Sand In My Shoes

We Are Not The Enemy

The press is not the enemy of the people.

The Independent is a community newspaper, its writers working on bringing hard news and informed opinion to readers.

Just like the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis was doing last week when five newspaper people were slaughtered by an armed coward — whose name is as insignificant as his life — for reporting the truth.

As I watched the coverage, I was as horrified as when I reported on the school shootings in Newtown in 2012. The story made me feel unsafe in a nation with more guns than people, guns even legal for purchase by deranged, human timebombs.

The Capital Gazette story triggered a recollection of threats I’d received over the years for opinions expressed in my columns. Most of them came as unsigned typed letters with no return addresses. Or phone calls from phone booths.

In the 1970s, someone fired a bullet through the window of my columnist brother Pete’s house.

These threats echoed in my brain until I published a novel several years ago called Sins of Two Fathers about a common man who believes a newspaper columnist’s old column sent his son unjustly to prison. That father gets revenge a dozen years later by framing the columnist’s son for a crime he did not commit.

When I was working at the Village Voice, we sometimes had to escort street crazies out the door. One claimed his brain waves were being monitored by the CIA. Also, while I was at the Voice in the mid-1970s, a man called an all-news radio station saying that my brother Pete had been shot dead on the street over a Voice story he had written connecting a South Bronx community leader to an unsolved murder.

Pete was unreachable. Police couldn’t confirm or deny the news. I raced from Manhattan to my mother’s Brooklyn home to inform and console her in person, lost en route in a howling, bottomless vortex of anguish.

When I delivered the grim news in my mother’s kitchen, one of my brothers fainted. My mother wept and began a rosary. I felt lost, helpless, frozen. It was like a giant mirror had shattered and I had no idea which of the thousands of jagged shards to pick up first.

Turned out to be a hoax. Or a warning. Probably both.

Whatever the message, it didn’t stop Pete from following up on the original story. Furious, he cited his favorite newspaper movie Deadline USA, in which Humphrey Bogart plays a tough editor named Ed Hutchinson who, despite death threats from a ruthless mobster, runs a front-page expose on the racketeer. As the presses roll, Bogey tells the cheap hood, “That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”

As the Capital Gazette coverage unfolded last week, I received a phone message from my brother Pete, coughing down a sob, to inform me that one of the dead was Rob Hiaasen, brother of our dear friend Carl Hiaasen, himself a Miami Herald columnist and a best-selling novelist.

The story became at once personal, shooting through me like a dumdum bullet travelling from that newsroom in Annapolis.

I thought about my good, gentle, and brilliant friend Carl Hiaasen trying to pick up a thousand splinters of the shattered dream that was his kid brother Rob, a folksy 56-year-old editor, chronicler of common folk and inspiring mentor of young reporters. Rob was a father of three and had just celebrated his 33rd wedding anniversary and now he had been gunned down with four colleagues in an American newsroom like some cartel hit in a narco state.

Stunned, my brain triggered a montage of good days with Carl, like the time he came to party in my New York home from his native Florida with his young son, Carl Jr., who raced wide-eyed into my backyard pointing at the winter sky, in this Sunshine State kid’s very first encounter with “Snow! Snow!”

I remembered a lawn party at the Sag Harbor home of our mutual literary agent Esther Newberg as Carl lent his good name to a blurb for one of my new novels. I remember surprising him at one of his book signings in the East End, in Coco Beach, in Boston, and in Manhattan and how his big friendly smile always ignited his Florida-tanned face. I thought about how his wacky, satiric novels like Striptease, Skin Tight, Razor Girl, and Skink-No Surrender left so many people across the nation and the world howling with laughter.

Now I imagined Carl feeling the way I had the day I thought my brother had been murdered, spinning in a shocking vortex of violent loss.

I sent Carl Hiaasen an email, assuring him he was not alone in shock, outrage, and sadness, and that my brother Pete was ill with grief.

Carl Hiaasen replied, “Denis, thank you so much. We are shattered and enraged that this is what our country has become. Please hug Pete for me.”

He urged me to hug my brother because Carl would never again be able to hug his.

This is the new America, where what used to be our dirty bottom is now our toxic top.

We have a so-called leader who for two years has been calling the free press the “enemy of the people,” demonizing and dehumanizing the hard-working people who report the news.

To be clear, The Coward who murdered Rob Hiaasen and his four colleagues was not a Trumpster in a red MAGA hat.

He was a lone coward who trolled, berated, and harassed a woman on social media until he was arrested and took a guilty plea. The local story was reported in the Capital Gazette. The Coward was enraged at the newspaper for daring to report his plea.

He sued. He lost. He appealed. He lost.

I repeat: He was not a Trumpster. But in a divided nation where our leader makes political hay of berating the press and the courts — unless they spin or rule in his favor — it certainly creates an overheated climate where a cowardly loser might feel emboldened to take on the “fake news,” “the most dishonest people in the world,” “the enemy of the people,” because “the system is rigged.”

When a coward who threatens a woman becomes an official judicial loser, he has nothing left to lose.

That’s a dangerous coward that you should worry about, especially when he starts threatening the employees of the Capital Gazette. The warning lights were flashing. There will be an investigation into why they were not heeded.

When The Coward entered the Capital Gazette last week he carried a shotgun and he murdered five hardworking people who spent their lives bringing news to the public in the hope that honest reporting would make their part of the world a better place.

That’s what a community newspaper does.

The press is not the enemy of the people.

Those who attack a free press are the enemy of democracy.

When the gun smoke cleared, the professionals of the Capital Gazette went to work to put out a morning paper with a headline story about the murders in their own newsroom.

That’s the press, baby. And there’s nothing anyone, not a demagogue or a cowardly gunman, can do about it.