As a journalist, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s very common to get negative feedback about your work.
It’s all part of the job; you cannot be thin-skinned and take things personally in this business. I learned that a long, long time ago.
The white-hot rage is sometimes delivered the old-fashioned way, through the mail: crooked cursive with no return address on an envelope and a missive inside that includes a few unkind words. But most of it these days is sent via email, most of the time unsigned or using what is obviously a fake email address.
Journalists also get criticized online, via the brain trust that is the social media comments section. They are called all kinds of synonyms of stupid or incompetent or corrupt or lazy. And those are the mild comments.
Getting called a moron is the least of my worries. I know I’m not one – maybe not a genius, but definitely not a moron. Hey, morons don’t consistently win rounds of music trivia, do they?
All around the world, journalists are kidnapped, arrested, assaulted or murdered, many times with the help of the governments they are trying to cover. These people are only trying to uncover the truth and shed light on issues that the people should know, but someone wants to keep them silent.
One organization I follow that covers international incidents involving journalists is the Committee to Protect Journalists. The organization keeps a running database of journalists killed in the line of duty – this year, for example, so far 34 journalists have been slain throughout the world. Last year, the number was 46.
Getting murdered or being the victim of physical violence was never something that crossed my mind during my entire career as a journalist. Sure, after covering local government for nearly 20 years, there have been times when a local gadfly got a little too irate during a meeting and I thought to myself, ‘What would be the quickest exit out of here if I had to run?’ But I never thought such a fear would flesh itself out in a three-dimensional reality.
That is, until the June 28 shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis that left five newspaper employees dead. These were not correspondents in Syria or Egypt or Latin America – these were people who covered zoning meetings and community events. These were people who covered the same stuff I cover.
Consistently, President Donald Trump has referred to the media – all of the media – as the enemy of the American people. He acts just like that local gadfly, but strengthened by the powers of the White House, Trump loves getting his crowds, his base, whipped up about how awful the press is. Unlike journalists across the country, Trump, apparently, does not have the thick skin necessary to do his job.
At an Aug. 2 press conference, CNN’s Jim Acosta decided to ask press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she would say the press is not the enemy of the people, and Sanders refused. Instead, she rattled off a list of personal grievances she felt she has suffered as press secretary for the president of the United States.
In the world of social media, Trump’s followers rejoiced. Even a local state representative, Republican David Welter of Morris, shared video of the exchange in a public post on his Facebook page. “This right here... Don’t mess with Sarah!” he exclaimed. This came as a disappointment to me as I’ve always viewed Welter as a reasonable, fair-minded sort.
I think what Welter and the rest of his ilk don’t realize is that, when they celebrate journalists en masse being labeled “the enemy of the American people,” they are putting targets on the backs of journalists everywhere. Not just the Jim Acostas or the Jake Tappers or the national and international correspondents, but the hometown journalists who stick around and ensure that their local governments are honest, transparent and are held accountable.
Those who support such statements are celebrating what is, essentially, a call to violence against journalists. Somewhere out there is an unstable, angry soul who is taking those words to heart.
That is something that I, as a reporter for my hometown paper since I was in high school, cannot abide. There is nothing more American and more courageous than standing up and criticizing one’s president, than standing in the village square and pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, than shedding sunlight on corruption and graft.
Call me an enemy of the people if you wish; I will wear it like a badge of honor.
• Tony Scott is the news editor for Record Newspapers.