It’s been a tough week here in America.
It started with an uncivil debate over civility, after the president’s press secretary was denied service at a farm-to-table restaurant in lovely Lexington, Virginia. I’ve been to Lexington, and had a meal at the Red Hen a few years ago, for what that’s worth.
Then the Supreme Court closed its term with a handful of unfortunate 5-4 decisions. One made it harder for labor unions to survive. One made it easier for politicians to draw legislative districts to their advantage. One upheld a presidential decree denying entry to people born in certain Muslim countries that don’t have business ties to the Trump Organization.
Then Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, meaning Trump gets to name a new Supreme Court justice, putting in jeopardy rights we thought had been firmly established in law.
Then came the mass shooting at a small newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. It was the 179th mass shooting of the year, with half a year to go. Every one of them is an outrage and a tragedy, but this one especially hit home for me.
I worked for 37 years in the newsrooms of small newspapers very much like the Capital Gazette, most of that time as editorial page editor. We dealt with crazy and angry folks all the time: people mad about an editorial I wrote, an obituary that stirred up a family dispute, a letter to the editor I wouldn’t print, an arrest record we wouldn’t cover up, or a carrier who wouldn’t leave the paper on the porch like the customer wanted. They threatened to cancel their subscriptions, call the owner, file a lawsuit or do us physical harm. I always tried to take it in stride. These were our readers and dealing with crazies was part of the job. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried about one of these angry readers showing up with a gun. My wife worried too.
Tom Marquardt, former executive editor of the Capital Gazette, worried especially about one local crazy who had been harassing folks in his newsroom for years. Jarrod Ramos had been upset over a news article that cast him in a bad light. He had sued, and he had threatened. “I said at one time to my attorneys that this was a guy that was going to come and shoot us,” he told the New York Times. Thursday, he did.
I didn’t know any of the five people killed by Ramos, but I worked closely with people just like them: Wendy Winters, 65, who knew everyone in Ann Arundel county and covered neighborhood news no one cared about except readers; Rebecca Smith, 34, a recently-hired sales assistant, described as kind, likeable and enthusiastic about finding a media job; John McNamara, 56, a former sports writer who was now the single reporter covering Bowie, Maryland, and who also edited two of the company’s weeklies; Rob Hiaasen, 59, an editor and features columnist, formerly a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, who was considered a mentor by young reporters at the Capital; Gerald Fischman, 61, the longtime editorial page editor, known for his tightly-reasoned editorials and for the influence his writing had on community leaders.
Local journalism is a public service and a fun job, where you can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s also a constant struggle to survive in a dying industry. At papers like the Capital Gazette and my MetroWest Daily News, downsizing forces everyone to take on multiple jobs. You work long hours for crappy pay and leave the office feeling like you still didn’t give the community the newspaper it deserves.
I was one of the lucky few who squeezed a full career out of newspaper journalism, retiring 18 months ago on my own schedule, before the corporation laid me off or bought me out. Four of the five Capital Gazette journalists killed Thursday were within a few years of being able to pull off the same feat. I cry for them, their colleagues and families.
Meanwhile, we’re coming up on the Fourth of July, a holiday dedicated to feeling good about the U.S.A. For many people, that’s going to be tough this year. In my column this week, I do my best to recall the ideals that underlie our patriotism, and to find in the folding of a giant flag in a historic fort a lesson in freedom and unity. You can read it here: