The Words That Matter

When you’re a reporter, the newsroom is home.

It may be a home you see more often than your real one, to be honest. It’s where the phone calls get made, the interviews get scheduled, and the miles and miles of copy get written. It’s the place of bad jokes, election-night pizza, and arguments over whether a material is called “concrete” or “cement” in print. It’s the core of the daily insanity, the “daily miracle” as each new edition of the newspaper is referred to.

It’s where life happens.

And last week, for one publication, it became where death happens, too.

On Thursday, the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis lived the nightmare. Five of their co-workers dead as a gunman shot his way in. The rest, having to keep going, to cover this horror that had come through the door, to report the deaths of friends and colleagues even in the midst of trying to find safety.

Every reporter has heard the editor’s admonition to get out there because “you won’t find any news in the newsroom.” If only that were always true.

The exceptions hurt too much.

***

In a way, it’s strange to be writing about this. Not just because I did a column about press violence literally a year ago, when the stories of the day were about windows being shot, bomb threats being called in, and a congressional candidate knocking a reporter down. But because it’s a story of someone taking a newspaper seriously. Seriously enough to kill.

That’s been the exception more than the rule these days.

We’ve seen the stories of the budget cuts, the layoffs, the financial pressure put on newspapers across the country. To many people, they’re a part of the conversation that seems to get increasingly exiled to the periphery. Websites keep snapping up and recirculating their copy – it’s a dirty secret how many online news sites rely on newspaper coverage, just as television stations once did before – while the men and women at the heart of it are continually called on to do more with less.

And they still do it.

I’m not talking about angels. I’m talking about people who make good choices, bad choices, and sometimes even bizarre choices in what they cover and why. Here and around the world, they ask, they learn, and they tell the story, even when someone would rather they not.

Sometimes they die for it.

Around the world, just this year, 33 of them have. Most of them by murder.

***

To our Founding Fathers, the conversation would not have been strange. On the Fourth, we look back to when several of them wrote words that could get them killed. When the signers of the Declaration pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” they knew it was no empty promise.

“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?” Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania recalled in later years.

“Let us prepare for the worst,” Abraham Clark of New Jersey wrote after signing. “We can die here but once.”

The right words at the right time matter.

And in journalism, this is why the work goes on.

Sometimes badly. Sometimes well. Reporters get praised, threatened, reviled, thanked, and even ignored – sometimes all in the same week. And even if newspapers went away tomorrow, the work would still go on somewhere, in some form, because it is too necessary to a free country to have people ask and learn and tell the story to others.

The story won’t stop. So the storytellers must go on.

At the Capital Gazette, one page of one edition was left blank after the shooting, save for the names of those who died and a brief tribute. A moment to pay honor, to feel the pain.

And then the work continued. As it has. As it will.

This is a country made by speaking out. And the words will not be silenced.

Not even in their very home.

Threats and Deadlines

I don’t anger easily.  But every once in a while, somebody will push the wrong button and Bruce Banner will turn into the Hulk.

Right now, I can feel my skin turning green.

The last several days have seen windows shot out at a newspaper office. They’ve seen a bomb threat at a newspaper printing plant. And most famously, of course, they’ve given us the reporter that was knocked down by an angry Congressional candidate (now Congressman). Incidents aren’t automatically a pattern, of course, but these sorts of incidents put my teeth on edge.

I spent too long in the profession to react any other way.

I worked as a newspaper reporter for 16 years. It’s a fascinating profession that can tap you into the beating heart of a community. It also means you can wind up on the edge – or in the middle – of a number of risky situations. You may be witnessing a fire, a police standoff, a tornado, even a 500-year-flood that’s swallowing up the roads as you watch.

And once in a while, the risk comes to you instead.

I was one of the lucky ones. Over my career, the worst I ever ran into was occasional harsh words (amidst many kind ones) and one flaming bag of dog poop left on my front porch.  But it can get worse very easily. Newsrooms aren’t high-security areas, and more than one paper can tell stories about the angry reader who got within three feet of a reporter’s desk before anyone knew he or she was there. Those sorts of moments leave you anxious afterward, and watchful.

And sometimes watchful isn’t enough.

The Committee to Protect Journalists publishes a list each year of reporters and media workers around the world who have been killed as they did their jobs. They’ve tracked over 1,800 since 1992, including over 800 murders. Small numbers in a global sense, perhaps, but sobering as you read the names and stories of each, and realize how quickly a situation can turn bad.

Why make the list? Because press freedom is important. Because someone has to be able to tell the stories that a country needs to hear, without fear of reprisal or intimidation.

Don’t get me wrong. I know the press corps isn’t full of Woodward and Bernstein clones. We all know the ones who are superficial, or lazy, or heartless enough to ask “How do you feel?” to someone who’s just lost their family in a hurricane. We know the mudslingers and the loudmouths. Crackerjack reporters are still out there, doing more with less every year, but as in any profession, they often share space with the mediocre and the outright bad.

None of that justifies a blow, or a threat, or a shot in the night.

It’s OK to get angry at the press. I’ve been there myself. It’s all right to be upset with an outlet, or a media chain, or even the entire institution. Sometimes anger is justified, a necessary step in order to bring about change. It’s true of government, so why not of its watchdogs as well?

But when that anger crosses the line into violence, that’s it. The story is over. At that point, you are not my friend, nor any friend to democracy.

It’s been said that politics is based on the conviction that talking is better than fighting. Arguments need not bring warfare, disagreement need not provoke violence. That’s an ideal, of course – our country has seen the process break down into duels, riots, and even civil war – but it’s a vital one to hold.

And once held, it must be defended. Or else the conversation cannot happen at all.

I hope these are isolated incidents. They’re certainly good reminders. No rights are guaranteed; they must be claimed anew each day or they become simply words on paper. Someone will always test the boundaries and the boundaries must hold.

At its best, our country is a Banner achievement.

Don’t let Hulk smash.

Hidden Stories

Not long after Roger Moore passed, a friend sent a clip of him I had never seen before. It had no car chases or amazing gadgets, no beautiful women and hideous henchmen, not even a single utterance of “Bond … James Bond.”

Instead, an older Roger was reciting poetry, his still-charming voice capturing the keenly observant soldier of Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy Atkins”:

 

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;

And it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

And Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!”

 

The poem had always been a favorite of mine. And the time couldn’t be better to bring it back again. Not just because we’re into the Memorial Day holiday, when we remember to remember our own fallen fighters, but because of what it says about ourselves and the stories in our head.

We all have them. Our inner monologues, our lens we see through, the set of expectations that each of us builds from the moment we wake up and fumble toward the shower. It’s not often conscious. In fact, it’s usually a reflex, trained over years, the smooth and invisible way of deciding how to think and what to think about.

And because the assumptions are invisible, we forget they’re assumptions. Or fail to notice when they contradict each other. Or worse, grow toxic.

Sometimes the stories become so compelling, they force themselves into visibility, they have to come out. Sometimes when they do, they add something new and wonderful to the world – a “Star Wars,” say, that enters the world 40 years ago and touches the imagination of millions, teaching them a new way to see.

Other times, the stories that force themselves on the world do so in blood. Smoke rises in Oklahoma City, in New York, in Manchester, carrying panic and pain and death. Why? A thousand reasons and more could be given, but they all start in the human heart and head. No bomber thinks “I’m going to wake up and be evil today,” consciously putting on villainy like Oddjob putting on a hat or Darth Vader donning a mask. Each has internalized a story that seems to justify their anger at the world or a piece of it, to inflame it, to demand retribution.

This is not an excuse. It’s not a call to sympathize with a murderer or make a killer the next guest on “Dr. Phil.” But it does suggest that the problem is one not easily solved with guns and missiles, one that even Kipling’s “thin red line of ‘eroes” would strain to defend against.

We have to look longer and farther and deeper.

Where do stories come from? Any writer would say they come from everywhere. Every piece of day to day life provides another idea, another connection, another piece of fuel. It’s why those who consciously create stories – writers, actors, and more besides – frequently read, frequently experience, frequently get out to learn something new.

Change the seeds, and you change the story.

Step outside the fictional, and it’s still true. Anger and hatred and radicalization can be hardy flowers … but only in a certain soil. A rebuilding Germany had little use for the nascent Nazi party. A desperate Germany was all too susceptible.

Change conditions and you change assumptions. Change assumptions and you change the world.

It will be long. It will be frustrating. It will require constant effort in numerous fields: economics, education, medicine, diplomacy, personal experience and more. And you can’t ignore symptoms while treating causes, so we will still have to defend against and deal with the angry and the evil and the violent.

But down that road waits understanding. And hope. And maybe a greater ability to see past the easy answer.

“We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes,” Kipling wrote, “nor we aren’t no blackguards too/ But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you.”

Remarkable indeed.

So today, let us remember.

Tomorrow, like Tommy, let us see.

Hands of Hope

There’s an exhaustion that threatens to border on despair. I think a lot of us are there now. I know I am.

I’m tired of this.

What else can you be when you see the same situations play themselves out over and over again? New shooters. New victims. New settings, from Colorado Springs to San Bernardino. And exactly the same results.

I’m tired of our communities becoming a roll call of blood.

I’m tied of the wait to learn a killer’s name, tired of the endless gabble and chatter and theorizing when it’s revealed.

I’m tired of the argument that’s become ritual, as we raise the points we know so well. Guns. Mental illness. Terrorism. Rights. Needs. Like a tae kwon do training pattern, we pose and shake the skies, only to end up right back where we started.

To have this happen in a sacred season seems a grim joke. And yet it’s the time we need the reminder more than ever.

Now, most of all, we have to have hope.

It sounds kind of insubstantial, doesn’t it? Of all the virtues that get celebrated coming into Christmas, hope may be the most misunderstood. It doesn’t get the full spotlight that basks over love. It’s not directly celebrated in carol after carol like peace or joy. When it comes up in the season at all, it’s a quick mention, almost glancing:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoicing …

Respite in the midst of exhaustion. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But how?

Let me make one thing clear. This is not optimism. A simple conviction that “Hey, everything’s going to be OK” will burn out fast in the face of everything besieging it. Hope has more than good feelings behind it. Hope is putting your sweat where your dreams are.

Hope is the soldier of World War II who can’t see the end of the conflict, but throws himself into it, convinced that his one life can still make a difference.

Hope is the civil rights worker of the 1950s, for whom the vision of freedom seems impossibly far away, who nonetheless keeps marching and speaking and battling to make it happen a little sooner.

Hope is what keeps the teacher at a classroom. The policeman on a beat. It’s what fuels the best of marriages, the kind that didn’t stop all their energy on the altar but kept pouring it into every passing minute and hour and day.

Hope means work. To paraphrase a favorite writer, once you say that problems can be solved, that better is possible, you have to get off your duff and do something.

That’s what can transform a “weary world.”

Despair is easy. You just sit back, let the world happen, and say “told you so.” Hope can wear you out to the point where it almost breaks you. But it’s also the only thing that gives any of us a fighting chance.

This last year has been a quest for hope in our house. Ever since my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we’ve had a lot to do. There have been medicines to try, work schedules to balance, a life to somehow keep going in the midst of everything. And it’s tempting to just sit down and shout at the heavens “I CAN’T DO IT!”

Sometimes we do. Everyone needs to retreat sometimes. But eventually we keep going. We have to. Or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hope asks a lot. But it’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way to move at all.

Are we ready to try it?

It means more than hand-wringing and pained pronouncements. It requires more than a hashtag and a Facebook post. If we’re going to break the cycle of death, we have to be ready to fix our eyes on a goal and shoulder our piece of the work. It may not be monumental. It may seem hopelessly insignificant. But drops become a flood. And a flood can change landscapes.

Will we? Are we ready at last to take up the burden of hope?

I’m tired of what we’ve got.

Let’s wake our world.