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Although the killing of journalists is rare in the U.S., threats of doing so are not

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier this month, an investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jeff German, was found stabbed dead outside his home. Now, the murder was disturbing in its own right, but then a shocking arrest was made. Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles was arrested on suspicion of murdering German. Now, the authorities have not provided a specific motive, but German had previously reported on mismanagement and a hostile work environment in Telles's office. Telles denied the accusations and went after German on social media. Although the killing of journalists is rare in the U.S., threats of doing so are not. And the important local reporting German worked on is also disappearing across the U.S. as more and more local news outlets close their doors.

Margaret Sullivan has been thinking about the threats facing journalists and journalism for a long time now. She's a longtime news executive. She just retired as The Washington Post's media columnist, and she's the author of "Ghosting The News: Local News And The Crisis Of American Democracy." And she's with us now to share some thoughts about this. Margaret Sullivan, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, well, one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is that we often report on violence against journalists in other countries. But something like this happening in the United States, you know, while it is rare, we thought that this deserved some attention. So I wanted to ask what you make of this story and why you think it matters.

SULLIVAN: So you're absolutely right about how we report on the global threats to journalists. But in the United States, we - you know, with our proudly waving the First Amendment and the fact that we prize free expression or always have, we don't think this kind of thing happens to journalists. But journalists are more and more under threat in the United States. This is obviously an extreme case and a very disturbing one.

MARTIN: And when you talk about the threats being directed at journalists in the United States, what are you talking about?

SULLIVAN: So there's sort of two fronts here, and they're very different. One, as you mentioned, is the incredible and precipitous decline of local news. Seventy million Americans live in places where there is not that sort of sustainable local news. That's very disturbing. Two newspapers a week, whether weeklies or dailies, are going out of business. And while we know that newspapers are not the only form of news and not the only form of local news, they are very important one. So that's one front. And the other one is that threats and intimidation of journalists is on the rise so that, you know, a local TV crew who goes out to cover a school board meeting - it would not be unusual these days for them to be bullied, intimidated, yelled at. This is something new and something that's on the rise and extremely disturbing.

MARTIN: Ahead of one of German's stories on Telles's office, he wrote on social media, quote, "looking forward to lying smear piece No. 4 by Jeff German." Now, I bring this up because that kind of harassment of journalists is something that I think many people began to see in earnest during the campaign of the prior American president and certainly during his tenure - you know, reporters being doxxed, reporters having their personal information being made public, where their children go to school, you know, etc.

Now, we know that, again, actual deaths of journalists in the United States is rare. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, 16 have been killed across the country, and one of the worst attacks in American newspaper was in 2018, when a man killed five people and wounded several others at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md. And this is, again, noteworthy because the gunman had previously lost a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper for its accurate reporting on a criminal harassment complaints against him. And the prosecutors said in that case that he was out for revenge. A jury did find him criminally responsible for the rampage. So I guess what I'm wondering is, do you see this as having a chilling effect on reporters' willingness to report on difficult subjects of accountability?

SULLIVAN: I think that reporters, thankfully, tend to be very dedicated to their craft and, you know, not easily intimidated. But it's scary, and editors and owners can sometimes become extremely cautious, overly cautious because of these kinds of threats. So there is the problem of possible self-censorship. And, you know, as you say, just the pure online harassment of journalists, particularly women, particularly journalists of color, is so disturbing that you do reach a point where you say, you know, is this something that I want to deal with day after day? Journalism is really important and needs to be protected and needs to be valued.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about one of the things that you reported on in your book "Ghosting The News" was that you actually had data on the effects in community - in counties and communities that don't have local newspapers doing actual reporting. You said...

SULLIVAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That there's - You can actually demonstrate increased costs of government services, that actually the increase in the costs of, say, even municipal bond offerings...

SULLIVAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...When there aren't local journalists following this information. That's just fascinating.

SULLIVAN: It is. And I mean, a few other things happen, too, that voter participation and citizen engagement go down when local journalism declines. Corruption finds more fertile ground, and false information spreads wildly with nothing to sort of debunk it or counter it. So there are many, you know, measurable effects that occur when local news goes away.

MARTIN: Before we let you go in your final column for The Post, you laid out some of the challenges that you've been talking about now, but you also laid out some recommendations. Do you want to leave us with just a couple of those thoughts about what you hope would happen next? What would you like to see happen next?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that journalists need to have a pro-democracy mindset. And that's - you know, when they do have that, that kind of keeps them from doing some of the things that we have tended to do over time, you know, when we're covering campaigns, to turn it into horse-race coverage instead of covering the issues, to do this kind of sort of nickname for it is both sides-ing, where rather than seeking the truth, we take unequal things straight down the middle. And, you know, all of those things can get put in their proper place or a more proper place if we think of ourselves as having a public-spirited function and being there to serve the democracy, which is really what the founders protected when they protected the press.

MARTIN: That was media critic Margaret Sullivan. Her new memoir, "Newsroom Confidential: Lessons And Worries From An Ink-Stained Life," comes out next month. Margaret Sullivan, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.