The reports last Thursday of the tragic murder of five employees of The Capital Gazette, the local newspaper in Annapolis, Md., hit home, literally, for me on several levels.
As many of you may know from my writings, Annapolis, the historic and charming capital of Maryland, is my hometown, where my father, as rabbi, and my mother, as rebbetzin, devoted decades of their lives serving the century-old Congregation Kneseth Israel with passion and warmth — a synagogue and community that will always be dear to my heart.
I grew up reading the daily Evening Capital, now part of The Capital Gazette, which billed itself as America’s oldest newspaper, dating back to 1727, almost three centuries ago. My teenage dream was to become a reporter there, though as I grew older I sometimes mocked the hyper-local, small-town coverage on display on the front page. World and national news took a back seat to stories covering local zoning battles or features on the annual flower show.
But that kind of close coverage of one’s neighbors is what makes local newspapers so integral to a community. The editors and reporters aren’t writing about national figures or covering world affairs. They’re writing about their neighbors, people they may interact with at a PTA meeting or see on Main Street. That lack of separation between journalist and reader can be charming, but it also makes the journalist vulnerable to criticism that can be frighteningly direct and personal.
I was touched to receive calls after the shooting from people, including readers I don’t know, who thought of me when they heard where the tragedy took place and wanted to know if I was alright and if I knew any of the victims. I didn’t. But one of the surviving employees of The Gazette, quoted in many of the reports of the shooting, is the son of a childhood friend who I’ve kept in touch with over the years and whose father was my fifth-grade Hebrew school teacher.
When I called before Shabbat to tell her I was thinking of her and her family, she told me they were all still numb from the shock, that several of the victims were known and admired by just about everyone in town, and that her son came home that awful night dreading going to five funerals.
Sadly, the fatal shooting in the Annapolis newsroom by a disturbed local citizen with a grudge against The Gazette’s reporting from years past seemed chillingly familiar to community newspaper journalists around the country.
“I think we all know this person, or some variation of him,” observed Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. She told The New York Times: “As soon as you hear this story, you flash to all of these situations that you’ve dealt with.”
I’ve had my share of threats from angry Jewish Week readers over the years, including a physical threat I took seriously enough to contact the authorities. It was the result of my reporting on a rabbi later jailed for sexually abusing teenagers in his charge; the anonymous caller said he was seeking revenge for the harm I was doing to the rabbi.
I’ve learned that reporting on one’s own community — the achievements and the flaws — has its benefits and risks. I try not to let fear of possible violent reactions to our coverage affect my judgment in helping to decide what goes in the paper each week. But it is hard to ignore the reality of mass shootings that have become almost commonplace in our society in recent years — in schools, in movie theaters and now in a newsroom. I can’t help but believe that President Trump’s bullying behavior and politically based efforts to divide rather than unite our society — “us” against “them” — has unleashed a violent impulse among haters and malcontents among us. And his statement expressing sympathy after the Annapolis shooting made me more upset. It rang so hollow, given his persistent efforts in his presidential campaign and, increasingly, in office to demean and even demonize the working press.
“This attack shocked the conscience of our nation and filled our hearts with grief,” Trump said. “Journalists like all Americans should be free of the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs.”
These words from our national leader who has physically penned in journalists at his campaign rallies, mocked them as reporting “fake news” in front of thousands of jeering supporters, derided specific reporters in personal tweets and repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people.”
How can he accuse us of being “enemies” of American society and then assert that we should be able to do our jobs free of fear of violent attack? Is it any surprise that polls now indicate 92 percent of Republicans believe mainstream reporting is biased and fake?
As the endless debate over gun control continues, so do the shootings. Maybe it’s time to stop publishing the names and photos of the shooters, who seek a perverse glory in their bloody acts. (Baseball broadcasts no longer show rowdy fans who run on the field, and the incidents are said to have decreased as a result.)
There is no one answer to the kind of violence that we’ve become inured to of late. But the chilling reality is that “kill the messenger,” a phrase that goes back to Shakespeare and, some say, Sophocles, in referring to taking out one’s anger against an innocent party, is now a very real concern for every working journalist.
The brave survivors of The Gazette shooting brought pride and honor to the profession, and their fallen colleagues, by responding in exactly the way they should have — getting back to work and providing the news as professionally as possible.