About News

Execute Journalists? Don’t Think It Hasn’t Happened

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

President Trump’s reported statement that journalists who publish leaked information should be “executed” is a more explicit and heinous extension of his repeated “enemy of the people” trope. It’s so far beyond the pale that the only necessary reaction is ridicule, then dismissal as nothing more than Trump venting berserkly in private*.

Except for the fact that it has happened.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that in the past 18 months, 14 journalists around the world have been murdered because they were journalists. UNESCO reports some that CPJ does not, including one as recently as this month. Some of the assassinations have suspected ties to government officials, others to political or criminal groups. The highest-profile execution tied to government orders in recent years was that of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018. Journalist killings are especially frequent in Mexico and Russia.

But this does not happen in the United States. Except for the fact that it does. Just some of the cases worth remembering:

In June 2018, a man angry over stories published about him entered the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and shot five newsroom employees to death.

In June 1984, white supremacists used automatic weapons to kill Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg in the driveway of his home. Berg’s liberal views had incensed the group.

Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles died after a man detonated dynamite planted under Bolles’ car in June 1976. Court testimony connected the man to a prominent Arizona businessman who had been the subject of several investigative articles by Bolles. At the time of the car bomb, Bolles was working on a story about prominent people with ties to organized crime. After the killing, Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) and other journalists from around the country formed a team to successfully finish the reporting that Bolles had started. IRE, which now gives an annual investigative award named for Bolles, explained the point of the collaboration: “Even if you kill a reporter, you can’t kill the story.”

In August 2007, an assailant shot and killed Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland, California, Post, as he walked to his office. The hit man worked for a fringe Black Muslim group that Bailey was investigating. My friend and former colleague Mike Oliver knew Bailey from their time together at the Oakland Tribune. Oliver served as regional editor for the Tribune and other Bay Area publications. Bailey moved from the Tribune to the Post just months before he was killed.

“It was shocking,” said Oliver, now a senior managing producer and columnist for the Alabama Media Group. “One of the worst things you can think of as a journalist is being confronted by an angry source with a shotgun.” The suspect group made death threats to other journalists. The Tribune hired police officers as constant security. “It was a little bit scary,” Oliver recalled. “It was a reminder that people (were) out to hurt us.”

The journalistic response from Bay Area journalists was much like that which followed the Bolles killing: More coverage, not less. Staff from different organizations created The Chauncey Bailey Project, which uncovered details about the assassination and the criminal activities of the Black Muslim group. “Reporters went out to have justice brought forth,” Oliver said.

Look, outrageous statements by Donald Trump are not going to cause a spate of journalist killings. What’s troublesome, though, is that such sentiments from the president create a climate hostile to the news media – not like those in some countries where journalists are assassination targets, but a climate in which journalists are more frequently physically assaulted, or verbally abused, or threatened with harm, or arrested, or sued in court, or denied access to information. Indeed, that’s where we are now.

*Footnote: Trump is not alone. In a private, taped conversation in 1971 about obstacles to winning the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon suggested to “kill all the reporters.” In 1972, his aides actually discussed possibly killing a particularly troublesome investigative reporter.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.