It is a telling commentary on the state of our nation that many, upon hearing of the shootings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis on Thursday, wondered if the motivation for the attack was political in nature.
Was this what happens when the president declares the press an enemy of the people? Was this what happens when radical liberals call for violence against radical conservatives? Was this what happens when the term “mainstream media” is uttered in snide contempt? Was this what happens to purveyors of fake news?
In the immediacy of the event, it was impossible not to ponder those possible lines of motivation for the shooter who killed five members of the Gazette’s staff and wounded others.
But in the end, the motive for the attack was found to be much more pedestrian. Law enforcement officials say the shooter was a man with a grudge who felt he had been harmed by coverage in the newspaper in the past, had sued the paper in court and lost, and ultimately set out with a shotgun to get revenge.
It wasn’t politics. It was journalists killed for doing what journalist do, although in this case the newspaper staffers with whom the assailant had a history no longer even worked there, and those killed had nothing to do with the events that had led to his filing a lawsuit against the paper.
We aren’t really accustomed to journalists being attacked and killed in this country. It happens occasionally, but not with the regularity that it does in other nations. Data gathered by The Committee to Protect Journalists indicates seven journalists were slain in the United States from 1992-2015 in job-related attacks. Thursday’s events will add five new names to the list.
Worldwide, the threat to those who attempt to report the news is much larger. The Committee reports 29 journalists killed around the world so far in 2018, and 1,306 since 1992, or roughly 25 a year. Mexico, Columbia and certain Middle Eastern countries have proven to be the most dangerous places for journalists to ply their trade.
The numbers are low in comparison to those in high-risk professions, such as military personnel and first responders, but the reality is that in most cases those who attack journalists aren’t just attacking an individual, but an institution. In the Gazette shooting, it likely didn’t matter to the assailant that those he killed had nothing to do with the original coverage that left him enraged, it was the newspaper itself that was his enemy; it was the newspaper he attacked.
And the next day, it was the Gazette newspaper that miraculously was on the streets, with its coverage of the attack and stories of the staffers killed, with its blank editorial page reflecting, as it said, the fact the paper was “speechless.”
So what to make of the attack on the Gazette given the facts as we know them now?
Newspapers and other media outlets make enemies. That has been true for as long as there has been any avenue for distributing the news. In the Maryland attack, anger turned to vitriol which turned to deadly rage.
Would that rage have been expressed in such a violent manner if ours were currently a less hostile society? That’s a question better suited to being answered by historians a century down the road.
While not of this magnitude, attacks on journalist have happened in the past. Remember 2001, when anthrax was mailed to a number of journalists, resulting in the death of one? That was long before the concept of “fake news” was ever introduced into the nation’s lexicon. But it’s hard not to wonder if mass shootings are not somehow more readily accepted now as an option for those whose irrational minds convince them there is some sort of perverse honor in killing.
As journalists, we’ll leave the psychiatric analysis to others better trained to do so. That’s not our jobs. We are there to report on what happens, to give perspective when we can, and to keep our communities informed about what’s going on around them. That was the job of the Capital Gazette before Thursday’s shooting, and the job the day after as well.
Professionally we grieve, and symbolically link arms with those everywhere who take it upon themselves to report the news to the masses. Personally, you wonder if it could ever happen to you, remembering threats from unhappy people in the past and fully aware of how easily those can escalate into something more.
One of the truisms of the profession is that we all sometimes report on things we can’t fully comprehend. We’ll never understand the carnage of Annapolis, but the people of the world will hear about it and be able to draw their own conclusions – because the journalists of the world will tell them what they need to know to do so.
From the Gainesville Times editorial board.