Rebecca Smith. Wendi Winters. Rob Hiaasen. John McNamara. Gerald Fischman.
These are the names of the employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, who were gunned down last Thursday. At 2:33 p.m. Jarrod W. Ramos entered the Gazatte’s newsroom with a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun and blasted round after round into mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, journalists—people doing their jobs.
A 2011 article published by the Gazette and written by Eric Thomas Hartley described in detail allegations against Ramos claiming he stalked a woman online. Ramos sued the newspaper for defamation and lost. In Judge Maureen M. Lamasney’s dismissal of the case in 2012 she said there was nothing in the reporting on Ramos that was proven to be false. Lamasney said in her dismissal, "I think people who are the subject of newspaper articles, whoever they may be, feel that there is a requirement that they be placed in the best light, or they have an opportunity to have the story reported to their satisfaction, or have the opportunity to have however much input they believe is appropriate. But that's simply not true.”
On the arts and culture side of reporting, we have to worry a lot less about portraying people in the best light. They already are doing something magical. Like Cody Wilson, the people we talk with are writing chapbooks. Like Empty Spaces, they’re recreating music that has inspired generations of music lovers. Like R.E. Burrillo and Sasha Fernández, they’re exploring an artistic world that paints itself around the back alleys and inconspicuous corners of Flagstaff. We worry even less about the consequences of offending someone’s character than, say, a crime and courts reporter, but we do get the occasional phone call from an individual telling us the quotes or photos we chose made them look bad, letters and emails from people expressing their first amendment right to tell us we suck, which I don’t necessarily see a problem with. The problem is when that disenchantment, anger or hate leads to real-world violence as we unfortunately saw in Annapolis.
Of course it’s too early to tell if the article from 2011 is truly what prompted Ramos to charge into the Gazette seven years later with a shotgun, but to say there is no correlation is to ignore the rhetoric used to describe the role of journalists in this country, rhetoric used from people on the street to President Trump. During his 2016 presidential run and even now during his rallies, he encourages his crowds to mock and boo what he calls the Fake News media. He said in a tweet in February 2017, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.” He has repeatedly called journalists the enemy of the people. The people who were gunned down by a madman. They are the enemy of the people? Not a man who would stifle free speech with the sound of a gun.
The president did offer his condolences on Twitter, the usual thoughts and prayers after something tragic happens. Your thoughts and prayers, Mr. President, are but a whisper among your symphony of hate. Your initial denial of Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley’s request to lower U.S. flags in the city to half-staff to honor the five murdered employees of the Gazette reveals just how much this shooting has not affected you. You have since reversed the denial, but you’ve already shown this country how you feel. You don’t.
But for those who do feel for the deaths of Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Gerald Fischman, there is more we can do. The American Society of News Editors is asking newsrooms worldwide on July 7 at 2:33 p.m. to honor the five individuals who lost their lives at the Capital Gazette, but I would like to extend to you, the readers of Flagstaff Live! and the Arizona Daily Sun. At 2:33 p.m., try to think about what local journalism means to small cities. Think about how journalists struggle and get things wrong and make mistakes. We are not some faraway observers. We are picking out vegetables at the store. We are sipping craft beer. We are catching the same shows. We are people.