve felt entitled to touch us, to tell us what they want to do to us, and if we have the unmitigated gall to pull away, to say no, to assert our humanity in any way, their “flirtations” turn vile, sometimes violent. It says something terrible about our society that I can read about this shooter like he’s one of my own harassers, and I can see their faces in his. I can see their hands on that trigger, too. I can see my own face reflected in today’s obituaries, and I don’t know how to fix any of that.

I’m proud to be a journalist, especially a female one. Even if the trolls and the haters (hi guys!) don’t like it, I’m proud to occupy platforms to speak truth to power. And I’m proud of the work most of the fourth estate has done under this administration, to push back against a climate that would have us sit down, shut up, and nod along to whatever party line these farcical excuses for press briefings would have us swallow.

But I’m also deeply, bone-shakingly saddened by what happened at the Capital Gazette, and what continues to happen across our nation. Yes, I’ve been receiving threats like these since far before Trump and his puppets called to arms against my profession. But I can’t pretend his normalization of that attitude hasn’t made the atmosphere in which we do our work that much more fraught. Something’s got to change. I don’t fully know what that is.

But I do stand with my brothers and sisters in newsrooms across the country, local, indie, national, whatever. We’re all important, and we should all keep fighting for the right to spread the truth — despite the fragile white men who feel wronged by local newspapers to the one in the White House who feels wronged by, well, most of them.

There’s an old saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” I do believe that. I want to keep believing that. But I also think we’ve got to rely more on the former and less on the latter. Because I don’t want to walk past a police barricade to get to work in a supposedly peaceful country. I don’t want to save voicemails and emails, “just in case.” And I ache for a day, hopefully a not-too-distant one, when we don’t have to.

 

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