Thursday, I got to feel like a kid again.
Not a kid like in my carefree days of Pop Rocks and cartoon tag. But like a kid in America today.
When I heard about the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, I thought this is what it feels like to know that at any moment you can be a hashtag. This is what it feels like to know that someone can come in at any moment and open fire — while you’re sitting at your desk, while you’re doing your work, while anything.
By Thursday evening, we learned from police that the man suspected of killing five people — Jarrod Ramos — had had a beef with the Capital Gazette for years.
And the Twittervers dove into the connection between that shooting, politics and partisanship.
Was Ramos — after years of fighting with the paper over its reporting of a story about him — listening to Milo Yiannopoulos two days before, when he implored folks to “start gunning journalists down”?
Did he, like the president, see journalists as enemies of the public?
My newsroom in Washington went into high-security status. The New York Times was protected by NYPD officers. Baltimore police went to the Sun, which owns the Gazette. It was all out of an abundance of caution. No one knew what the motivation was.
What I do know is that for a moment I saw what it must be like for kids who live in a country where there have been 17 school shootings so far this year.
The dozens of journalists gathered Thursday outside the industrial park newsroom of the Gazette were tense. More than usual.
Many of us know these community papers. We got our start there. Some have made careers there.
These are not the people chasing congressmen through the halls of the Capitol, or wrangling with CIA officials for information on the latest terrorist cell. Ever read about the construction on your street, the plans for the new rec center, who won the crab contest, how the state delagates voted on highway funds or about the uptick in crime at the mall?
As Gazette community news editor and metro columnist Jimmy DeButts tweeted, “We try to expose corruption. We fight to get access to public records & bring to light the inner workings of government despite major hurdles put in our way. The reporters & editors put their all into finding the truth. That is our mission. Will always be.”
This is local reporting. This is journalism.
Reporters go into neighborhoods people are afraid of, armed with nothing but a notebook and pen. When a town evacuates, they’re the ones heading in, getting soaked and battered by the wind. And sometimes worse, like WYFF-TV reporter Michael McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer, who died while chasing a storm in Greenville, South Carolina in May.
The reporters at the Gazette aren’t the authors of the fake news so many folks are confused by on their Facebook feeds.
The paper, according to its website, has been around since 1727, when it was the Maryland Gazette. It was one of the first to print the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
It’s been doing this journalism thing for a while.
And like other newspapers, when they get something wrong, they correct it. It was Street, not Avenue. The vote was 4 to 3, not 5 to 2. She spells her name Allyson, not Allison. Integrity is at the heart of it all.
Journalists at this paper cover community meetings and state hearings late into the night. They eat crap lunches at their desks while filing their third story of the day. There’s a good chance that some of their cars were not made in this century. I know; this was me, for many years.
In the past couple decades, we’ve moved from getting letters in the mail disputing reporting — sometimes they included a clip of our story with the most offensive parts highlighted. But in the past few years, being a journalist means a daily, online assault. I am showered with the kind of violent, vulgar emails, tweets and comments that suggest I go kill or have sexual relations with myself. Really, we’ve all been fearing this would happen.
It’s too easy for politicians looking for a boogeyman to think of reporters as the shrill pundits arguing on TV. They don’t represent the bulk of working journalists.
And it’s hard to decide whether this feels worse because it is an attack on journalists, rather than a random massacre. Somehow, we have digested these uniquely American, scattershot incidents as part of being in America.
Most of us can go to a movie theater, the mall, the grocery store, our cubicle offices and the doctor without really thinking of all the mass shootings that happened there.
We take off our shoes at airports and let guards dip into our pants and blouses so we feel safe.
But what if they are going to our newsrooms and gunning us down simply because of what we do, because of where we are? Is that worse if we know why?
To our kids and teachers, who face this possibility every day, the “why” doesn’t matter. The fact that it keeps happening does.
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