When news broke of the shooting at the Annapolis, Md., newsroom of the Capital Gazette, I and many other members of this profession were left dumbstruck.
Sitting next to my uncle in the Tampa, Fla., apartment of my grandfather, whose birthday I had flown in to celebrate, I had been watching CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the women-led protest of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
He noted that it was perfect political theater; I remarked that there was a whole world of news out there and, the merits of the immigration debate notwithstanding, the ticker at the bottom of the screen was no substitute for the kind of old-school journalism — on radio and television, as well as in print — that took you from Timbuktu to London to Main Street.
By way of an experiment, we switched the channel to Fox News. “Shooting at Annapolis Newsroom” was the headline. The gunman, just minutes before, had opened fire at Capital Gazette staff, killing five.
We wouldn’t know all the details until hours later, but despite the foolhardy attempts by some to quickly tie the violence to the political climate — a Fox News anchor reported that no discernible bias of the Capital Gazette could be found, as if its leaning either left or right would provide an explanation — it quickly became clear that the shooting had nothing to do with the president or Democrats.
The gunman was an apparently disgruntled reader who had been the subject of a 2011 column reporting on his guilty plea in a domestic violence case and had lost a 2015 defamation suit against the news organization.
The newsroom attack had nothing to do with the state of civil discourse in this country. And yet, it had everything to do with it.
If we didn’t know the five victims, most of us in the profession know people who did. Marc Shapiro, whom I worked with at the Baltimore Jewish Times several years ago, got his start in journalism at the Maryland Gazette, one of the two newspapers printed by the operation in Annapolis. “My day came to a grinding halt,” he wrote in a column digesting the news.
While the shooting was not motivated by politics, it highlighted the fact that newsrooms — already pressed by decreasing advertising and circulation revenues and increasing production costs — could be under physical attack as well. Most of those who grind out copy at community newspapers like the ones in Annapolis are sorely underpaid, but they continue to do what they do because they believe in the critical importance a free press has to the proper functioning of our democratic republic.
In my career, I’ve been threatened several times, and was even told by a reader who sometimes emailed multiple times every day that I was the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (One of his friends separately emailed me to explain that a quadruple bypass operation had apparently robbed him of some of his mental acuity. I told his friend that it might be best to take his computer away.) Some of my colleagues have either had to deal with — or are dealing with — stalkers who seem to think that reading a byline equals having a relationship.
True, there are other professions that face the rare possibility of personal attack. Psychiatrists have been known to be killed by their patients — one recent case in Phoenix comes to mind — and lawyers have been targeted by disgruntled clients. But there is no denying that for the last several years, the news media has been uniquely cast as a scapegoat for much of what ails the world.
I don’t know what was in the mind of the Annapolis shooter on June 28, and he has reportedly not been cooperating with investigators. Still, the cries of fake news that have become all too commonplace likely had nothing to do with his decision to pick up his pump-action shotgun and drive down to the newsroom. But I don’t feel any safer, especially when I know all too well the propensity of some to lose all semblance of reality when they read a news story or an opinion piece with which they disagree, or to conflate advocacy with a mortal threat.
Now, more than ever, newspapers need the support of the public. We all need to keep reading. But most of all we need to keep things in perspective. Contrary to popular opinion, the news media is not out to get anyone. My profession exists to shine a light on stories others would prefer to keep hidden so that the public can be better informed when engaging in this 222-year-old experiment we call American democracy.
The pens of the Annapolis five may not have been mighty enough to prevent their slaughter, but their community was the better for their dedication and devotion. I pray that my colleagues and I, as well as the public at large, ultimately prove worthy of their sacrifice.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]jewishexponent.com.