Journalist Under Threat of a Gun

Mak Yin-ting - Chief Editor, The Journalist

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist]  “May I know if anyone of you on the panel has ever been bribed?” a student, who apparently came from mainland China, asked during the opening forum of the Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop held last November at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Will a gun pointed at you be counted?” asked Jerry Kammer, one of the guest speakers of the workshop, breaking the silence with his question.

Jerry Kammer, a journalist who could not be frightened off by a gun. (Taken from Website of the Hong Kong Baptist University)

It is understandable why the student asked such a question because cheque book journalism is rampant in mainland China and the student naturally would like some advice from the distinguished veteran journalists. It was the answer that caught me completely by surprise. I seldom hear of journalists being threatened at gunpoint in America, a place that you would like to describe with the word “civilized” or “respect for press freedom”.

“The incident took place thirty-five years ago. I was twenty five years old and Albert Ross, the director of a local hospital, was fifty then.” Jerry Kammer recalled about his time with the Navajo Times, a newspaper printed in Arizona.

People there had complained about the director’s management style and Jerry was going to write a story about it. After several questions, Albert was apparently irritated. He suddenly put a gun on the table without saying anything. Jerry was afraid but he kept on asking questions calmly. However he stayed no longer than the interview needed which was unusual for him. He usually has casual conversation with interviewees after an interview.

Jerry wrote the story as planned and there was no mention of the gun. He was too tradition-bound to allow himself to become the focus of the story or even to be a part of it. He revealed the incident only later, at the right time and right place.

Months later, a public meeting of the hospital issue was held and Albert Ross was accused of intimidation by a resident. He denied it, of course. Jerry Kammer stood up and said, “You tried to do that to me, too.” He then told the public meeting of the “show of gun” incident. Albert Ross was embarrassed. Although the exposure did not stop him from being elected as a council member in the immediate election, Albert Ross lost the seat at the next election.

“When facing threats, it is important not to stop reporting. It tells the one who threatens you that you are not going to stop,“ Jerry said.

Jerry’s experience of nullifying threats by continuing to report echoed the way of hundreds of other reporters, as in the Don Bolles Incident.

On June2 1976, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was seriously injured, and died eleven days later, from a car bomb in connection with the investigative story he working on. Two hundred and fifty journalists from thirty five states gathered in the first Investigative Reporters and Editors national conference and agreed to organize the Arizona Project, intended to show those who harm journalists that the investigation will continue. Reporters, editors and journalism students volunteered to work under the direction of Bob Greene, a Newsday editor who moved specially to Arizona for the project. Five months later, the Arizona Project team completed its reporting, writing, editing and legal review. The 23-part series about corruption in the state where Bolles died was offered at no cost to news organizations for publication.

As a veteran journalist of thirty five years, Jerry never had to experience another gun placed in front of him while on assignment thereafter. According to him, that is what a watchdog should do: keep barking even you are intimidated. That is the responsibility of a dog.

As a watchdog he has kept on barking, professionally, earning him a network of information sources. In turn, it has helped him, together with his colleague in Copley News Service, to expose connection in relation to corruption among contractors, lobbyists, and members as well as the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee in contracting out lucrative Pentagon Contracts. Their investigative reporting was honoured with the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. But most important of all, the revelations of corruption ensured that some members of the committee were convicted of federal crimes and that justice was done.

Watchdog Needs Food to Bark
Back to the question raised by the student at the beginning: a dog needs food to keep up its energy. With too low a salary to get the dog fed, there may be room for bribery. “He who does not bite starves.” Jerry quotes a saying popular in Mexico in the 80s and 90s. In those days reporters sold advertisements to compensate for their low salaries.

It refreshes my memory of the 60s and even the 70s, in Hong Kong where enforcement forces were so corrupt that you either got on board the car of corruption or get off the car totally. There was no middle way. It changed after the economic development and improvements to public education. And the blatant bribery of journalists to write “positively” faded from the mid-eighties in the 20th century.

Jerry concluded by saying that a reporter has to earn a reasonable salary - a salary that leads you to a decent, although not a rich life. That will be good enough for you to earn the respect of others as well as of oneself.

Now a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, Jerry definitely is not a “genius in an ivory tower” but an even-minded observer of the world.