Column: Personal and political

FreedomofThePress

Work long enough in journalism and odds are you’ll get to know a Jarrod Ramos, the man who killed five staffers of the Annapolis, Maryland Capital Gazette in their newsroom on June 28.

It’s a sign of the times that until that day, our Jarrods never took their threats to the ultimate, murderous conclusion.

I met my Jarrod over the telephone one spring morning some years ago when I was working at a start-up paper. In the newsroom early to crank out a story on deadline, I got a call from a Suffolk County cop I knew saying there had been a two-car crash during the wee hours that killed a 20-year-old man.

No alcohol or drugs were involved, he said. It was no one’s fault, he added, and gave me a name.

I found it in the phone book. A man answered with a shout and I immediately identified myself and asked if he was related to the young man.

“My son,” he said. I could hear air being expelled from his lungs in one long groan as he repeated, “My son.”

I expressed my condolences and asked if he would speak to me on the record.

“Yeah,” he said. “You guys do a good job. But not those [expletive] from Newsday. They’re on my lawn!”

I told him to call the police.

“I’ve been talking to the cops since two o’clock this morning,” he said “I don’t want to talk to cops any more.”

His son was a lover of cars, he said, since he was small, had a good job in a garage, was sweet natured and had never been in trouble. In a whisper: “I’ve been crying all night and all morning. I don’t have any more tears right now … but I will.”

I went to the garage where the young guy had worked and spoke to his boss, who said he was one the best employees he’d ever had. Two of his friends also spoke with me.

Our story ran on Page One the next day, a bouquet to a fine young man who left his family and community in mourning.

At 10 a.m. I got a call from the father — screaming. “You better get a crash helmet” was the least violent thing I could decode from the ear-bleeding volume of his voice. “How could you say I had no tears for my son? When I’m finished with you …” On and on until I hung up.

Half an hour later he was in the newsroom, a short, brawny guy pointing at me, yelling obscenities. Greg Zeller, our editor, stood between us as our sportswriter, Mike Gasparino, was calling the police.

Slamming the door, the father ran out into the parking lot. The police showed up and took statements. Later that day we were told they had spoken to him and told him to stay clear of us.

Insane with grief? Possibly. But then a few years later I heard he showed up at another newspaper, raving, until he was convinced to get out before he was taken away in handcuffs.

Since then, he’s been wonderful in his silence and absence.

But as I said, the times have changed. My man’s problem was a personal thing. Jarrod Ramos’ murders in Maryland can also be characterized that way. But some overexcited supporters of certain politicians, including President Trump, don’t need it to be personal, since any reporter will do.

Almost daily, the president tells us that the free press is “the enemy of the people,” “disgusting,” “dishonest” and “scum.” Many Trump supporters scoff at people who take these statements seriously. It’s only entertaining rhetoric, they say, it doesn’t mean anything, the only ones upset at constant attacks on the First Amendment are liberal snowflakes. (Which reminds me of our columnist, Robert Lipsyte, who once identified himself in this space as “a snowball. With a rock inside.”)

Part of the show at Mr. Trump’s rallies is pointing to journalists separated into corrals as he defames them. Many reporters have written about revved-up Trump supporters physically threatening them, face-to-face.

Remember the candidate for Congress in Montana who body slammed a reporter to the ground for asking a question? That wasn’t an isolated incident. The Freedom of the Press Foundation has led a project tracking abuses inflicted on journalists. In the last six months of 2017 it found 125 “press freedom incidents,” from the manly Montana man’s attack to other acts such as being arrested, jailed, assaulted and harassed.

This was on display at a recent Smithtown rally for Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), as reported by our Karl Grossman last week (“First Amendment violated in Suffolk County”). Some yahoos who showed up to cheer speaker Sebastian Gorka — a reactionary crackpot and presidential adviser until he became too shameless even for the Trump White House — hounded members of the working press and smacked down a photographer’s camera. After the abuse, two credentialed journalists were ejected from the rally.

The congressman later apologized and asserted his fervent commitment to the First Amendment.

Why do people attack freedom of the press? Easy.

Because they’re encouraged every day to do it.

And they think they can get away with it.

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