It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m still numb.
Two days ago, in the postcard-perfect city of Annapolis, Maryland, a guy with a grudge barricaded the back door of the Capital Gazette, walked into the newsroom with a pump-action shotgun and killed four journalists and one sales rep.
He wanted to kill more.
All over a piece a staffer wrote about him in 2011 after he became part of the daily drama found in any courtroom in any city in America: He pleaded guilty to a crime.
He harassed on social media a former high school classmate, and an intrepid reporter wrote 15 paragraphs about it in the regular feature, “Anne Arundel Report.” I mean, why not? Social media has become part of who we are, a tool for discovery and terror. She found the terror.
She had to move three times and eventually moved out of Maryland to escape his threats. As for him, he simply got angrier over what the Capital Gazette printed about what happened.
He felt he didn’t get to tell his side of the story. He sued the paper for defamation, he lost – a judge dismissed it – and he then took to Twitter three years ago with this death knell of a message: “Journalism Hell awaits.”
Then came Thursday.
What have we become?
Every journalist I know has a bucket full of stories about irate readers calling him or her all kinds of names. It’s a part of the job description really.
See, when you have to ferret out the truth in every corner of the community you cover, you have to pore through documents, talk to people, talk to people some more and park yourself in front of a glowing screen for hours putting together what you believe is based on fact, not supposition.
Depending on what you cover, from courts to cops to schools to … just anything, readers sometimes don’t like what you come up with, and they’ll tell you as much in the most colorful of ways.
They’ll yell, threaten and point their fingers inches from your nose. They’ll dis-invite you from some public function and shame you for everyone they know to see. Or they’ll leave messages on your voice mail when they know you’re not at your desk.
Those messages are always my favorites.
They’ll rattle off a litany of choice descriptions about you and your lack of talent, morals and family lineage. I’ve had many of those. Here are a couple I remember:
“Jeri Rowe, you make me sick!”
“Jeri Rowe, you’re a talent-less hack.”
“Jeri Rowe, you son of a bitch, you better quit writing about …”
So it goes.
Ask any journalist. They all have stories like that. And those stories have names and plots full of characters who seemingly step straight from the pages of a novel.
And yet, despite fielding such venom, journalists continue to work, doing what they love, believing what they do is important because they see themselves delivering to the reading public something bigger than themselves – news stories that help define the community where we all live.
Then came Thursday. Time: 2:40 in the afternoon.
In 60 seconds, four journalists and a sales rep were killed while doing their job in the most American of locations – in a newsroom across the street from a mall, minutes from the U.S. Naval Academy and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Those who died, I now know their names. We all should.
Wendi Winters, 65, a mother of four and the paper’s special sections editor. She covered the arts and wrote a column called “Teen of the Week.” She was a Girl Scout leader, a Red Cross volunteer, a self-described “proud Navy mom” who had been involved in community journalism for more than two decades.
John McNamara, 56, the paper’s sports reporter, described by one former colleague as a “pen and paper guy.” He had worked at the Capital Gazette for more than 20 years. He had mentored young reporters and did what he always wanted to do — writing about the ups and downs of athletes, from pee-wee to the pros.
Gerald Fischman, 61, the paper’s editorial page editor. He had worked at the Capital Gazette for 26 years and had won his share of writing awards. He was the quiet guy in the newsroom with the sharp wit, and like many journalists, he had his own distinctive quirk. He came to work wearing cardigans with holes in the elbows. Do love that.
Rebecca Smith, 34, sales rep. Her hair had appeared in all shades — from blonde to brown to pink. Do love that, too. Her passions were softball, field hockey and her fiance. She started working at the Capital Gazette in November and was looking forward to her upcoming wedding.
And Rob Hiaasen, 59. He was the paper’s assistant editor. He also was a columnist and the youngest brother of novelist Carl Hiaasen.
In Rob’s obituary, one of his former colleagues said: “He was both a tender-hearted features writer and a jaded journalist. He absolutely saw it all, and with a very clear eye.”
May every journalist be remembered that way. As a former columnist, I gotta give some props to Rob. The guy could write.
He was a Florida native, and he loved Tom Petty, another Florida native. My wife, Katherine, loves Tom Petty, too. When Petty died, Rob wrote:
“What is good music? Good music is the music you put on when you’re alone or you don’t want to be alone, and either way the music makes you feel something in your day-job guts. And if it ain’t love or heartache or defiance or hope, then it’s close enough.”
The ripple effect of losing Rob and Gerald, John, Wendi and Rebecca will be felt for a long time in every newsroom in America, with every journalist in America. It’s because of what we do — and what we can no longer believe.
We news gatherers always work in dingy work spaces where we cuss, work long hours for little pay and drink copious amounts of coffee on deadline. It never is a pretty place. But it’s a sacred place, a place where we always felt incredibly safe among co-workers we saw as family.
And now, like schools nationwide, newsrooms are no longer danger free.
All because of Thursday. All because of a guy with a grudge.
In 2014, I left daily journalism after 28 years chasing stories in four different states. I now work as the senior writer at High Point University, where I lecture in a few classes about the various aspects of journalism and write books, write essays, write videoscripts and write about professors, programs and students.
I ran into one of those students Friday afternoon. She was sitting in HPU’s Slane Student Center, head down, eyebrows knit together, shoulders pulled in, reading message after message after message on her iPhone.
I knew immediately what that was all about. It was because of her hometown.
She’s from Annapolis, the site of America’s latest mass shooting, another city joining a growing list of communities where bloodshed has happened for no sane reason other than unbridled hate.
So, I stopped. We talked.
‘“That building is 10 minutes from my house,’’ she told me, her eyes tearing up as she raked her hands through her strawberry blonde hair. “I mean, Annapolis of all places. It’s about Navy and boating and crabs. Not this.”
Thursday afternoon became the 154th mass shooting of 2018. Meanwhile, the remaining journalists at the Capital Gazette did what journalists always do.
Here’s their front page Friday.
Here’s the editorial page Friday.
That is some kind of powerful.
Now, here’s a comment from a Capital Gazette staffer to CNN’s Anderson Cooper:
“I’m gonna need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers. So, thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”
She is so right. There can’t be nothing else. And yet …
Thoughts and prayers will come, mourning will continue, candlight vigils will happen, politicians will wring their hands and the talk of gun reform will start … and die.
But what kills me is what I see that lit the fuse that convinced this guy with a grudge to go all vigilante and shoot up a newsroom.
Think about what surrounds us. Think about what we hear, what we see and what passes for leadership in the White House every single day.
A year ago, you saw a presidential candidate with the quick Twitter thumbs write: “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people. SICK!”
Around that same time, you saw the face of the National Rifle Association put out a video where she calls journalists the “rat bastards of the earth” who need to be – in her words – “curb-stomped.”
Then, at campaign rallies for that same Twitter man, you saw T-shirts like this.
All that in the land of the First Amendment, in a country where on a wall in downtown Chicago chiseled in granite is this quote from Robert McCormick, a war hero and the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune from long ago.
And yeah, Robert McCormick was a Republican. He once said:
Hell yeah, I say. But that’s why some people hate us. We uncover what’s messy, what the powerful, the criminal and the downright unlucky don’t want anyone to see.
That is part of the job, too. So, why do it at all? Well, Miami Herald’s Dave Barry answered that in his column Friday. He wrote:
Here’s the corny-but-true part: They do it for you. Every time they write a story, they’re hoping you’ll read it, maybe learn something new, maybe smile, maybe get mad and want to do something.
That’s what the people were doing at the Capital Gazette when they were shot. And the survivors, God bless them, put out a paper the next day. Because that’s what we do in this business.
So criticize us all you want; when we screw up, feel free to call us on it.
But don’t say we don’t care.
Since Thursday’s rampage, I’ve taken to Facebook to write a few posts. Many of my old newsroom colleagues did. We all felt this need to vent, grieve and try to figure out the why behind the what.
I didn’t find any answer. Still, I felt almost driven to the digital page. So did my friend, Gerald Witt.
Gerald and I had worked together for years at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. We drank beer together, talked about The Grateful Dead together and chased stories steps from one another in a bowling alley of a newsroom full of ringing phones.
Gerald now lives on the other side of the Great Smokies in Knoxville, Tenn. Like so many journalists I know, he got laid off there from the local paper. That happened last year. He now is an investigator for the public defender’s office in Knoxville and teaches a journalism class at the University of Tennessee.
On Friday, he wrote:
“I teach journalism. Just one class per semester, and it’s mostly a bunch of war stories and “how-to” stuff. Intro stuff. Now I’ll have to tell my students – the next generation of community reporters – that they must watch out for their safety, and journalism will suffer as a result. Why? Because it’s hard to plug into an interview when you’re watching the door.
“War correspondents expect this, and are trained for that. Not your local community reporter, working on deadline on a Thursday, who is just a few minutes away from leaving the newsroom to go see their spouse, walk the dog, or grab a cold cheap beer.
“Here’s a good line: buy a newspaper, save a journalist.
“Today, hug a journalist. And if you have it in your heart, maybe commiserate and say thanks, too.”
My sentiments exactly. That and raise holy Hell in all kinds of ways.
This just can’t happen. Ever again.