A free press is worth fighting for

By JAMIE PATTERSON,

Although I watched from the safety of my living room hundreds of miles away, the news of the five employees being gunned down and killed at a Maryland newspaper office hit home.

In what police called “a targeted attack,” Jarrod Ramos was arrested and charged with five counts of first-degree murder. The gunman had previously filed an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against the paper and was said to have held a grudge, often resulting in threats leading up to the attack.

Within moments of the shooting, my own mother called me over the phone. She knew I wasn’t in danger in Yazoo City, but I think the constant coverage frightened her to an extent, and she simply wanted to hear my voice.

“Don’t ever think something like this can’t happen,” she said. “Just know that it could happen anywhere.”

The following day as I arrived at work at The Yazoo Herald, I admit that I double checked the lock on the back door. It was perhaps out of fear or maybe in an effort to get myself in the routine of doing it. 

I like to think I have a tough skin. It is a trait that I have developed over the past decade in the news business. When I first began working in the industry, a disgruntled phone call would send me to the restroom in tears.

However, it has almost become the norm to get a cussing, a paper perhaps thrown in your face, a lawsuit threatened over the phone or an awkward confrontation in person. Even here in Yazoo City, I have had a punch thrown at my face and my own children were once threatened. Sure, it caught me off-guard, even got my blood boiling. But I kept my cool while remaining firm in the job I was paid, and destined, to do.

I may not cover Washington politics or drug wars, but my role as a small-town journalist gives me satisfaction. But at moments, it does rattle my bones. I have been at murder scenes. I have heard the cries of pending death at a car crash. I have seen a lot in my line of work. But regardless of the intensity or surprises, I kept my pen moving to give my readers what they deserve. And they deserve the story, the facts and the right to a have free press.

The following day of the Maryland shooting, that brave newspaper office did the same thing we all would do in this business. They put a paper out. They brought the news to its reader base. And as their American flag hung at half-staff, the press kept running and the ink kept flowing.

A statement following the shooting, I think sums it up.

"Journalists covering their own communities are vulnerable to violent attack. This has long been true around the world and the U.S. is sadly no exception," said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We are appalled by these murders. This is a time for everyone who values journalists to stand together and recognize the vital role they play in keeping the public informed."

I can only pray that the shooting doesn’t break the seal for future attacks. It certainly reminded everyone in the business that it could happen anywhere. As journalists, we have to write about drug arrests, court records, government abuses and more. Although we write about Johnny’s touchdown Friday night, we are obligated to write about the drug bust that happened later that night.

And being in a small town, I will see the faces of those who I infuriate from time to time. This is Yazoo. Everybody knows everybody and everything. It’s personal. The Herald staff aren’t people who hide inside skyscraper newspaper offices. We are in the community. 

But the murders at the Maryland newspaper remind us as citizens that free expression and freedom of the press is precious yet vulnerable. 

But personally, and for everyone who gets ink on their hands daily, it is what we signed up for when we grab our pens, turn on our cameras and pound our keyboards. It is not just a job; it’s a calling.

It’s a freedom we are fortunate to have. It’s our First Amendment. And although it is summarized in less than 50 words, it wields a mighty punch.

It’s worth the fight.