The senseless slaughter of four journalists and an advertising sales assistant at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., Thursday should send a cold chill not just through all reporters and editors, but through all of us.
In the case of newspaper people, perhaps it’s because reporting about crime, and doing our best to humanize victims, is such a large part of what we do. The suspect in Thursday’s shooting, Jarrod Ramos, wouldn’t be the first person who thought the circumstances of the crime for which he pleaded guilty, and about which a reporter from the Gazette wrote in a column, were extenuating enough so that his side of the story should have been told. He’s not the first perpetrator to be angry enough at a story that he threatened harm to the reporter who wrote it.
It had to be 30 years ago — at least — that one of our reporters was threatened. Nothing ever materialized, thank God, and the man still walks among us today. But it gave everybody some serious food for thought. Reporters do dangerous work if they’re out and about, trying to expose the underbellies of their coverage areas. There’s bound to be serious pushback.
The relationship between the media and the subjects of their stories has often been tempestuous. In some ways, that’s to be expected. If you cover crime, you’re not going to write many stories that start out “80,000 people in Lynn didn’t get assaulted today.” You’ll focus on the two or three who did, because that’s outside the desired norm. And if you’re the suspect, and you’re identified as such by police, you’ll see your name in the paper. You may not like that, and that’s your right. But you’re delusional if you think it’s going to be left out. People have a right to know who skulks around in their midst.
Similarly, you don’t write “2,000 airplanes landed safely at Logan today.” But you will write, extensively, about the one that crashed.
In the case of Ramos, the situation is more nuanced. He pleaded guilty to stalking a former classmate and, possibly, causing her to lose her job. After the guilty plea, one of the Gazette columnists further detailed the nature of Ramos’ actions, and he ended up suing the paper for defamation. The case was thrown out, he appealed (on the basis that he felt his “side” of the story should be presented with equal weight as the victim’s), and an appellate court ruled against him.
The final disposition in the case was three years ago. So this festered in the suspect’s mind for that long before he took the ultimate action.
Now let’s be reasonable. In all cases such as these, the lion’s share of the blame can be squarely laid at the feet of one person: the perpetrator. There may be ancillary factors, such as our current president’s tirades against the media, or an overall decline in the civility of American discourse (something that did not begin on Jan 20, 2017).
I think history has proven, most emphatically and tragically, that the endless flogging of people, whether they’re reporters, immigrants (undocumented or otherwise), or ethnic/religious groups, makes them easier — and often more acceptable — targets in the minds of many.
But there is no direct cause-and-effect here. The issue here is that one man became obsessed with how he felt the Gazette had wronged him, and that obsession goaded him into taking a shotgun and killing five people. That is frightening.
In the end, and despite the overwhelming temptation to blame the current political climate on this slaughter, this comes down to gun violence visited upon innocent people by someone who, in all likelihood, was mentally damaged. In a week’s time, these five people will become statistics, and the outrage we feel today will recede, either because something else will come along to take its place, or because if we’re good at nothing else, we excel at putting these atrocities in the back of our collective minds and going about our lives.
Thursday it was a newspaper. I’ve lost count of how many times it’s been a school, or law enforcement officers targeted for no other reasons than because of who they were, or just random people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The carnage goes on and on. And the best we seem to be able to do, as a collective society, is wring our hands and come up with an endless list of excuses for why we can’t seem to do anything about it.