In some ways, there's little different about last week's mass shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, that left five people dead and three injured. After all, it was the 154th such shooting of the year in the United States and it came just 177 days into 2018.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Then there's the alleged shooter, nothing particularly atypical about him, either. He's a middle-aged white male with a history of threatening and controlling behavior toward women. His one documented victim reported his cyberstalking and criminal threats to police, noting they resulted in her losing her job and ultimately moving out of Annapolis, only to see a misdemeanor conviction and a 90-day suspended jail sentence, after which he legally purchased the shotgun used in the slaughter. The criminal trial, and the Gazette's coverage of it, reportedly left him feeling aggrieved.
We could cut and paste these facts into dozens of other mass shooting stories and they would fit like a glove.
Where this story diverges is where it took place and the targeted victims. This shooting didn't unfold as so many have in school or a nightclub or mall. It happened in a newsroom.
For those of you who haven't had the privilege of working in one, newsrooms are like families — places where people argue and laugh while working long hours for low pay in the pursuit of something greater than themselves. Eleven people were in the Capital Gazette newsroom June 28 when a shotgun blast broke its glass door and the massacre began. When the shooting stopped, eight had been killed or injured. The other three – and the rest of the Gazette staff — then dug deep and put out a paper the next day.
The courage and fortitude of that is beyond words but, frankly, unsurprising. To some degree, it's what newspapers around the world do every day.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 44 reporters have been killed so far this year throughout the world — murdered or caught in crossfires — including five in Mexico and 11 in Afghanistan. It's important to remember that in certain parts of the world journalists live under constant threat and a violent death is an inherent risk of the job.
The thing that's so jarring about what happened in the Capital Gazette newsroom is that the United States has never been one of those places.
The Fourth Estate has always been woven into the very fabric of this country, protected along with the ideals of free speech and freedom of religion in the First Amendment. It was Thomas Jefferson, after all, the principal author of this country's birth certificate, who said that given the choice between living in a country that had government but no newspapers and one with newspapers but no government, he "would not hesitate a moment" to choose newspapers, calling them "the only safeguard of the public liberty."
Some 230 years later, we have a president who has repeatedly called the press "enemies of the American people," while calling reporters "scum" and "slime" at rallies, applause lines that repeatedly spur those in attendance to spew vitriol and threats at the press assembled to cover these events. (We'll just add that Trump's platitude's in the wake of the Capital Gazette murders are hollow to the point of insult in the absence of any genuine apology or retraction of his years of incendiary rhetoric.)
But it's not just Trump who has fed this anti-press sentiment. NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch asserted in 2016 that journalists are "the rat bastards of the earth" and said she'd like to see them "curb stomped" (that's having one's head pounded underfoot against concrete, for those of you who keep a better class of company). Messages like these travel far and we've seen the way they energize dangerous people. To talk about the lives lost at the Capital Gazette outside of that context is willfully naive. So is pretending that we've seen the last of its impact.
Closer to home, we'd be remiss if we didn't note that the Ferndale Enterprise reported this week that a motorcycle racing promoter blamed the paper's editor and publisher, Caroline Titus, for the cancellation of an upcoming event, reportedly calling her a "predator that needs eradication."
To be critical of media organizations and individual journalists, to hold them to a high standard, is necessary. It's also necessary to understand that the press exists to stand in an adversarial role to the power structures that exist within our society — to bring light to dark places, to give voice to the voiceless and a megaphone to uncomfortable truths. The institutions and people journalists cover aren't always going to like them, nor should they.
But demonizing a vital part of our democracy and normalizing violence against it is unconscionable.
And it is also worth noting that certain dark corners of the internet greeted news of the Gazette shootings with no small amount of glee, with proclamations like, "Dead journalists can't spread leftist propaganda," and "Here we go!" Another mused, "I wonder if it's only journalists or if any real people got hurt."
We still don't — and may never — know the full motives and inspirations of the Annapolis shooter. But we do know what drove the five people he murdered.
Rob Hiaasen, 59, was quick to laugh and lived to write about quirky characters in a way that showcased their humanity and to mentor young reporters. Wendy Winters, 65, was a proud Navy mom, church youth advisor and prolific features writer who spent more than a dozen years chronicling Annapolis' successes, from Red Cross volunteers to scout leaders. John McNamara, 56, was a razor witted sports writer through and through who boasted for 24 years of having landed his dream job and never hesitated to help the reporters around him, even his competitors. Rebecca Smith, 34, was a sales assistant known for being kind and considerate, who was engaged and excited about starting a family. Gerald Fischman, 61, was the editorial page editor, described in a Baltimore Sun obituary as "the guardian against libel, the arbiter of taste and a peculiar and endearing figure" who treated "city council races like they were presidential races."
Needless to say, these weren't enemies of the American people. The slain Gazette staffers weren't famous, high-paid pundits profiting off partisan rancor or faceless puppet masters working to reshape the world in their image. Like the vast majority of journalists in newsrooms spread throughout the country, they were people — friends and neighbors — who largely devoted their lives to informing the community they lived in because they considered it a calling, a public service. They were patriots who made the world and those around them better. And they are gone.