Newsroom security is a big worry among journalists in the wake of the Islamic terrorist attack that killed 10 Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris Tuesday, but it's not a new issue in this country.
"Because I was working in a North Carolina newsroom at the time, this week's Paris massacre immediately made me think of the 1988 hostage-taking at the Lumberton newspaper — no casualties there, thank goodness. But 21 people died in the infamous Los Angeles Times bombing of 1910 and there must be other examples," said Frostburg State University English professor Andy Duncan in Maryland.
He was referring to a 10-hour ordeal at the Lumberton, N.C., Robesonian daily newspaper that occurred when two men described by the New York Times as "heavily armed American Indians" took 17 newsroom employees hostage to protest the death of a black jail inmate.
The Los Angeles Times bombing was tied to two brothers associated with the International Association of Structural Bridge and Iron Workers union. One of the brothers admitted setting the explosive and was sentenced to life in prison. The brothers were protesting the newspaper's anti-union stance.
Duncan's comments came in response to a question — do you want to be armed? — posed by this writer on a list-serv hosted by Investigative Reporters and Editors at the University of Missouri. Dozens of journalists around the country responded on the IRE list-serv and to the same question to a journalist group on LinkedIn.
Gannett investigative reporter Shereen Siewert said officials with the Wausau, Wis., Daily Herald "implemented an 'active shooter plan' within the building last year with the help of our local Sheriff’s Department. We had our head SWAT guy do a walk-through, identifying potential security risk areas and offering recommendations to improve safety in the building. This is something many local law enforcement agencies will offer to businesses — and here, at least, it was free."
But Siewert's organization contrasts mightily with what appears to be a more widespread attitude of uncertainty that anything can be done to secure newsrooms against Paris-like attacks or outright revulsion against journalists being linked with firearms for any reason.
Most representative of the latter was this response from the BBC's Fiona Graham, who covers technology in business: "This is quite possibly the most bizarre and horrifying reaction I've seen thus far to the terrible events in Paris. It blows my mind that you would even contemplate this."
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Matthew Leonard, an editor at WXXI radio and television in Rochester, N.Y., who said he "just had very ‘spirited’ discussion with our president and CEO over the lack of a basic layer of fob-entry security to the floor that houses our newsroom and radio area."
Leonard said he worries because "we have nice people on reception, but otherwise we’re essentially an open building as of this moment and nothing to slow down a determined intruder for one second."
More typical among the responses was this from Radio Television Digital News Association Executive Director Mike Cavender who told the Washington Examiner that he has "spoken to a couple organizations that have talked about increasing their own security, whether it be their building or environment. There’s no question that it’s certainly heightened a bit."
Still, Cavender said, "I’m not sure additionally what more we can do aside from make it clear both to the media and the world that we stand with those who believe that freedom of expression is not going to be deterred even in the face of such horrific actions as occurred [in Paris].”
Similarly, David Cuillier, the immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said he has "read on chat boards should we have more armed guards, should we allow reporters to carry weapons in the office, but I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of that happening.”
Cuillier said the 1976 death of Arizona Republic Investigative Reporter Don Bolles prompted many news organizations to think about security. Bolles, one of the founders of IRE, was killed when a bomb planted in his car by organized crime exploded.
"These attacks in the past have got a lot of news organizations already set up, so I'm not sure what more they can do," Cuillier said.
Many of the respondents expressed doubt that allowing journalists to carry concealed handguns would provide any protection against trained assailants armed with AK-47 assault rifles, as were the Paris attackers.
Dan Armstrong, a New York-based researcher for Forbes and the Economist, disagreed, saying "yes, a handgun is no match for a Kalashnikov, but it's probably better than being unarmed, especially if the handgun is concealed from the person wielding the Kalashnikov. A confrontation could go either way, and I imagine most of us will pick the outcome that matches our pre-existing point of view."
For Darrell Todd, owner of the Pulaski County, Ark., Daily News, the bottom line is a constitutional one: "Those of us who value the First Amendment need to remember that the Second Amendment is also in the Constitution. If a reporter wants to own a weapon, it's his or her own business, and nobody else's."
Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Washington Examiner. Washington Examiner staff correspondent Eddie Scarry contributed to this story.