The distance between Annapolis, Maryland, and Olympia, Washington is 2,778 miles.
But with each shotgun blast that ripped through the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis Thursday, the distance between the two capital cities shrank, then disappeared.
Thursday’s horror marked the 154th mass shooting in the United States this year. Mass slayings have become part of our culture, part of our collective psyche. They happen at schools and churches, theaters and doughnut shops, car washes and now, newsrooms.
I spent 35 years working at The Olympian, another smallish newspaper in a state capital city, more like the Capital Gazette than dissimilar to it. They both try to cover the capitals of their states with shrinking staffs struggling to meet the high expectations of their readers. They are both owned by large media companies. Each of their offices have relocated of late to smaller and perhaps more exposed locations.
I’ve never met any of the five Capital Gazette employees, four journalists and an advertising sales representative, who were gunned down in the targeted attack. Yet I know countless men and women in the world of print journalism who do the same kind of work for the same kind of reasons. They are the editorial page writers and columnists and reporters who cover their communities because they care about them.
I’ve never met the 38-year-old man who held a grudge against the Gazette for writing about his harassment of a high school classmate several years ago. But I have encountered others just like him with that same deranged look in their eye and that same hateful vendetta brewing inside their unstable minds.
By the very nature of their work, journalists make both friends and enemies. Their work is just as likely to be criticized and condemned as it is to be praised and respected. Rarely do the disgruntled readers step outside the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior. In most cases, they bark but don’t bite.
But I can think of a few cases in my career when there were threats made against my life. I remember a late night phone call I received at home. My number was listed in the phone book. I wasn’t trying to hide from anybody. The caller, obviously intoxicated and apparently calling from a bar, warned me to stop writing such critical stories about the cost overruns and schedule delays at the Satsop nuclear power plant construction site near Elma. “You’re messing with my job and that’s not good for your health,” he said before hanging up.
Another time I was told by a spokesman for Pierce County syndicate to drop my investigation of pollution problems at a Grays Harbor landfill that the enterprise controlled. “Back off, if you know what’s good for you,” he said to me casually over lunch when my editor, who was with us at my request, had excused himself to go to the bathroom.
Neither threat changed my approach to the stories I was covering and neither threat materialized into anything more than words.
I imagine that every newsroom in this country has a short list of disgruntled readers that are no longer welcome in the newsroom and no longer tolerated when they call to berate a reporter or editor. We knew all along that they can slip through the cracks and do lethal damage. Now it has happened.
I can’t help but think that the anger ante has been upped in recent years. All this talk of “fake news” just fans the flames of distrust and hatred toward the media. When I retired from The Olympian in 2015, I had never even heard that phrase before.
To have a president that repeatedly labels the media as an “enemy of the people”‘ is reckless and dangerous. It’s a threat to the journalists trying to cover the news to the best of their abilities. It’s an insult to the public who relies on professional journalists to keep them informed. Mean-spirited media bashing has become a contact sport fomented by the Trump presidency in his impulsive tweets and frenzied political rallies. It’s time for that game to end.