Even in the Face of Danger, Journalists Keep Watch

Even in the Face of Danger, Journalists Keep Watch

By Clarence Page
Columnist and member, Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

Thank you very much for this opportunity to express my hope that the proposed Fallen Journalists Memorial will be placed in a prominent location near the National Mall.

As a permanent memorial to journalists—including reporters, photojournalists, producers and editors, who have died in pursuit of the truth—this memorial should have a location that expresses the high value that our Republic invests in the freedoms of speech and the press as an assurance that government rules by the consent of the governed.

A prominent location near the top offices of government will offer a highly visible statement of how the role performed by journalists is no less important than that of the leaders and institutions that they cover.

Thomas Jefferson had his own blistering run-ins with the press in his day. Yet, if asked to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he famously wrote to an associate, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

With that, one assumes Jefferson was paying tribute to the watchdog role played by the press, as well as the eyes and ears media provide that take us into war zones and other places that we cannot—or would rather not—go.

This monument will commemorate the sacrifices of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives while on assignment in a profession that, above all, should aim to provide service to the public. It will also provide a place for reflection for those who are personally connected to fallen journalists and a focus of contemplation for the people.

It is my hope that the memorial can help to provide some positive inspiration, particularly to young aspiring journalists as I was more than a half-century ago.

As a teenager in the early 1960s, I was inspired by stories about reporter-columnists like Ernest T. “Ernie” Pyle, the Pulitzer-Prize winner who took his talents to war zones as a correspondent in World War II. Writing six columns a week, he gained unusual fame with his human interest angles, focusing on the “dogface” GI’s more than the generals.

Alas, he didn’t make it back. He joined the ranks of the fallen during the Battle of Okinawa. As a journalism professor recounted later, “there was hardly a dry eye in America.”

But I found inspiration much farther back in history. As a young African American growing up in the last days of Jim Crow segregation, I felt I owed a debt to Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist editor of the Alton Observer in southern Illinois.

Pressured to leave St. Louis after pro-slavery mobs destroyed his presses three times, he moved to Alton and later was killed by another pro-slavery mob in 1837. May he rest in peace.

Among others wartime notables are Irving W. Carson of the New-York Tribune, the first journalist to be killed during the U.S. Civil War—by a cannonball while covering General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Shiloh—and Mark Kellogg of the Associated Press, who died with Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn, Montana.

As a board member on the Committee to Protect Journalists, I know that deadly attacks against reporters are rare in this country, compared to a lot of others. Nevertheless, I know of at least 40 killed on the job in my lifetime.

They include journalists of color like Los Angeles Times reporter Rubén Salazar, who was killed by deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department while covering the Chicano Moratorium protest in a park in East Los Angeles in 1970. The park has since been renamed Salazar Park.

There also was WHUR-FM radio reporter Maurice Williams, a young African American in Washington, D.C. He was fatally shot in the city’s District Building in 1977, the only death during a nationally-broadcast siege by a dozen Hanafi Muslim gunmen.

And there was my friend and colleague Chauncey Bailey, editor of California’s Oakland Post, who was fatally shot in 2007 as he was investigating criminal activities connected to Your Black Muslim Bakery. The murder led to formation of the Chauncey Bailey Project by more than two dozen other journalists to continue his work and answer lingering questions about his death.

Sadly, considerably less attention was paid to five Vietnamese-American journalists for small publications serving refugee communities after the fall of Saigon in 1975 were killed mysteriously at different locations between 1981 and 1990. As a 2015 PBS Frontline and Pro-Publica documentary reported, FBI agents linked the killings to an organization led by former military commanders from South Vietnam. But the FBI never made a single arrest before the case was formally closed in the 1990s.

Much more recent were the widely-mourned death of four journalists—Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, and Wendi Winters—and sales associate Rebecca Smith at the Capital Gazette offices in Annapolis on June 28, 2018.

The convicted shooter reportedly had held a grudge against the newspaper since it published a story about his guilty plea in a criminal harassment case seven years earlier. No one would have thought of their jobs as life-threatening until that day—when suddenly they were.

Yet all of these cases reveal impressive commitment to their profession and their audiences. As a surviving Capital Gazette editor announced to his still-stunned colleagues on that awful day, “We’ve got a newspaper to put out.” And they did.

And, as of this writing, they haven’t stopped yet.

Journalistic resiliency often leaves us with little time for tears. But, even after our colleagues are lost to us, the best values and standards that guided them must always be remembered.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Clarence Page serves as a senior member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board and a go-to voice on broadcast for his analysis of American culture and politics. After graduating from college in 1969, Page accepted a position with the Tribune only to be drafted into the military six months later, where he worked as an Army reporter. Page returned to the Tribune in 1971 to cover urban affairs, African American identity, as well as a number of other pressing social and political issues. A U.S. veteran and veteran journalist, Page has received lifetime achievement awards from the Chicago Headline Club, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the National Association of Black Journalists. He is a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists.