Four years ago I sat alone in a newspaper office with a man who had just ruined his life.
The soon-to-be former public figure was out on bail and in a T-shirt and jogging pants. His eyes were blood shot, a few days of stubble covered his face. He held in his hand the newspaper he’d just picked up off our rack.
I knew the man. I’d sat in his office a good number of times. I liked him for the most part. He’d once been chronicled as a hero, saving a kid from a lake.
He said he heard he made the paper as he sat down on the small yellow sofa we had in the office, between me and the door. He started to read.
I knew what he would read on the front page, the story of his actions, the search for him and the fall out. I knew the background story and how his world was dissolving, his struggles with depression, and how he was sometimes a violent man.
I told him I was just doing my job and it gave me no pleasure to write what I did.
And he sat there quiet, reading. And time passed. And I wondered if he still had his standard issue 9 millimeter handgun. I wondered if it was now in his waistband.
After what seemed like an hour he broke the silence.
“I don’t know if it’s front page news,” he said.
I didn’t know whether to laugh at an attempted joke or explain why that story was probably the most newsworthy story I’d written in months.
I told him I thought the article was a heck of a lot more fair than the treatment he got on TV.
“It is what it is,” he said, tossing the read newspaper back on the rack as he walked out.
That would be the last time I’d ever see the man.
I sat in the office for a while, waiting for my hands to stop shaking and my pulse to slow before I reached for the phone.
I thought about that moment this week when a shooter, angry at a newspaper’s previous coverage of his actions seven years prior, murdered four journalists and an advertising rep in Maryland.
Despite recent political rhetoric calling journalists enemies of the state and advocating violence against members of the press, there have been few murdered journalists in recent years, at least when you compare them to teachers or school children.
Still, it’s a profession that often angers people.
I get a screaming call or a message letting me know I’ve ruined someone’s life every few months. Often they’re significant others who are mad at their spouse for something they’ve done that’s made the paper. I once explained to a woman that it wasn’t me who convinced her boyfriend to get drunk, break into an elderly person’s home and commit a sex crime. She was still mad and continued screaming about how he was actually a good man.
Our local criminal activity as well as our criminal justice system is newsworthy and something that deserves robust coverage. You deserve to know what’s going on where you live.
If someone needs to yell at someone and that someone is me, fine, I get it, it comes with the territory and people just need to vent.
I just hope people understand that I’m only doing my job, something another person would do if I wasn’t around. And news stories I write are not personal. They are not an action persecuting a person, but a consequence of a person’s previous actions.
No matter what politicians or disjointed people say, I’m not the enemy. The truth can never be the enemy of any cause that is just.
This week there will be a lot of self-agrandizing columns about the dangers journalists face and how important journalists are and how everyone should thank a journalist. Blah blah blah. Most things are written by people who enter the profession not to conduct journalism but to say “I’m a journalist.”
I don’t want thanks or a hug. I’d simply ask not to be shot while doing my job.
Thinking back on that day alone in my office, I’m thankful that the man I sat with was far better than this week’s mass shooter.
I’m thankful to him that when he later took his life, he just took himself.