Opinion » Ted Rall

Ground Zero In South Carolina

Domestic terrorists attack freedom of the press

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NEW YORK--On December 31, 2005, the editor of the Columbia City Paper in South Carolina returned from a trip to find that someone had attempted to burn down his house. "Someone had taken all the jackets out of the hall and thrown them on the stove," Corey Hutchins told the Associated Press. "They turned the stove on and threw liquor bottles on the fire. Then they went upstairs and set fire to my bed, and came back down and threw library books on the fire on the stove."

Fortunately for Hutchins, his arsonist was less than fully competent. His home sustained only minor fire and smoke damage. He noticed something disturbing. "Nothing was stolen. No money, no computers, guitar equipment."

Columbia police believe that the fire was set to send the scrappy alternative newspaper's editor a message. "You have any enemies?" Hutchins recalls the police officers on the scene asking. "I paused, said I was the editor of the Columbia City Paper. They just nodded, spit out their tobacco, told me, 'Well, someone's mad at you.'"

The FBI has opened an investigation. The paper is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist(s).

This domestic terror attack is a direct assault on basic American civil liberties--more so than 9/11, which was not, contrary to George W. Bush's assertion, carried out because "they hate our freedoms." The freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment, voluntarily ceded by newspaper editors and television news producers across the country, has found its Ground Zero in a despicable act of terror in Columbia. But most "journalists" remain oblivious.

Hutchins and publisher Paul Blake describe a mixed reception to their newspaper since it began publication last August, offering a "liberal angle in a city choking with conservatives."(Full disclosure: Columbia City Paper publishes my cartoons and this column.) Immediately unleashing a fierce barrage against entrenched power structures, City Paper broke the story of a sexual discrimination lawsuit at the University of South Carolina, and published the Governor's home phone number on a front page urging him not to sign off on the nation's 1001st modern-era execution. Their reportage hits close to home. "The crime reporting is a big deal around here," says Hutchins. "People can't believe we'll print a wife beater's address block in the paper."

This is just the sort of take-no-prisoners journalism that Americans crave but rarely see. The citizens of Columbia have responded. City Paper has become a must-read, already profitable in an industry where others are being forced to fold. But not everyone is supportive.

Blake calls the refusal of some local businesses to distribute the City Paper "a censorship problem." Angry letters and e-mails, including threats of violence, have followed controversial stories like a recent feature story filed from Iraq. "I get phone calls where grown men are in tears over an anti-Bush piece," says Hutchins. Now a homegrown terrorist has turned to violence to attempt to shut them up--and down. Here, undeniably, is someone who truly "hates our freedoms." And the silence of the Right--from local Republican politicians on up to the White House, sends a strong message of tacit consent.

Hutchins is certain that the arsonist was politically motivated. "Whoever did it didn't even go into my roommates' room," he notes. "I've lived in this town for four years, I've never made any enemies as far as I'm concerned."

The editor has resigned out of concern for his roommates' safety. "It's the best thing to do, I believe, to keep people I care about safe for the time being." Blake understands. "Corey's life really is in danger," he says. The terrorists have won.

Somewhere Ari Fleischer, the Bush Administration spokesman who warned that Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do," is laughing.

Hutchins, who has worked many weeks without pay to get Columbia City Paper off the ground, has been hit hard by the fire. If you'd like to help him get back on his feet, you can send donations via the Internet service PayPal to coreyhutchins@gmail.com. If you'd like to save a free press, write your Congressman.