When I first heard reports of gunfire at a Maryland newsroom, my immediate thought was: all that journalist-hatred that’s going around. It’s caught up with us.
Admit it, you thought that, too.
The thundering from the president of the United States, calling journalists “the enemy of the people.” The finger-pointing at the writers and camera people in the pens at the back of his rallies, the crowd turning around to spew vitriol at the people who report the news.
The wish expressed, just days ago, by alt-right bad boy Milo Yiannopolous, in a text message: “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight” – which he’s now calling a joke.
It turned out that the man who killed five and wounded several others at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis was someone with a longstanding grudge against the paper. He had been convicted of harassing a woman who had been a high school classmate. When a Capital Gazette columnist wrote about the case, he unsuccessfully sued the paper for defamation and began harassing it – including making online threats to writers and editors.
Every newsperson can imagine this happening. Every newsroom has unbalanced people like this in its orbit. When I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s and ‘90s, we called them “wackjobs” — almost affectionately, as if to kid away the latent threats they represented — and we had a long list of them.
What’s different now is, today’s wackjobs have the models of mass shooters to go by. The Annapolis shooter, if he didn’t think Parkland or Pulse sufficient, had the example of the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, where two brothers attached to an Al Qaeda group shot 12 people to death for the crime of satire.
And because mass shootings are a contagion, we must assume this will happen again. There cannot be a newsroom in America that, upon hearing word of shots fired at a newspaper, did not immediately begin reassessing its security. Yes, that includes our own.
And there cannot be a newspaper in America where it did not feel as though members of your family have died. At some important level, all of us in this business feel connected, especially those of us who have retained our love and commitment to it for some years. I did not know the Annapolis victims personally, although anyone who worked at The Palm Beach Post 20 years ago has fond memories of Rob Hiaasen, whose personality was brought to life Thursday in a beautiful, mournful column by an old friend, Frank Cerabino.
Yet these losses feel personal.
We have become so used to mass shootings in this country – we alone among advanced nations – that we usually feel little more than weariness when absorbing the news of yet another one. It’s different when the victims are much like you. Just as no student or parent feels the same degree of security after schools are turned to battlefields and children to casualties, so today does no American journalist feel as safe as we did before colleagues were slaughtered Thursday in their workplace.
And in the background, I keep hearing that hum: “Fake news.” “They lie.” “They make up sources.”
Today President Trump, in a show of sympathy for the Capital Gazette victims, said, “Journalists, like all Americans, should be free of the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.”
This is a man who, using the biggest podium in the world, tears relentlessly into the honesty and patriotism of the reporters and news outlets whose job is to fulfill the ideal of uncovering and telling the truth.
And because the truth is often unflattering and threatening to this man, he has waged a three-year war against the credibility of journalists, just as he attacks the credibility of an independent judiciary, the FBI and members of Congress he can’t bring to heel.
No one has inflamed the present atmosphere more than he, this man who occupies the highest office in our land. He has set a tone which he feeds at every rally and almost every day on Twitter.
I am not blaming him for Thursday’s tragedy in Annapolis. But I do charge him with injecting a sense of hatred into the soul of this nation that journalists do not deserve and which — in a country with more guns than people — may all too easily turn into bloodshed.
All over social media, journalists have been sharing their thoughts. Some of the best came from a Sun Sentinel reporter, Ben Crandell, a former colleague of mine. On Facebook he wrote:
“There is not much money to be made as a reporter at a daily newspaper such as the Capital Gazette. There is no glamour, no prestige. There is only the benefit of knowing that they helped inform their neighbors about things they need to know, entertained them with a story they hadn’t heard, made them chuckle, or shed some light on the pivotal play that won the big game at the high school.
“There is no fake news at a daily newspaper such as the Capital Gazette. It would take too much time. Reporters there are only good at what they’ve been trained to do: Ask the questions readers would want asked, collect information, confirm the facts, discard information that cannot be confirmed, snap the facts together into a story that fairly represents what they’ve seen and heard, and submit the story to an editor, maybe several, who reconfirms the facts before publication.
“If there has been a mistake in one of their stories, they write an explanation with the correct information so it can be published on the website and in a prominent spot in the next day’s paper.
“And then they go home to coach the volleyball team, care for an ailing loved one, do military reserve training, volunteer at the church, see a band, drink a beer, cut the grass. They are not just like you – they are you.”