In the wake of the January attack against the staff of French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and the attack during the “Art, Blasphemy and the Freedom of Expression” event at a café in Copenhagen, Denmark in February, I have been pondering security measures for journalists and have begun to recall a few incidents that have left me wondering. Although none of these memories involve fully realized threats, I can’t help but run through possible scenarios and wonder “what if?”
The most chilling recollection involves a well-known community member and family man in the Point Loma area of San Diego. I remember one warm day we had the door open to our newsroom when I looked up in disbelief. There was a man standing behind me, picking up one of our old computers that we were storing on a spare table. I was not used to people appearing in the newsroom unannounced. Startled, I jumped up to ask him what he was doing. I hadn’t noticed, but our publisher was in the other doorway and he explained that the man was there to take our old computers for the local school’s recycling program. I let it go then, but I later let it be known to our publisher that I was concerned about people popping into our room without notice and that I was often worried about the security of our staff. I really had no reason to worry about any particular threats at that time, but I still worried. My publisher quickly dismissed my concern and waived me away.
Just a few weeks later I was happily on my way into nearby Ocean Beach to pick up a large order of food for a lunchtime office celebration when I heard sirens. As I was crossing the bridge, I had to pull over to let one, two, three, a few dozen police cars zoom past. I was forced to turn and became stuck in the resulting traffic jam, so I notified my staff that something serious was up and asked that they check into it and dispatch a photographer once they determined the exact location of the incident. When I returned to the newsroom I was met with horrifying news. A man, angry that his divorce was going badly, shot his son as he was practicing with the high school cross country team. He waited behind a parked van along the route the team normally took, jumped out when they came along, and shot his son dead. No others were injured, but now the suspect was holed up in a neighbor’s house, surrounded by police. The father eventually surrendered, but somehow committed suicide while in custody. That man was the same guy who had appeared behind my chair in the newsroom to pick up our old computers a few weeks earlier.
That tragic and heartbreaking shooting incident made me recall an old rumor about a small town publisher who had received threats from a disgruntled reader. The publisher took the threats seriously enough to have a steel plate installed along the high back of his office chair to deflect bullets in case a gunman were to sneak into his office. A few years passed and the publisher forgot about the threat until one day when that same disgruntled reader barged into his office and shot him dead from the front.
Then I recalled the time I was running a small weekly paper in my small hometown. I was paying my freelance writers all of 25 cents a column inch for their published articles. Every week I would get out my pica pole and use the inch side to measure each writer’s column inches. Yes, 25 cents per column inch.
Still, I managed to get plenty of wannabe journalists who would dedicate hours to cover events, research assignments and write their articles for that week’s issue. One such writer was a middle-aged housewife who was plenty dedicated to writing her assigned feature stories. She lasted about a year, then faded way. I lost track of her until one day when I heard nearby sirens. I couldn’t immediately figure out what all the fuss was about until someone came into the office and told me a woman, going through her divorce, walked into the office of her husband’s attorney and shot the man. Sure enough, the police report confirmed that this was indeed the case. Yes, the suspect was the same middle-aged housewife who had written so many freelance features for me just a few months earlier.
It turns out that the mother of one of my friends was the attorney’s secretary, and witnessed the attack. She was plenty upset, as you can imagine. She described the woman as being very calm as she entered the office. The woman expressed her displeasure about the outcome of her divorce as she insisted on entering the victim’s room, then firing shots from a gun she had hidden in her purse.
I decided to improve my screening process for accepting freelancers after that.
As a young editor, it didn’t take me long to create and spread an office policy prohibiting the release of any reporter’s phone number to the public. This came about after a couple of women reporters complained that our receptionists gave out their numbers, and the writers were receiving bothersome phone calls at home. I was extremely concerned, and have stressed this policy everywhere I have worked since.
Years later, when I had moved to San Diego and was employed at a community newspaper group, I was happy to be working and living near the beach. Apparently the city’s destitute and often mentally disturbed homeless population was also attracted to the area’s great climate and beaches. I remember numerous occasions when they would visit our office to discuss current events. Many of these discussions would deteriorate into senseless, incomprehensible ramblings, accented by lots of yelling. In such cases I would often be called to the reception area to lead the visitor outside, and sometimes needed to look them in the eye assertively to ensure that they would follow me. I never had a real problem, but things could have gone badly on many occasions.
None of the homeless ever accosted me when I strolled to my car, but there was a local woman who ran a used furniture store and cornered me as I headed toward my ride one evening. This woman’s sudden appearance shocked me, especially since she projected an air of mental instability, and she was angry. She disagreed with the way we covered a particular issue, and she took this occasion to voice her discontent. The conversation escalated into a shouting match as I broke away to scramble toward my car. This is the same woman who once called our office to announce she would be holding a community meeting in her store and that Janet Reno would be in attendance. It’s no surprise that such a meeting never materialized and the then-attorney general was nowhere to be found.
None of the publications I edited had security personnel on the grounds at the particular locations where I worked, but the San Diego Union-Tribune had all kinds of security at its main headquarters location. The public entrance had a receptionist desk in addition to a fully staffed security desk. Other than these employees, there were no Union-Tribune employees visible in this huge, dark, ground level reception area. There was even a guard at the parking lot entrance. Initially, I was amazed at the security efforts and wondered what kind of incidents could have prompted the company to take such cold and drastic measures. Who did they anger, and how did they do it?
Years later, as an employee, I would walk into The Union-Tribune’s guarded side entrance and learned to slide my ID card through a slot in the turnstile as I would wave and say hello to the security guard inside. Then I would wait at the elevator to take the short ride to the third floor with a bunch of company employees I hardly knew. It always made me feel a little strange, as if I were getting away with something, sneaking into this closely-guard lair. I was afraid that I would crack at any moment and start running through the halls yelling, “Ha! I’m in! I’m in!” as the guards tackle me to the floor.
In contrast, I recall wondering why the Orange County Register didn’t seem to have much security on its first floor entrance during a visit in the mid-1990s. I walked in, stopped at the reception desk, and scanned around and above to see stairs clearly accessing the upper floor. Nothing between me and the Register’s employees but a few steps.
A few years earlier, while representing a smaller newspaper, I once made a quip about The Union-Tribune’s security while appearing on a media panel for the organizations in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The purpose of the event was to inform them how best to contact the local media when attempting to publicize their activities. An arts writer from the Union-Tribune explained that a publicist could enter their office, stop at the reception desk and possibly proceed to the appropriate editor, if invited, once they were cleared by security. Then it was my turn, and I remarked that my newspaper didn’t have any security, so anyone could just come right in and talk to us. The flippant comment drew laughter from those in the audience, and a glare from the Union-Tribune guy.
That remark wasn’t so funny a few years later when I was working as an editor for one of The Union-Tribune’s papers in a satellite office. I arrived home one night when I received a call from my executive editor that our Saturday evening crew was safe but terrified after someone outside hurled a huge rock through our front office door around 7:30 p.m. Everyone on the staff thought it was a gunshot and they all hit the floor. Someone turned off the lights and they crawled to a side exit. A pickup truck was spotted tearing out of the parking lot. The back two-thirds of our building housed a distribution center, and days later — after reviewing security camera footage — it was determined that the culprit was a disgruntled newspaper carrier.
There were two occasions during my career in which staff members arrived at work to learn that computers had been stolen. In both instances the equipment had been taken from the production department. The thing that made these crimes more eerie is that no forced entrance was evident; the computers were likely taken by employees who had keys to the office.
There are those occasions in which disgruntled employees become a real concern. Hopefully, these are rare occasions. I remember a time when my publisher asked me to accompany him into a meeting in which he intended to fire a particular ad salesman. The ad rep was a muscular guy and he had been displaying erratic behavior, including what we perceived as unusually aggressive actions toward another salesman. We were concerned how the employee was going to react to the news of his termination and, as we walked toward the meeting room, my publisher quickly showed me a small container of pepper spray he had tucked into his pocket. Well, the salesman seemed almost relieved when he heard the news, so all our worries were for nothing.
A few days later, I related the story to one of my former editors during a happy hour get-together. My tale was nothing compared to a troubling story she described. She said one of her employees at her new job became troublesome, and her company decided to let him go. She explained that he didn’t take the news well, and he was quite vocal when he left. In fact, a few days later he let himself in through a security door and caused a ruckus. This resulted in the company not only changing the security code, but changing the entire lock system and keypad.
None of these incidents are nearly as terrifying as the recent attacks in Europe resulting in deaths, of course. But there were instances of terror that occurred in America that were both silent and difficult to detect. In September 2001, the week after the Sept. 11 terrorist airplane attacks against the United States, letters containing anthrax were sent through the U.S. Postal Service to offices of ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post in New York, and to the National Enquirer at America Media, Inc. (AMI) in Florida. People at ABC, CBS and AMI became infected, and an employee of AMI died after coming in contact with the substance.
The threat of such an insidious attack against journalists still sends shivers up my spine. I say this because, being an editor and monitoring my company e-mail traffic at the time of the 9-11 attacks, I witnessed an unbelievable amount of hate spam directed toward the American media. The terrorist attacks emboldened the nutcases of the world, and they were expressing their hatred of America and its media at an alarming rate. I was amazed to see these types of messages arriving constantly, for more than a year afterward. I can only imagine the kind of threats the big media outlets were receiving.
When we view international news coverage of a coup or a military takeover of a country, usually a smaller land, it’s not uncommon to learn that the first targets of the takeovers are the radio and TV stations, followed by censorship of the country’s newspapers. Take over the media and you control the minds of the population. Yes, the threat to the media is real, and it’s present in the United States as well as overseas. It’s a concern that needs much more attention.