Tag Archives: Newsrooms

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Facing hostility comes with the territory of being a reporter.

Your job is to ask pointed and sometimes uncomfortable questions, so you’ve got to have a thick skin.

I’ve been harassed by corrupt cops I exposed, browbeaten and threatened by readers and subjected to bizarre low-level stalking by a conspiracy theorist and his followers.

I know other journalists who have endured far, far worse.

A friend and former colleague, Paula McMahon, now of The South Florida Sun Sentinel, was surrounded once in the mid-1990s by an angry mob of men in a Hasidic Jewish village in New York who were hellbent on trying to intimidate her. (It didn’t work.)

My friend Leslie-Jean Thornton, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, had her own story to share last week at a panel discussion, “Journalists in the Hot Seat: Staying Safe in a Hostile Political Climate,” hosted by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

She recounted how as the editor of a newspaper in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1990, she was subjected to persistent phone calls of the sounds of gunshots after she wrote an editorial about anti-abortion protesters who had distributed plastic fetuses in the local elementary school and put postcards with disturbing images in mailboxes.

As scary as those stories were, they were largely one-off occurrences.

They were not part of a pervasive and persistent pattern of animus – bordering on doing physical harm — toward members of the press.

That’s changed.

For about the past year, I’ve had a notion to write about the news media under fire.

Even after watching reporters regularly get jeered at presidential rallies, even after newsroom discussions of how to respond in case of an active shooter (Run. Hide. Fight.) and even after the unimaginable shootings at The Capital Gazette in Maryland that claimed the lives of five journalists, I felt like, nah, maybe I was just too close to the topic.

Maybe I was too paranoid or sensitive.

Maybe I was blowing things out of proportion.

And then I heard the panelists at this conference last week enumerate the ways the threats have escalated.

Networks have taken to hiring their own private security to protect certain high-profile news reporters when they are in the field.

There’s been a significant increase in death threats to reporters, especially those who have challenged the White House press secretary, panelists said.

And unrelated to politics, a panelist recounted how a young reporter at a small newspaper got death threats over a crime scene photo she took.

Thornton did a deep dive into the world of Instagram and found numerous disturbing memes depicting – and sometimes celebrating – violence against the press.

There was a press pass with a target superimposed on it.

Another read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

And another featured the logos of major news outlets, such as The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post, with bullet holes and “Trump 2018” on the bottom.

Tomorrow, newspapers in editorials across the country are banding together to speak with one voice about President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about the press.

Among other things, he’s called the news media “the enemy of the people” and “very dangerous and sick!”

His repeated pronouncements have been seen as an incitement to violence.

(A caller to C-SPAN recently threatened to shoot CNN hosts Brian Stelter And Don Lemon, saying: “They started the war. If I see ’em, I’m going to shoot ’em.”)

The attacks come at time that newspapers have been ravaged by deep cuts, leaving voters less informed and elected officials less engaged. Local governments face higher borrowing costs because the lack of local watchdog reporting holds them less accountable, Columbia Journalism Review reported.

Faced with growing concerns for our safety and security and at the same time the need more than ever for a vigilant press, what’s the answer?

Hide?

Run?

Fight.

Yes, fight.

Not with guns, but with our work.

Do I Swear at Work? Damn Straight!

I read recently of a former CNN employee, a devout Christian, who filed a discrimination lawsuit alleging, among other things, that his co-workers frequently used profane language.

Profanity in a newsroom?! I am shocked! Shocked I say!

Pardon me while I wipe tears from laughing so hard.

Newsrooms are among the few remaining workplaces that I know where swearing is not only routine but tolerated.

Any attempt to curb foul language in such a work setting is a fool’s errand.

Memorably, the editor of The York Daily Record in York, Pa., not long ago circulated a memo reminding workers that cursing is not appropriate in the workplace.

“I know that newspapers have had a salty history and culture,” the memo said. “And I know that we all will slip from time to time. Still, I believe we can express ourselves adequately without the use of profanity.”

In a pressure-cooker environment that demands intense concentration and highly detailed work under deadline, the only better outlet for the frustrations that bubble up than swearing would be to have an indoor firing range.

I recall well my first newspaper job at a tiny newsroom in a community near the Canadian border in New York’s Adirondack Mountains and the day my editor got word that the newspaper had prevailed in a libel lawsuit.

“We beat those bastards!” my boss shouted triumphantly, slamming the phone down.

His exclamation was truly G-rated compared to some of the other expletive-laden outbursts I have heard (and yes, that I myself have led) in newsrooms.

I recall one day as a doe-eyed intern at the Manhattan offices of New York Newsday.

A Metro editor, the late Hap Hairston, sat at his desk, rubbing and clapping his hands and shouting jubilantly to no one in particular: “I love this (F-bomb) story! I love this (F-bomb) story!”

I recall being stunned that an editor would use such language and so loudly. And yet no one — I mean absolutely no one — looked up or gave Hap a second thought.

In a way, he served as a role model for me going forward.

As executive editor of The Pocono Record, I was, well, um, colorful in my vocabulary.

I found that some of my phrases (many learned from my dad and vestiges of growing up in the Bronx) were welcome stress-relievers.

It is a habit that I have carried on, to my chagrin at times.

Late one night in the middle of a breaking news story (a vintage World War II plane had crashed in the Hudson River), I was on the phone with a reporter who proceeded to tell me that the name of the dead pilot given to us hours earlier by the police — and posted online — was incorrect.

“Are you (f-bomb) kidding me?! Oh (f-bomb) me where I sit!” I exclaimed.

Hours later, a senior editor came to my desk and said: “That was quite the animated conversation you had earlier.”

In a cavernous newsroom in the stillness of the night, my voice carried — far.

While that was embarrassing, I am even more mortified that my sons have taken to cursing up a blue streak with abandon.

Damn kids. I do not know where they get it from. I swear.

Why the Fuck Is “Fuck” So Overused Today?

Weaving a Tapestry of Obscenity

What I Learned From the “S-Town” Podcast

The highly acclaimed podcast “S-town” reinforces two notions I’ve tried to follow in my professional and personal lives: Every lunatic caller deserves 10 minutes of your time and so does every person – lunatic or otherwise – you meet.

For those not familiar with “S-town,” it is the real-life story set in a tiny Alabama town where the show’s host, Brian Reed, is called on to investigate a possible murder.

As if that is not weird enough, the person who invites Reed, a guy named John B. McLemore, is, well, a bit eccentric.

McLemore is a Renaissance man of the highest order. He is erudite and articulate, his speech sweetened with a Southern twang.

In one of their first conversations, McLemore tells Reed that as a teenager he was into “the astrolabe, sundials, projective geometry, new wave music, climate change and how to solve Rubik’s cubes.”

McLemore also delivers long, lucid and hilarious profane-filled rants about his crummy little town (hence the podcast’s title).

It reminded me of something that I frequently preached (and practiced) in my work as a newsman: Every lunatic caller deserves at least 10 minutes.

Newsrooms are a magnet for people to call or email with tips about alleged corruption or consumer rip-offs, promote their inventions or weave tales of government oppression.

Some of them are crackpots or conspiracy theorists. Some have legitimate gripes that don’t rise to a news story. And then there are some where your news sense begins to tingle as they talk.

Such was the case when a woman called me with a story of how she had been married to a mobster, they had kids, he divorced her and the feds were interfering with her child support payments because the ex-mobster was now in the Witness Security Program.

Not only did the story check out and she had reams of documentation to back it up, but it led to a detail-rich narrative.

But my first inclination was to think that this was a prank phone call.

I can only imagine what that first call from McLemore to Reed was like and how the podcast journalist must have reacted. And yet Reed stuck with the story, making visits, doing interviews, gathering material for three years, leading  “S-town” to become a smash hit.

And it all started with an email and meandering conversations that would lead an ordinary listener to ask: Does your train of thought have a caboose?

Outside of newsrooms, Reed’s patience and openness offers another valuable lesson, and that is not to be quick to judge others.

I had some guy approach me outside of Penn Station with a hard-luck story of how he had just gotten out of prison and needed train fare to get to his brother’s place.

I listened as he showed me his prison ID and I recognized the institution, which led to more conversation. I gave him five bucks, shook his hand and wished him well.

I could have easily chalked him up as some panhandler unworthy of my time and been on my way, but I felt better for offering a few minutes of interaction.

Have I been burned by other encounters? Of course.

But I would still rather continue listening with my heart than my nitpicking brain.