When newsrooms need to lock their doors, their ability to serve readers and viewers is sadly impeded, compromising the press’s democratic functions and responsibility
By Denny Wilkins
I became a journalist, in part, because I was able to walk through the unlocked rear door of my hometown newspaper directly into the newsroom unchallenged and unimpeded.
In the immediate years that followed as I worked nights as a sportswriter, that rear door remained unlocked so coaches and players could deliver game reports. A decade later, as the editorial page editor, my office was closest to that unlocked door.
None of us in the newsroom gave thought to that unlocked door. Sure, we had the occasional weirdo stroll in, but they were merely loud, not dangerous. Did I get the occasional death threat? Yes, especially during my tenure running the editorial page. But those threats were mostly “ I’ll kill you if you print that, you jerk …” I never took them seriously.
Those days of newsrooms wide open to the whims and visits of the public are gone. The descent of the Republic into nearly unfettered tribalism, aided and abetted by a president of the United States, who has declared journalists to be “enemies of the people,” has left newsrooms less accessible to the very people journalists serve — their readers and viewers, no matter what ideology they bear.
After the despicable shootings of journalists in Maryland, more police were patrolling about The Washington Post. Try to stop into The New York Times on a whim to talk with a reporter. You’ll be challenged and vetted.
Journalists are the toughest people I know. It’s difficult to deter them from their work. But after a gunman killed five newspaper people in less than 90 seconds at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, it would be hard to find a journalist today who hasn’t stood in her or his newsroom and wondered, “How would I escape if I had to?” [Note: There’s no hint the man charged has been influenced by the president’s anti-press rhetoric.]
In February, a Coast Guard officer labeled by prosecutors as a “domestic terrorist” was charged with plotting to kill prominent cable news journalists and Democratic politicians.
That type of story obviously makes headlines. But threats against journalists do not always make the front page in such dominant fashion. An armed suspect robbed a CBS news crew in San Francisco in February. The crew’s security guard was shot as the suspect fled.
I suppose when people think of “media,” they think of big media — The Post, The Times, the Wall Street Journal, the cable news channels, the broadcast networks, NRP, and so on. But the beating heart of journalism reflects the work of the nation’s community newspapers. I worked at mine for two decades. The people murdered in Baltimore worked at a community newspaper.
No one works at such a newspaper with the intent of amassing wealth (unless she or he own it, of course). People work at such papers because they believe in the job — or, more bluntly, in the necessity of the job. The survivors of the Capital Gazette murders somehow found the emotional resolve to publish an edition of the paper to tell their horrific story — and other stories, as usual, about the community they serve.
Without journalists, without the First Amendment, what would the Republic be like today? The fundamental role of journalism is to hold the powerful accountable. It serves as a check on how government operates. In the modern world, it inspects the operations of large institutions as well — unions, corporations, and other nation-states. Remove that function from democracy, and democracy withers.
Community journalism serves that role on a small scale. It checks on the activities of elected officials and appointed ones as well. It checks to see if the contract for winter road salt didn’t surreptiously go to a relative of the highway department chief. It makes sure that school board looks after the best interests of children, not administrators.
That’s what I teach as a journalism professor. Young men and women who take my courses and those of other faculty often end up working as community journalists.
But how do I prepare them for a life in a newsroom under siege? How do I teach them to protect themselves as they seek information on behalf of their readers and viewers?
Two of my faculty colleagues, Anne Lee and Rich Lee, interviewed several of our program’s graduates after the murders at the Capital Gazette. I worry about them. At their age, they should only have to worry about doing the job well — not about being the target of vengeance.
Those who actually believe journalists are “the enemy of the people” are probably fewer than many of us think. But that prevailing thought in midst of a unruly mob incited by an insanely demagogic authority figure produces an unhealthy climate for journalists trying to do their jobs.
Watch your backs, you ink-stained wretches. Lock your newsroom doors.
I called my hometown newspaper where I worked. That rear door is locked — and has been for a long time.
Dr. Denny Wilkins worked as a reporter and editor at a rural New England newspaper for two decades. He has taught journalism at St. Bonaventure University for nearly a quarter of a century.