Arming the Free Press newsroom

By Joel Thurtell

Detroit Free Press politics editor James Hill carries a pistol.

Hey, James — are you packin’ that gat in the newsroom?

It’s one thing to fend off attackers by pointing to your holstered pistol at a gas station.

But in the newsroom of a newspaper?

Well, I can see some sense to it: Your attackers might be enraged reporters and photographers. Not to mention copy editors who assault reporters, photographers and editors alike with their petty corrections.

Editors equipped with sidearms might enforce some much-needed decorum on news staffs.

Arguments about story length, placement in the paper, the very choice whether to run a story or not might quickly be settled with a subtle glance by the editor toward the handle of his six-shooter.

Wouldn’t newsrooms be happier, quieter and more productive work places if there were less bellyaching by reporters about everything from lunch expenses to whose name goes in a byline? A simple tap on a holster by the metro editor might forestall outbreaks of incivility before they get properly launched.

Wouldn’t that be a happy improvement?

There was a reason why Colt named its famous revolver “The Peacemaker.”

And yet, for all its merits, I see a downside to unilateral editorial armament.

There is no mutually assured destruction in having editors ordering story trims at gunpoint when their minions are unarmed.

That is an unstable, unequal state that cannot last.

The balance of power will shift, inevitably, because concealed carry laws were not made only for editors.

If James gets to carry his piece into the newsroom, what’s to stop reporters, photographers, copy editors and maybe even copy aides and editorial assistants from obtaining concealed carry permits?

The result might be newsroom parity. The editor could tap his holster all he wants, but his reporters will point to their own pistols.

But parity is unstable, too.

Reporters won’t be packing wimpy 40-caliber jobs like the one on James Hill’s hip.

How about a .44 magnum? One shot from that butt-buster would end the career of a grizzly bear, let alone a whining editor.

Bazookas, flamethrowers and howitzers anyone?

With an all-out arms race, editors could no longer count on a simple demonstration of weaponry to have their way. A reporter assigned a stinky story might do more than simply glance down at his or her holster.

“What? You want me to write obits for the rest of my career? How about a whiff of forty-five?”

Next thing you know, the affronted reporter has drawn her Glock.

My God! She’s aiming it at the editor!

Will he draw?

Will he back down, a sniveling coward?

Free Press editors do not retreat.

Whether the dispute is over a reporter’s claim for martinis at lunch or an order to re-write a story, a line must be drawn.

Discipline, order.

In its storied history, reporters from the Free Press once commandeered a National Guard tank and aimed its cannon at the rival Detroit News.

If James Hill has his way, the enemy will not be The News. This will be civil war within the Free Press.

The Free Press will need more than one tank, but even a regiment of tanks will be useless if reporters get their hands on cruise missiles.

Imagine a dispute in the Free Press cafeteria.

James “Han Solo” Hill is seated at a table, quietly munching a mayo and pickle sandwich.

I like James Hill. He is a good guy.

The menacing shadow of a dreaded byline-hunter darkens his plate.

(The encounter is recorded by a Free Press surveillance camera installed after lunchroom workers complained that writers were pilfering napkins and plastic ware.)

Nobody likes byline hunters. They are despicable characters. The world could use fewer byline hunters.

We can only root for Editor Hill.

The video will hit You-Tube.

It will go viral.

The question will forever puzzle journalism ethics classes.

Did Hill shoot first?

What next?

Nukes in the newsroom?

About Joel

Retired 2007 after 23 years as a Detroit Free Press reporter. Thirty years in the news biz. Trained as a historian, never had a Journalism class. At Free Press, wrote many articles about lakes, streams and boats. Wrote more than 80 major stories about the Rouge River. In June 2005 with Free Press photographer Patricia Beck paddled a canoe 27 miles up the Rouge River through Metro Detroit. May be the farthest anyone has canoed up the Rouge, though pioneers used it as a road. Our book, UP THE ROUGE! about the adventure is to be published by Wayne State University Press next year. I'm writing a second book about the Rouge, trying to find out why with billions spent on cleanup, so many American rivers are not fit for humans to touch. DIRTIEST RIVERS will arrive about the time UP THE ROUGE! comes out. I earned a B.A. in history and German at Kalamazoo, graduating in 1967. In 1968, I earned an M.A. in history at the University of Michigan. In 1970, I passed all exams for the doctorate in Latin American history, but have not quite gotten around to finishing my dissertation. I lived in Mexico for a year doing research on a Ford Foundation fellowship. I was a Peace Corps volunteer supervising school and well construction in Togo, West Africa 1972-74. I was a reporter at the South Bend Tribune and editor of the Berrien Springs Journal Era before joining the Free Press in 1984. I've written four novels, four kids' books and in addition to the two Rouge books am completing a journalism text called SHOESTRING REPORTER: A MANIFESTO FOR SAVING JOURNALISM OR HOW I GOT TO BE A BIG CITY REPORTER WITHOUT GOING TO J SCHOOL AND HOW YOU CAN DO IT TOO!
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