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Policinski: Threats of murder, injury are not ‘politics’ – nor patriotism

Let’s put this as simply as possible.

Patriotism does not involve threatening others with injury or death, no matter how dire you believe the results of voting on Nov. 8 will be for you or your fellow citizens.

Sending such notes or leaving such telephone messages for reporters, editorial writers, television correspondents or newspaper publishers is not defiant bravery. Death threats are unhinged criminal acts that debase the very notion of a democratic republic on which the United States was founded.

The essential nature of self-governance is the free, vigorous and partisan exchange of views over policies and practices in the public interests, with the debate settled by an election — until the next one. The self-corrective process of this ongoing debate and its value to our collective future is why we constitutionally protect “political speech” above all other kinds of free expression.

The presidential election of 2016 has had among its tawdry lowlights an unseemly, unwarranted series of attacks on individual journalists, unsubstantiated claims of a national media conspiracy and outright and direct threats to the very concept of a free and independent press.

Even for an era in which clear majorities of our fellow citizens express doubt about the objectivity of the press — 70 percent, in the 2016 “State of the First Amendment” survey by the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute — the scathing attacks are remarkable.

A principle actor in this election year‘s “Journo-drama” is GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump — from mocking a handicapped reporter, to scornful or vulgar references to debate moderators, to banning entire newspapers or online news operations from his campaign.

But it’s a mistake to stop with Trump — or credit him too much with creating this dangerous effort to demonize the role of a free press — just as it would be to either dismiss or just hunker down and ignore the hollow abuse. Threats against journalists have stained our nation’s history from its beginning.

But we live in the here and now. A powerful defense of the role of a free press has come from Mi-Ai Parrish, president of the Arizona Republic and Republic Media, who recounted the disgusting reactions to the newspaper’s decision to endorse a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, for president, for the first time in its 126-year history.

Parrish began by noting, “As someone who has spent a career in the business of words, it’s unusual to find myself speechless. … What is the correct response, really, to this? YOU’RE DEAD. WATCH YOUR BACK. WE WILL BURN YOU DOWN. YOU SHOULD BE PUT IN FRONT OF A FIRING SQUAD AS A TRAITOR.”

In vignettes, Parrish named fellow staffers — including a young woman who took one threatening call and later walked to church to pray for the caller — and briefly provided stories that chastised the cowardly callers but also explained in real terms the how and why the paper’s decision came about.

Parrish responded to the idiots who attacked her religious faith, her ethnicity and her professional standards by systematically providing very personal glimpses of her family — with photos — and the multiple ways in which they upheld the best of our culture and core freedoms, an effort she and her colleagues also exemplify.

She wrote of the over-the-top, deplorable treatment of those associated with the newspaper with the least ability to defend themselves: “To those of you who have spit on, threatened with violence, screamed at and bullied the young people going door-to-door selling subscriptions, I give you those dozens of young men and women themselves. Many sell subscriptions to work their way through school. Most were too frightened to share even their first names here. But they are still on the job. They know that free speech is part of a society that values hard work and equal opportunity.”

Really — what high principles or misplaced fervor lead you to spit on youngsters? Shameful.

Parrish wrote that some callers “invoked the name of Don Bolles — he’s the Republic reporter who was assassinated by a car bomb 40 years ago — and threatened that more of our reporters would be blown up because of the endorsement.”

Visitors to the Newseum in downtown Washington, D.C., where I work, can see Bolles’s car — a plain, compact sedan — and peer inside to see the metal floor twisted and torn by a bomb planted by local organized crime figures who hoped to derail Bolles’s investigative reporting.

I should note that those thugs failed then — reporters flocked to Arizona to continue his work — and that those who decry journalism today either ignore or are ignorant of the real job that journalists do. Parrish cited one in detail — an expose of failings in medical care provided by the Veterans Administration.

The nation has experienced such reprehensible threats to a free press before, and more than once. The Sedition Act of 1798 empowered officials to jail journalists critical of the president and Congress, enacted a bare seven years after the Bill of Rights established the First Amendment, a law that faded away nearly as fast as the supposed concerns over war with France. In 1812, a pro-war mob stormed a Baltimore newspaper. Violence dogged those editors who opposed slavery, defended ethnic groups or supported immigrants.

Journalists reporting on the civil rights movement were threatened — and sometimes subjected to physical attacks — by racist mobs in the 1950s and ’60s. Visitors to the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial need only see the thousands represented there to appreciate that threats all too many times became deathly reality.

No professional journalists expect news consumers to genuflect or simply accept when presented with the news or opinion that a free press provides. But all of us should reject in the strongest possible way any acceptance or endorsement of the idea that the response to news or opinion can justify violence or worse.

While not aimed at journalists, the same condemnation goes to those who damaged a Trump campaign office in North Carolina. That’s arson, not an answer.

And to those despicable folks who would threaten journalists or others in this or any other campaign season — you’re not “patriots.” You’re just common criminals.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac

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