The danger is real

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According to the “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings,” the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” originated as far back as the time of Sophocles in 442 BC. Two thousand, four hundred and sixty years later, a nut job from Laurel, Md., shot and killed five newspaper employees at the Capital Gazette because the paper had reported on his conviction in a criminal harassment case in 2011. Five innocent people at a community newspaper lost their lives simply for doing their jobs — serving their community and for being the messenger.

Although this story out of Annapolis, Md., deeply saddened me, it, unfortunately, didn’t shock me. Being the messenger is a much more dangerous business than most people realize.  

Just take a look at the history of this newspaper. In the 1960s, the Laurel Leader-Call offices were fire bombed by the Ku Klux Klan because of its coverage of civil rights issues. Of course, I only know about that incident from the history books, but I can tell you that based on my first-hand experiences since I opened The ReView of Jones County 11 years ago, the danger for community newspapers is very real and what happened in Annapolis could easily happen at any community newspaper that has the guts to do what newspapers are supposed to do — report the news.

In just over a decade of being in the newspaper business in Jones County, we have TWICE been under police protection, have received numerous death threats both by phone and by mail, and, because of recent threats and warnings related to our coverage of the Windermere shooting, most every employee in the office keeps a handgun by their desk. If someone like the Annapolis gunman ever walked in our office, he might be able to take out one of us, but I can assure you that he wouldn’t have a chance to get two of us. It’s much more likely that most of the casualties here would be from “friendly” fire as bullets would be raining down from all directions.

Our first brush with death threats and police protection dates all the way back to July 2009. Mark Thornton and I had traveled to Bay St. Louis to cover the latest match in the promising boxing career of a fine young local man named Francisco “Pancho” Moncivais. Unfortunately, instead of watching a resounding win for a local hero, Mark and I witnessed a historic tragedy. Pancho was knocked out in the ring and would later die at a Gulf Coast hospital, becoming the first fatality in Mississippi professional boxing history.  

Even though we were devastated when we learned that Pancho had succumbed to his injuries, we knew, as newspaper people, we had a job to do. This was now an important news story and we were the messengers. We ran a front-page story along with photos from the fight which showed the brutality that both fighters suffered. There wasn’t a single photo that wouldn’t have been shown on ESPN or printed in USA Today. As a matter of fact, other publications called and asked to use Mark’s photos, as we were the only media that bothered to cover the event.

The day after our story ran, we received a few calls from people upset with our coverage of the tragedy like we had somehow caused it. Then we received a call from someone who was obviously with a group of riled-up people, as you could hear them yelling in the background. The caller identified himself and the group as having connections to Pancho and that they would be coming by soon to “shoot up the place.” After relaying the details of the call to the Laurel Police Department, they decided it would be appropriate to have an officer sit in our officer the rest of the day.

As bad as that scare was, it was nothing compared to the death threats and overall hatred we received after running a story about the first-known gay wedding to take place in downtown Laurel in early 2013. The day after the “Historic Wedding” story ran that told about a lesbian couple getting hitched (even though it was illegal at the time) because it was the dying wish of one of the brides who was suffering from terminal brain cancer, we were deluged by hate calls and threats.Most of the threats were eternal in nature and involved me burning in hell. However, I also received a more immediate death threat that was dropped off in the middle of the night and written in some sort of liquid that resembled blood.

I didn’t think we’d ever have to deal with anything as frightening as the aftermath of the “Historic Wedding” story, but I was seriously wrong.   

If you ever want to feel like you are walking around with a big red target on your back, then break a story about a young girl who was found shot in the head in the garage of a wealthy businessman. Then tell how the family is powerful and connected to judges, the police chief and even the governor. Then, tell how the wealthy businessman miraculously escaped justice on a number of past misdeeds. Add in a dash of corruption, a jigger of special treatment, a teaspoon of corporate retaliation, a smidgen of doubt about prosecutorial intention, a pinch of a cover-up and finish it off with a large dollop of threats and warnings.  

Because of the threats and numerous detailed warnings we have received since breaking this story, I have talked to the FBI twice, bought two handguns and a shotgun, installed a series of security cameras, built a safe room, updated my will and put a plan into place for the continuation of the newspaper in the event of my sudden demise. Unfortunately, none of that is a joke or an exaggeration. I wish it was. My employees wish it was, too.

And here is the real rub. We didn’t have anything to do with the mysterious circumstances involving the death of Katherine Sinclair, we simply reported it. We didn’t have anything to do with the LPD allowing Greg Burroughs’ family to clean up the crime scene, we simply wrote about it. We didn’t have anything to do with Greg Burroughs calling Judge Kyle Robertson before he called 911, or Burroughs being left off the jail docket, or Burroughs getting out of previous criminal charges that most people don’t get out of … we simply informed the public.     

And, we didn’t set up the “Historic Wedding” nor the boxing match that took the life of a local boxer. We only reported what took place. It’s what a newspaper is supposed to do.

We are no different than the newspaper in Annapolis. We’re just trying to do our jobs. Keeping people informed and being a watchdog for the community shouldn’t have to involve risking our lives, but apparently it does. For 2,460 years now, people have been shooting the messenger and, sadly, it could easily happen right here in our home town. But we won’t let the events in Annapolis or the threats here at home deter us. Just like the brave newspaper people in Annapolis who put out a paper the day after the tragedy, we will continue to serve this community at all costs.

Jim Cegielski is publisher of the Leader-Call. He lives in Laurel.

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