The warning, over a telephone line in the early 1980s, was loud and clear: “You better watch your back next time you’re in this city!”
The caller wasn’t an angry councilmember.
Nor was it a businessman accused of fraud.
And, neither was it a high school coach blowing off some steam over perceived more favorable reporting of a rival team.
In this instance, the warning – which could easily have been construed as a threat – came from the police chief of rural city in Stanislaus County.
A report on a police shooting death of a young Latino male holding a knife as he lunged at police officers. Family members and neighbors hotly disputed, in Spanish, the official police report at a time when cellphone video would have come in handy.
After hearing from family members, calls were placed to the police department for comment.
Messages were left.
No calls were returned.
The story ran with a “police could not be reached for comment” disclaimer.
The phone did ring the day the story was published in The Modesto Bee. Boy, the police chief was not happy even when it was explained the reporter went out of his way to get a comment from a police official.
At the time, I never thought the police chief was serious.
I joked with friends that maybe I should run a 10k race scheduled that weekend with a big target sign painted on the back of my race shirt.
The police chief’s warning was ignored. The 10K was run. No incident.
That episode wandered into my mind following the June 29 shooting deaths of five workers at The Annapolis Capital Gazette.
Four of them were journalists: editor Robert Hiaasen, editorial writer Gerald Fischman, reporter Wendi Winters, and, reporter/editor John McNamara. A sales assistant, Rebecca Smith, was also killed by a lone gunman unhappy with an article the 134-year-old, Maryland daily.
Last Thursday, a moment of silence was held inside The Fresno Bee newsroom – and other newspaper offices throughout the country – for these journalists who were killed just because they were doing their work. Even though local journalists didn’t know them personally, we knew the victims were just like any other reporter obsessed with informing the public about what is going on in their communities.
A few hours later, President Donald J. Trump continued his attack on the news media during a campaign stop in Montana. He called journalists “really bad people.”
“I see the way they write. They’re so damn dishonest,” the president said. “And I don’t mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75 percent of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They’re fake. They’re fake.
“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he continued. “These are really bad people.”
First of all, I don’t know of any dishonest journalists. Those who have made up quotes or people have been bounced from the industry, at least the print part of it. Just do a search for Julie Amperano (using fake quotes from fake people) or Janet Cook (plagiarism). Neither Amparano, whom I met when she interned at The Modesto Bee, nor Cooke are journalists today.
I would find it impossible to identify the 75 percent of journalists, as Trump claims, who are “downright dishonest.”
I’m not connecting Trump’s previous attacks against the media with the Annapolis shooting, but it sure has a way of inciting folks to feel it’s open season on journalists.
In my four decades in the business, I have been slammed against a locker by an irate high school basketball coach, intimidated in a gang-infested park in Stockton, and, chased out of a Mexican American Political Association meeting.
Yet, I have probably used less than a handful of unidentified sources and have made up zero quotes. But, mistakes do happen. As journalists, we own them and correct them, whether it’s the spelling of a person’s name, a quote that didn’t come out right or a figure that was incorrect.
In today’s environment, I’m fortunate to work as a journalist with Second Amendment rights.
Sadly, there is nothing you learn in journalism school about how to deal with threats on your life just because you happen to choose a profession that asks a lot of questions and shines a light perhaps a bit too bright for those who prefer to do their bad work in the dark.
We will keep writing those stories that might make some people uncomfortable.
Juan Esparza Loera has been editor of Vida en el Valle since it first published in August 1990. Send comments, questions or suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org