There is an saddening numbness to the violence taking place in American schools and places of worship at the hands of people with grudges and easy access to weapons of destruction. So why does this time feel different to me?
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been there and done that, working at a small community newspaper that covered city hall, schools, cops, high school sports and flea market sales. At a newspaper housed in a former supermarket building and populated by people in editorial and administration with lifelong ties to the community.
And although I was a wet-behind-the-ears reporter focusing on fame (certainly not fortune) as someone willing to hold elected officials responsible I still think fondly of that community many decades later. And I even remember some of the back street shortcuts to get from here to there.
Local journalism is crucial to the health of our American Way of Life. And as the attack on Capital Gazette newsroom shifted that attack from words to bullets, it’s appropriate to ask how healthy is that way of life.
The shooter had a grudge against the newspaper for reporting facts in a 2011 column that provided an account of his guilty plea to criminal harassment of a woman over social media. He lost a defamation case against the paper in 2015.
The Washington Post also recounted a 2013 incident that was reported and investigated by law enforcement but that the Gazette decided “not to press forward because they were afraid it was going to exacerbate the situation.”
Journalists are taught early and often that facts matter and mistakes need to be corrected immediately. Even then there can be repercussions. I was sued for libel by a local resident who was many months deliquent on his property taxes but paid up between the time I pulled his name from the city collector and treasurer’s books and the list was published one week later.
It was the pre-computer era and my paper was acquitted. But I learned a valuable lesson about checking, re-checking and checking yet again. It’s a lesson I share with my students today.
But that was clearly ancient technological times. We are computerized and connected 24–7. And we are no longer in a time where facts are inviolable.
Rather we have an administration in Washington that speaks about “alternative facts.” And they offer those misstatements, fudges, false assertions and lies in a media environment where ideologically based outlets contend the need to straighten out the alleged biases of those who deal with real facts.
It’s been this way for decades — talk radio, cable news shoutfests, web sites that spread conspiracies once accessible only to the diehard tinfoil hat crowd.
What’s different today is the President of the United States — someone sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, including First Amendment rights to a free press — has adopted rhetoric reminiscent of tinhorn dictators. That language is a centerpiece of his rallies where he rails against fake news and the crowd turns on reporters covering those rallies shaking fists and shouting epithets.
What happened in the Capital Gazette newsroom was no surprise given the heated rhetoric.
Nor is it surprising that Donald Trump’s chief communications officer on the state media Fox News Channel, Sean Hannity, sought to inflame those passions more by immediately blaming California Democrat Maxine Waters — before anyone knew anything about the shooter. Never mind common sense alone suggested a) keeping your mouth shut until facts are known and b) a Waters supporter would not likely target a newsroom.
Even more predictable was that Hannity would attempt to deny the very words he uttered and captured on tape.
These are perilous times. People are angry. Those who elected Donald Trump did so because they felt marginalized and ripped off by a government of, by and for the highest bidder. Never mind they voted for someone who has made the old system look benign.
Those who voted against Trump are angry at his assault on truth, justice and yes, the American Way, where we try to be agreeable even if we disagree. Where once controversial Presidents tried to be a “uniter, not a divider” — even if he didn’t do a great job in the regard — today we have a chief executive who revels in pouring gasoline on the fire.
It’s not going to get better anytime soon. A case can be made that Republicans have staged a coup by electing a President, Senate, and House despite not getting more votes than Democrats. And a naked political move by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shifted the balance of the Supreme Court.
So yes, while the murder of five journalists isn’t different than that of the literally hundreds killed in churches and schools and country music concerts in recent months, it feels scarier to me.
Because I fear we are teetering on a edge of a struggle for the survival of our beliefs and our very way of life.