Rage against “the media” is a common form of expression among people who have the same difficulty in differentiating between “fake news” and “factual stuff they don’t like” as they do “their ass” and “a hole in the ground.”
One of the things that many people forget is that “the media” is actually full of real people who go to work every day. Moms and dads. Sons and daughters. Friends, loved ones and more.
For these people, and those people who care about them, hatred of the media is not an abstract concept. The anger they face is palpable. The threats they receive cause fear. As we noted a while back, we all feel the pain when a journalist is attacked or a newsroom is the site of a shooting.
And all of this takes its toll.
Lori Bentley Law, a broadcast journalist at KNBC, wrote a piece that Poynter featured, titled, “Taking the Leap: Why I’m leaving TV news after 24 years.” Of all the things she mentioned, this one stuck with me:
I’m a happy, positive, optimistic person. I don’t want to be immersed in sadness every day. I don’t ever again want a cute little girl in pigtails to look up at me and say, “We hate you.” I don’t want to hear “Fake News” shouted at me anymore. Or to be flipped off while driving my news van. Or worse yet, to have the passenger in the vehicle pacing me hang their naked butt out the window and defecate. Yes. That happened.
(Law posted her original piece and made her decision even before CNN received a pipe bomb, one of at least a dozen explosive devices sent through the mail to people and organizations throughout the country. Then people like this emerged:)
(Yet one more moment where I think, “What the hell is wrong with people?”)
I often tell my students stories of how I had been called a “vulture” and a “scumbag” and worse. I remember one person who told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right!” Another one, for some reason, told me that he was “gonna get my cousin and we’ll be over to take care of this.” I forget why he was so upset, and I still have no idea why the guy was getting his cousin, but I doubt his relative was a conflict counselor.
The other screaming fits kind of blur into a mess of random anger. Occasionally, I was fearful when I went to shootings or other things and people would tell me to “get the (expletive) out” of their neighborhood. However, most of the time, I was covering late-night crime, so the presence of the police tended to make me feel a bit safer.
In this age of the media being dubbed “the enemy of the American people,” I wondered how bad things are now or what others had faced during their time in the field. I asked the hivemind for any recollections they had of incidents involving angry people, threats or worse.
These are their stories:
The local crank is a constant job hazard for journalists. Between the conspiracy theories related to the clues in the crossword and the allegations of biased coverage of the local dog show, some people have a lot of issues to work through. One former student encountered a particularly virulent crank with some serious issues:
At a small-town newspaper in Ohio we had a guy who would get mad about articles we wrote, photocopy pages of our newspaper, write profanity on the copies then mail them to us…
My boss actually got a restraining order against the guy because he was stalking her. He liked to slowly drive past her house and glare at her and her family. Following some court hearings and visits by the police, the letters stopped coming, but he’d still curse at me when he saw me covering an event. When I knew he was around I sometimes would have a recorder ready to go so I could record him if he ever threatened me.
This went on for about seven-and-a-half years, beginning in 2010, until the guy died earlier this year.
That same guy also sent an email to our web editor once requesting a full body photo of a high school volleyball player, which was pretty creepy. He loved going to high school sporting events, especially high school girls games.
According to my boss, a teenage girl from another school also had a restraining order against the guy. He apparently printed photos of the girl, action shots from sports and senior portraits, and mailed them to her, requesting she autograph them and send them back to him.
Aside from the generally creepy people, journalists tend to take the most abuse from people who feel they’ve been unfair. A media instructor who covered local politics shared the kind of story people have seen an unfortunate amount lately:
I was threatened by a political candidate a few years ago while working at our local paper. I called him to get his reaction to losing the election, and one of his supporters answered the phone pretending to be the winning opponent. It was obnoxious. I told one of our editors what had happened, and he took to Twitter. The losing candidate called me the next day threatening me (I took it as a physical threat) and promising to exclude me from any news tips he might have — and he had a lot, he claimed.
In some cases, it’s not even the topic of a story who gets angry with the media. A general assignment and sports reporter once came face to face with the family members of a man convicted of a crime:
Closest call came when friends of a defendant charged with killing his friend in a drunk driving crash recognized me one night while I was out with friends watching a band … started with stares, then to whispers and pointing, then to getting in my face to confront me … luckily, had more friends than they did so the issue was quickly calmed down.
A good friend of mine who broke the news of a “Spotlight” -like molestation scandal in the Chicagoland area found herself targeted by the leaders of her own faith:
Torrents of abuse while covering the Catholic Church sex scandal, including being screamed at by a nun (who was basing her rage on being lied to by her bishop, who she probably couldn’t yell at, so) and the now-deceased Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago once shouted at me that a story was unfair in front of an entire congregation.
She also found herself threatened physically for criticizing another “holy man” in the paper:
Our newsroom in Elgin got shot at (we never knew if it was deliberate or just that we worked in a gang territory in dispute). I wrote something semi-critical of Saint Ronald Reagan after he died and a guy called my editor and threatened to kick HIS ass once he was done with mine.
Being blamed for the problems of others is common in the media. I remember once telling a woman on the phone who called to scream at me about a story, “Ma’am, it’s not my fault your son was involved in a shoot out at a Taco Bell Drive Thru.”
Usually, it’s just someone screaming on the phone about a DUI report or something, but for a former student of mine, the “blame game” was much worse:
I covered the lengthy trial of a dermatologist who was accused by about 16 women of abusing his position to sexually assault them. It was already going to be a high-profile case because he was a doctor, one of the most sacred positions of trust. Every time I’ve covered a courts story involving a physician there’s been hordes of satisfied patients who come out of the woodwork to blame the messenger (me, or the media in general) — I’m assuming because that’s easier than acknowledging you put complete trust in someone who is flawed.
Anyway, this trial went to a whole other level of crazy after the doctor alleged he was being unfairly targeted because he previously had a one-night-stand with the female district attorney (she adamantly denied it), and that she was trying to put him behind bars only because she was a spurned ex-lover. The trial, unsurprisingly with so many accusers, didn’t go his way. And on the last day his adult son walked out onto the freeway and stepped in front of a semi-truck to commit suicide…
In a newsletter to the hundreds of patients still supporting him, which he forwarded to other media outlets, he singled me out as causing his son to commit suicide. The case ended up lingering over more than a year as he appealed, and he repeated the accusation over and over again over that time.
It would have bothered me if it wasn’t so batshit crazy. But then again that was nearly 10 years ago and I’m still thinking about it, so maybe he did deliver a few blows to my reporter psyche.
A publisher of a Midwestern paper, who also teaches courses in journalism, said she received blame after covering a football coach and his abuse of players:
I was working as a sports editor at a small market newspaper in the early 2000s. I had to be escorted to and from the office by law enforcement for almost a month after a coach threatened my life following stories I wrote about him assaulting players in the locker room after a tough loss. I was outside the locker room and heard it happening and got it on tape and many of his players came forward and went on record. He was fired and of course, it was all my fault.
That journalist also received some sexist and violent threats more recently:
Last year, I had the mayor of the town I own the newspaper in call my husband and scream at him to “manage his bitch of a wife.” I published a story with his quotes about how the city was knowingly dumping raw sewage into a local creek. Later… our farm (was) vandalized.
People can clearly get angry when you report things they don’t want you to cover. A good friend said he once found himself almost being a punching bag for an angry young man whose house had caught fire:
One time in the early to mid-2000s, I was covering a house fire, and the teenage/young adult son of a man presumed to be inside got right in my face and threatened to beat the daylights out of me (pretty sure that’s not the phrasing he used) because I had no business being there. Turns out the dad was fine, and I’m sure the kid was upset because he thought his dad was dead, but I really felt like I was a millisecond away from taking a right cross to the head.
And that wasn’t even the scariest situation in which he found himself:
There was a period of time when I slept with a baseball bat under my bed, and I remember that was directly connected to some kind of threat I received while on the cop beat — but I really don’t remember exactly what it was. Kind of funny that this sort of thing happens regularly enough that I can’t even recall why I was sleeping with a defensive weapon nearby …
Of all the stories shared among the hivemind, this one was the most terrifying. A journalist recalled an incident that happened to him as a student editor at his college newspaper. A reporter began looking into what he thought was a fairly pedestrian story about a professor. The professor didn’t like the story idea and posted a screed on a website, which led to the whole story blowing up on a national level:
A fan of the professor’s work (unaffiliated with the university as far as I can tell) started sending death threats via Twitter and Facebook to me, some of which was wildly anti-Semitic.
I frankly didn’t know about them until after Public Safety contacted me to warn me about the posts. After months of online harassment and my multiple meetings by phone or in person with law enforcement, he showed up on campus one day looking for me.
He even found and entered the school newspaper office, but luckily I was in class across campus at the time. Public Safety at the school detained him, interrogated him and told him to never return.
I’ve never heard from him since.