08/31/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

'Kill the Reporters'

"Kill the reporters," Richard Nixon said in early 1971, musing, as his White House taping system rolled, about how to somehow still win in Vietnam. A few days later he told the chairman of the joint chiefs, "The press is your enemy."

In his wistful way, Nixon made one of the greatest acknowledgements of the free press's role in the nation's history. Get rid of the journalists, the commander-in-chief was saying, and we can do whatever the hell we want.

Targeting reporters to avoid scrutiny is rare in the United States, especially compared to Mexico, Russia, the Philippines and elsewhere where they are silenced with seeming impunity, but it's happened at least 39 documented times in American history and probably more. Nixon certainly wasn't the first to ponder killing journalists, but at least there is no evidence he carried it out.

The victims, almost all of them obscure, working on local stories long forgotten, have died in a car bombing, from bullets fired through windows, in street-corner ambushes, in lynchings, in beatings.

Donald Ring Mellett of the Canton Daily News was crusading against mobsters infiltrating government. (After he was shot dead his short-lived paper won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for public service). Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic was investigating insider land deals between the Mafia and business leaders. Roby Heard, of the Los Angeles City News Service, was reporting on Nazi youth gangs.

William Mason of KBKI radio had pointed out ties between a dance hall in Alice, Texas, and the local sheriff's department. A deputy shot him. "He had the nerve to tell the truth for a lot of little people," Mason's tombstone reads.

One reporter who also didn't lack nerve was Chauncey Bailey -- assassinated on an Oakland sidewalk five years ago this month, when a masked man used a pistol-grip shotgun loaded with slugs and buckshot to blow him to pieces.

Mr. Bailey, never a gifted writer, was a dogged and prolific community reporter. He was working on a short article about a bankruptcy case involving a business run by a Black Muslim cult that had been involved in myriad criminal enterprises for decades, an organization so entrenched in Oakland that its founding patriarch once ran for mayor.

"We gotta take him out before he write (sic) that story," the cult's leader, 21-year-old Yusuf Bey IV, told two henchmen who found Mr. Bailey as he walked to work early on the sunny morning of Aug. 2, 2007.

Mr. Bailey was 57, the father of a teenage son, and had spent his entire adult life employed at newspapers -- his work peaked in the early 1990s covering Mayor Coleman Young for the Detroit News -- while dabbling in television and radio. His career collapsed in 2005 when Oakland Tribune editors were forced to fire him for ethical lapses. Just two months before his death, Mr. Bailey had been named editor of the Oakland Post, an eight-page, free weekly covering the city's African-American neighborhoods.

His unpublished story about Mr. Bey's bakery wasn't much -- a string of largely unattributed facts about the bankruptcy fed to him by a source -- but it didn't have to be to ignite Mr. Bey's demented fury.

Just weeks earlier Mr. Bey had ordered the killings of two other men and in May had masterminded the kidnapping and torture of a woman to learn where a cocaine dealer she knew hid money, an enterprise that failed and ultimately led to his arrest. (Mr. Bey was indicted nearly 20 months after the murder for ordering the assassination and was convicted last year.)

He became incensed when he learned of Mr. Bailey's forthcoming article.

"He (is) writing against us," he said to his followers, according to court testimony. For that, he turned Mr. Bailey into an unlikely First-Amendment martyr -- with Mr. Bailey contributing more to his profession in death than he did in life.

On the fifth anniversary of his murder, it would be naïve to think that he will be the last reporter killed stateside to stop a story.

In our jagged age of unyielding ideological aggression and absolutism -- members of fringe right-wing theocratic groups claiming their particular religion must rule all earthly institutions, including government and media, anarchists on the far edge of the left claiming news organizations have no right to cover them -- it is not difficult to imagine the targeting of another journalist.

And as the economy continues years of sputtering and as governments slash services for the most vulnerable citizens, it is not at all difficult to imagine groups like Mr. Bey's -- which preyed on the weak and desperate, offering them food, shelter, work and false religion -- continuing to find recruits malleable enough to be molded into killers.

Mr. Bailey, who posthumously won a George Polk Award for local reporting for his unpublished story on Mr. Bey, has slipped into history, dismissed by some as simply another victim of black-on-black murder in a city and a country full of them, or as a minor journalist unworthy of acknowledgement

But what his slaying really meant, no matter how insignificant his publication and scant his story, was captured best by his former city editor at a memorial service in Detroit.

It was, the editor, Luther Keith, said, "an attack on the American way of life -- free expression."

Remembering the cost Mr. Bailey, and others, paid for that way of life, and continuing to pursue it, should be his legacy.