Note: I wrote this about a year ago for an assignment. I haven't tried to publish it yet, but given the events in Annapolis, I wanted to share.
In 1989, my father received a phone call from the FBI. His name, Kevin Flynn, had been on the byline of newspaper stories for fifteen years at that point. For the past five years, he had been covering a Denver murder, and uncovering the network of right-wing terrorists behind it. He had been threatened before. When one of his stories exposed an embezzler in New Jersey, my father got a call from the embezzler telling him to back off, or else he might get killed. This threat was different. It came from a confessed killer, with a wide network outside of prison walls. And unlike the earlier threat, my father now had three children. With a phone call, my father found himself a serious target of violence, a threat which hangs over journalists around the world.
Sitting across from my father today, even all these years later, I’m shocked by the casual tone with which he recounts that call from the FBI. “Oh we just want you to know, blah blah blah blah blah, make sure you look under your car before you start it until we let you know it’s okay,” he says with a laugh that’s not entirely forced. He pauses before answering questions and his fingers tug at the graying ends of his moustache. He crosses his legs and stretches his arm across the top of the overstuffed couch. His posture asks me to believe he is as relaxed as he sounds, but the way he knits his eyebrows gives away more complicated feelings.
We talk in the modest suburban home that his career helped pay for. A shock of fear shoots through me as I look around and realize just how easily this could have all fallen apart. How, with a wrong word in a story, we may have been robbed of a parent. For the families of many reporters, though, that fear is a reality.
The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks not just the murders of reporters around the world, but physical assaults, threats, and arrests. Their database only goes back to 1992, but in that twenty-five-year span, seven journalists have been the victims of targeted killings in the United States. The worldwide total in that time is 1,246 journalists murdered, 18 of those so far this year. They are killed for a range of reasons. Many, like David Gilkey and Zabibullah Tamanna of National Public Radio, get caught in crossfire while reporting from war zones*. The vast majority of the victims are reporters native to the regions they cover, and they don’t receive much attention from Western media. Deaths in war zones are the most common among journalists, and Afghanistan and Iraq are two of the three most dangerous countries on Earth. The third of those is Mexico, where journalists are targeted for intimidation and revenge. These are the most common motivations in the United States. They’re the kind that robbed seven families of loved ones in twenty-five years. The kind that my father found himself targeted for in 1989.
I had always romanticized my father’s work. There’s a cultural image of the journalist as a roguish figure. The person willing to probe, antagonize, and follow a story down any alley. When you walk through a newsroom, though, you see the people who actually produce the stories. They work at desks decorated with family photos and favorite clippings, and the mental wall which separates “reporter” from “person” dissolves. They still chase stories where they may lead, they still prod and provoke, but they’re not invincible paragons. They’re people like Chauncey Bailey, from the Oakland Post. He was killed in 2007 while investigating a local organized crime network. He and his ex-wife had one child.
As I listen to my father talk about his career, I struggle with my admiration of the profession. I applaud journalists for their doggedness, but I wonder how I would feel about that if the worst had happened. Would part of me wonder why he couldn’t have backed off? As it is, I grew up perceiving the threats faced by journalists as a distant, almost abstract phenomenon. I only began to grasp the danger inherent in the profession as I got older. “The things that journalists write can be not only embarrassing to people, but embarrassing enough that they get angry and hostile and want to lash out,” my father explained when we sat down together. He had thirty-five years on the job in order to come to terms with that. As children, we were kept isolated from that as much as possible. I reached my sister by phone after I interviewed my father, and she said that as a child always had the idea that our father chased criminals. We loved seeing his name in the paper. So when I told her the full extent of the threat made against him, she was surprised enough to shout, “Holy fuck!” It made her reexamine the way we celebrated the book he co-wrote about the case that put his life in danger.
In 1984, radio talk-show host Alan Berg was murdered in the driveway of his home just off Colfax Avenue. My father was one of the reporters on the scene and, based on a tip from a Denver police officer, quickly started investigating a man named David Lane as a suspect. Lane had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and was currently part of a racist terrorist group called The Order. Lane frequently called into Berg’s radio show to argue with and provoke the outspoken Jewish radio host. Berg wasn’t a journalist, but he was a media figure who worked closely with reporters. The newsroom of the Rocky Mountain News reacted as though, “a kindred spirit,” had been killed, according to my father. The members of The Order were arrested a few months later. Soon after, my father and his partner, Gary Gerhardt were tipped off that Lane had made a proffer to the prosecuting attorney in order to avoid the death penalty. After they published the story, Lane was furious and terrified that the story would brand him as a snitch. He placed several calls from his jail cell saying he wanted someone to plant a bomb under my dad’s car. This was after my father and Gerhardt conducted several in-person and telephone interviews with David Lane, the man who wanted them dead.
This happened in 1989. If it happened ten years later, anyone could have pulled our family’s address from an internet search. Everyone’s information is more accessible than ever, journalists aren’t alone in this. On top of this, the proliferation of fringe media allows people to cherry-pick news that appeals to their pre-existing beliefs. This leads to a distrust of journalists, especially if they occupy any part on the ideological spectrum other than one’s own. A recent poll conducted by National Public Radio found that 68% of Americans trust the media either, “Not very much,” or “Not at all.” That same poll also found that 24% of Americans feel that freedom of the press has been expanded too much. Two days before I interviewed my father, the President of the United States posted a video on Twitter which depicted himself body-slamming a person with the CNN logo superimposed over their face. In May of this year, then-congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, after Jacobs asked him a question. The next day, Gianforte won his election.
It’s often difficult, legally speaking, to determine when someone is inciting violence. In a courtroom, one must prove intent, and deniability is the tool used by generations of inciters to protect themselves. Looking around though, the intentional delegitimizing of the news media is clear and troubling. The mass of that 68% of Americans who distrust the media would likely never consider committing an act of violence against a journalist. It’s worrying to think, though, of those individuals who are already on the edge and just how small of a push they may need into threats, intimidation, or outright violence.
Every day for months, before he drove anywhere, my father got on his hands and knees and checked the underside of our family’s brown Toyota Corolla. I assume the FBI told him when it was safe to stop checking, but it’s also possible he came to that conclusion himself. As far as we know, our whole family remains on a Ku Klux Klan hit list, a fact which we’ve come to regard as a morbid joke. David Lane remained in the federal prison in Florence, Colorado until his death in 2007. My father recounts those months under threat as the scariest, most imminent danger he faced over the length of his career. Even still, he says he considers the environment today worse than ever before. He still stands by his dogged journalistic principle that the truth is the truth and deserves to be known. “Water is still wet, no matter how many people say it isn’t,” he tells me. But he also has said repeatedly that, if given the choice, he would not go back to working as a journalist anymore.
Before I leave his house, I ask the question that has been at the back of my mind since our interview began, “what precautions did you take to protect the family?” I don’t ask it to make him feel bad, or because I think he left us vulnerable in any way. Rather, not knowing what was happening at the time, I wanted a full picture of the events. When I ask, he hesitates for the first time in our hour-long conversation. He stares somewhere far off and finally answers, “I guess I could have done more.” I never suspected we were close to real danger, I don’t think he did either. But for a few seconds, we realize our luck that we avoided the path thousands of families have been forced down.
*Since the original writing, new reporting has emerged which shows the killing of Gilkey and Tamanna was targeted. See the link.