Finley: Newsrooms are lunatic magnets
Newsrooms draw crazy people, and I'm not talking about the people who work in them.
Conspiracy theorists, the perpetually aggrieved, the societal outcasts, the politically deranged, all seek in newspapers the outlet they crave to vindicate their scrambled notions, live out their alternative realities and vent their intense but often ill-defined anger.
Over 42 years in this business I've heard from every sort of wacko imaginable, from the paranoid to the delusional. The CIA is tapping their phone. The government is quashing 100-mpg carburetors. Someone stole their life-changing invention.
Just this week, I was stopped on the street by an elderly man pulling a suitcase, who wanted to show me a super-duper dog leash he prototyped from a child's pink lunchbox that he imagined played music, shot mace and held an energy drink. All he needed was for me to write about it in a column.
Most, even the angriest and most irrational, are harmless. But as we learned this week, you can't assume that anymore. Five of our colleagues at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland are dead at the hands of a lunatic with a longstanding grudge against the newspaper.
For a group of journalists in Detroit, the first thought we had when we learned the details of the shooting was the name of a man who for five years or longer has been sending emails to newspapers and broadcasters spewing some of the most vile, vulgar, racist and anti-Semitic poison I've ever read.
They come nearly every day, arriving now, thankfully, in my junk mailbox. I don't know who he is, where he lives or works, or anything else about him except that he believes very strongly that Israel was behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks and is convinced myself and the others on his pen-pal list are covering it up.
The stuff is nasty. Sometimes the emails go out in a blast to all of us, sometimes they're personalized. For a longtime, I also received voice mails in the middle of the night from a man using the exact language. He talks of dancing rabbis celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. The caller paints graphic scenarios of the Levin brothers — Carl and Sandy — digging up my dead mother to have sex with her. I told you it was vile.
The messages would often last 20 minutes or longer, all the while the caller becoming more worked up and violent in his fantasies. Sometimes he hinted he knew things about my daily routine, where I rode my bike, what my grandchildren looked like. After that I restricted my social media accounts and urged my family to do the same.
I sent the worst of the stuff to the Detroit Police Department, which opened an investigation. After that the calls became less frequent, and eventually stopped.
But the emails continue. I recently got a call from an FBI agent investigating a harassment complaint filed by another reporter on the list. Over time the messages have become so routine I rarely think about them. Yet he recently suggested I and a colleague should be executed. I don't know if this individual is dangerous, or just another nut who finds his release in haranguing journalists.
But after what happened in Annapolis, I'm not sure we can write him off with a shrug and wait to find out if his lunacy will turn into violence.