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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

Today we respond in unison to anti-press rhetoric

More than 300 newspapers nationwide are participating in an editorial-writing initiative today.

The Boston Globe contacted newspaper editorial boards across the country and proposed a “coordinated response” to President Trump’s escalating “enemy of the people” rhetoric designed to undermine our credibility in informing the residents of our communities.

“We propose to publish an editorial on Aug. 16 on the dangers of the administration’s assault on the press and ask others to commit to publishing their own editorials on the same date,” the Globe said in a released statement.

While we may not have the “official” editorial appearing in many of the nation’s newspapers small and large today, this will be my token participation.

“The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston,” Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial page editor, told CNN. “Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.”

I understand free speech allows anyone, including the president, to offer opinions. And, specific issues with specific news agencies are expected, because we’re imperfect and capable of getting something wrong.

But, in a larger sense, a free and independent press is as important today as it was to the founding fathers. We are just normal people behind you in line at the grocery store, or in front of you at the high school football game. The news matters to us, to give you the information that helps you in your everyday life in your community. Maybe along the way we can tell you something you didn’t know.

Shortly after the deadly Annapolis newsroom shooting, we gained a short reprieve and we were relieved to hear President Trump say reporters should be able to be “free from fear” of violence while doing their jobs. I thought maybe the tragedy had triggered a more measured response to coverage, even when it put him in a less than flattering light.

I’m not saying that 38-year-old Jarrod W. Ramos took the action he did at the Capital Gazette because of something Trump said. He had filed a defamation lawsuit against the paper and a columnist in 2012 for reporting on his guilty plea on a 2011 harassment case.

After some prodding by the mayor of Annapolis, Trump even issued a proclamation honoring the victims of the Capital Gazette shooting and ordered the flags lowered to half-mast in public settings.

Then at the rallies Trump holds, he catered to his base multiple times, especially after the summit meeting with Putin, by resurrecting his “fake news” and “enemy of the people” phrases. Even though members of his own party panned the meeting’s proceedings, the blame was deflected to the reporting.

Images were shared on social media of revved up supporters turning toward the media pit when Trump made those disparaging remarks, often making obscene gestures or openly swearing and shouting at reporters who were covering the event.

Here’s the deal, when you make blanket statements undermining the work of the entirety of a group of workers, it gets dangerous. Nobody distinguishes between those who were reckless with facts or bent on promoting a certain philosophy, versus those who honestly report the events as they transpired, with responsible gathering of comments from a viable cross section.

When everyone in our business has a target on their back because the nation’s leader discredited them, suddenly some of those on the fringe of causing problems are emboldened.

Believe me, anyone who has worked in this business for any time at all has dealt with the emotional objections of someone about something we wrote.

Those boards and managers we cover want to be presented in the best possible light, at all times. But, that’s not our mission. We’re there to hold them accountable to the tasks they are bound to by the nature of their public office. If something is wrong, the public needs to be informed. We ask tough questions.

If there was not a free and independent press, and each public body just disseminated information through their own public relations department, we would not be able to trust that we’re getting the whole story, including the unseemly sides.

We’ve had active shooter training at the News Advertiser, put on by the Creston Police Department. Depending on where we are in the building, our exit strategies and other precautions were discussed. I took this seriously, and hopefully everyone in the building did.

It’s not often, but we have had people excited and shouting at the front counter, upset about something that was printed. Often it concerns something in the law enforcement report, which is public record.

Then, of course, there are the anonymous mailings. That’s happened many times. It’s alarming, but I learned to not sweat it too much. Their punishment is being a miserable person. That’s how I choose to look at it.

Yet, if our nation’s leader fans the flames of hate already existing in some members of our society, I am literally worried for the lives of some colleagues. It could happen again. To think otherwise would be naive.

After he survived the shooting, Capital Gazette photographer Paul W. Gillespie was seen wearing a shirt saying “journalism matters today more than ever.”

“Support local journalism,” Gillespie told CBS News. “Subscribe to the paper. We’re not evil. We’re just regular working people trying to tell stories from our communities. Like at the vigils, I don’t know if you saw, but we got a lot of love around here, you know? Everyone knows us. They know that we’re not trying to do bad things. We’re just trying to tell their stories.”

I’m hoping most people share that view.

I like the way Nyssa Kruse put it this summer, writing for the Hartford Courant.

“If you don’t understand journalism, please ask,” she wrote. “I’m ready to tell you about what I do and I know most of my colleagues will, too. Please also know that no matter what, we’re not the enemy. We care about you and we’re always ready to listen.”

Count me in on that.

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Email: lpeterson@crestonnews.com

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