Last week, a California man was arrested for threatening to assassinate journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper.
In a series of phone calls, the suspect lashed the Globe for its editorials critical of Donald Trump and parroted a phrase often bellowed by the President: “You’re the enemy of the people.”
In one call, the suspect vowed “to kill every f------ one of you.” He owned several firearms and, according to authorities, had recently purchased a rifle.
There was a time when I might have read about such a case and assumed the person was just another fuming, rambling misfit, all bluff.
I don’t think that way anymore. Now, a story like this is desolately chilling.
Two months ago, a man with a shotgun walked into the office of a small Maryland newspaper and murdered five people.
The newspaper is the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. Gerald Fischman, the 61-year-old editorial page editor, was one of the shooter’s victims. Another was a longtime sports writer named John McNamara, who was 56. A third was Becky Smith, 34, a sales assistant new to her job.
A fourth victim was Wendi Winters, a popular writer and columnist. She was 65. Survivors said she yelled and ran at the killer, trying to stop him from entering the newsroom. Her actions likely gave several staffers time to hide.
The other name on the list of dead was my only brother Rob, an editor and columnist for the paper. He was 59.
I mention him last because that’s what he would have wanted. He also would have wanted me to write more about his colleagues than about him, but I didn’t know them personally.
I wish I had.
So many compelling tributes to Rob have been published since his death that there seems little to add. He was six years younger than I am, but every spark of shining talent was his own. There was nothing I could have taught him — and much I could have learned from how he approached his life and craft.
We were very close, yet over the years he won journalism awards that he never told me about and wrote exquisite feature stories that he seldom sent to me. As noted by one of the many reporters that Rob mentored, he “cringed at compliments.”
Although he stood 6’5”, it was his kindness and drily tuned wit that filled the room. As Jimmy DeButts, one of his colleagues, recalled:
“If you were lucky enough to have a minute with Rob, you were the only person in his universe. … You mattered. You were special. You were important.”
He and I never worked at the same paper. I stayed here at the Herald, while Rob’s path took him to the Palm Beach Post, the Baltimore Sun and, finally, the smaller Capital Gazette, where he became an assistant editor and wrote a column.
He had misgivings about joining management, but I knew he’d be terrific in his new role, and I told him so.
He hated the idea of firing anyone, as editors occasionally must do, but even more difficult was enacting the broader staff layoffs that have hobbled almost every newsroom in the country. That part of the job made Rob sick to his stomach, literally.
What he truly loved about his work was putting out the news for the residents of Anne Arundel County in Maryland. It was basic hometown journalism, joyfully pure.
The Capital Gazette — often just called The Capital — is one of the nation’s oldest papers. In recent days, it has covered the burial of Sen. John McCain at the Naval Academy, a student art contest celebrating the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a deadly wrong-way car accident on Route 50.
I assure you that the reporters and editors who worked on those stories aren’t “enemies of the people.” My brother wasn’t, either.
Whether you’re covering the White House or the local school board, your job as a journalist is essentially the same: Get as much of the truth as you can, and present it in a meaningful way to important participants in a democracy.
Your readers, in other words.
As an editor, Rob wanted to see thorough, informed reporting and clear, sharp writing.
Nothing aggravated him more than fact errors and misspellings, though we often laughed about how many different ways our last name got mangled by those in our own profession.
Rob wasn’t as caustic and jaded as I am, and his style was more personal. The last column he sent to me was about our mom, who passed away two summers ago. It was poignant and funny, but it choked me up so much that the best I could manage was an email reply:
“That’s truly a wonderful piece, man. It’s really all I can say right now. God, I miss her, too.”
That was May 30. Four weeks later, Rob was dead.
The twisted little creep who killed him and his colleagues held a long grudge against The Capital, the details of which had no connection to any of the victims. In 2011, the man pleaded guilty to harassing a woman, and the newspaper had accurately reported the circumstances.
A flaky libel suit that the stalker filed had long ago been tossed out of court, but he continued threatening staff members online. I recall Rob mentioning it to me once or twice; he sounded concerned, but then the threats abated.
On June 28, the day of the murders, the shooter mailed letters to The Capital’s former attorney, a judge and an appeals court. In the letters, which arrived after the crime, the shooter declared he was heading to the newspaper to kill everyone there.
That’s probably what would have happened if he’d taken an assault rifle instead of a shotgun. The time it took him to reload bought several precious seconds for the six employees who survived. The police arrived swiftly and found the gunman hiding under a desk.
I know enough about my brother’s final moments to realize I don’t want to know any more.
He and I chose a career that in these times requires writing about mass shootings in ghastly detail and with sickening frequency. As I write these words, police are swarming the scene of a fatal multiple shooting in downtown Cincinnati.
And only two weeks ago, a young contestant at a video-game tournament in Jacksonville killed two people, wounded nine others and then shot himself.
If he were still alive, Rob and I would have been on the phone talking about these acts of bloody lunacy, as we talked after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and too many others. The Stoneman Douglas massacre was particularly shocking, because I, Rob and our sisters had attended Plantation High School, not far from Parkland.
When my brother and I discussed these tragedies, we spoke not as hard-bitten reporters trying to analyze a hideous crime, but as fathers trying to figure out what kind of a country we were leaving to our children, and their children.
Rob was murdered on his wife’s birthday. He had placed Maria’s gift on the dining room table before driving to the newsroom for the last time.
Now our family is part of the fast-growing, long-grieving community of those whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. Every spouse, parent, sibling or child of a victim has soul-wrenching stories to tell, like ours, about the beloved and irreplaceable person they’ve lost.
The pain never ebbs. The tears never dry. The awful cosmic questions never get answered.
My brother wasn’t shot because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was shot because he was exactly where he was supposed to be, where he wanted to be, editing a newspaper on deadline for the readers in a town he loved.
He was shot because he was a journalist, and for no other reason. You can go online and find more than a few yammering fascists who think that’s perfectly OK here in the United States of America, in the year 2018.
The guy who threatened to shoot up the Boston Globe plainly held that view.
Yet the people of Anne Arundel County don’t view their daily paper as the enemy. A community fund to benefit the families of the slain Capital Gazette staffers already has raised almost $1 million.
Scholarships in Rob’s name and for other victims have been set up at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in College Park, where my brother taught a reporting class.
A fine novel that he finished, Float Plan, is being published on Sept. 15 by Apprentice House Press. The proceeds will go to Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
These are positive things that have buoyed my brother’s wife and their three grown children, and will help carry them forward. As the Parkland survivors and families can tell you, there will forever be days when it all still seems impossible, unreal, unendurable.
Each of us struggles with overwhelming loss in our own way, so I wrote a column, which, after an eternity in this business, is all I know how to do.
It would have been a better piece if Rob had been here looking over my shoulder. By now he would have gently told me to wrap it up, for God’s sake.
So I will, by borrowing from his friend Jimmy DeButts.
My brother mattered. He was special. He was important.
And he still is. They all are.
That’s a fact.