On Thursday afternoon, a man with a shotgun walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, and shot five people dead. Gerald Fischman, the paper’s award-winning opinion-page editor, who had worked there for 26 years. Columnist and editor Rob Hiaasen. Sports reporter John McNamara. Sales assistant Rebecca Smith. Community reporter and editor Wendi Winters.
I know I should stay detached, but sometimes it becomes impossible. I work in newsrooms. It is easy for all of us, all journalists, to imagine being there, in that newsroom, on that day.
“I’m a police reporter. I write about this stuff – not necessarily to this extent, but shootings and death – all the time,” Phil Davis, a reporter at the Gazette who survived the attack, told the Baltimore Sun. Following the shooting, armed police now guard the doors to American newspapers. I know of people who have written this story through tears.
Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the paper, wrote a heart-breaking thread on Twitter after the shooting: “Capital Gazette reporters and editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays – just a passion for telling stories from our community,” he wrote. “We keep doing more with less. We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets and local entertainment,” he continued. “We are there in times of tragedy. We do our best to share the stories of people, those who make our community better.”
This was an acute tragedy piled on top of a chronic tragedy. Local newspapers in the US, and everywhere really, have been squeezed and squeezed by economic pressures. Big conglomerates or corporate raiders buy up local papers or TV stations and then slash their budgets. Facebook and Google have destroyed online advertising; Craigslist and its ilk have destroyed classified ads. Local journalism is a tough industry, full of people who work out of love for the job, and a sense of responsibility to their community and to the truth. After the attack, Chase Cook, a reporter at the paper, simply wrote: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” And, heroically, they did:
— Capital Gazette (@capgaznews) June 29, 2018
Being a reporter, especially a local news reporter, is not just a hard and often thankless job; it is a dangerous one. Just two days before the shooting, Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor and alt-right provocateur, texted two journalists – one at the New York Observer and one at the Daily Beast – saying “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” The texts were private, but they are representative of a disturbing and widespread phenomenon. President Donald Trump has often called journalists “the enemies of the people,” and his political allies have followed suit. “Fake news” has become the stick the administration uses to beat journalists.
Online, in alt-right and far-right haunts like 4chan’s febrile /pol/ board, under the cover of anonymity, users were cheering the attack. “Im so glad this happened. killing the lugenpresse is every childs dream [sic],” wrote one. Another: “What do you call 5 dead journalists? A good start.”
On the campaign trail in 2016, journalists at Trump rallies got locked in pens in the centre of sports halls and auditoriums like animals. Trump would gesture at us, invite the audience to jeer. Covering the Trump campaign, I was jeered or spat at in that pen. Borrowing a term from the Nazis, Trump supporters call us “lugenpresse” – lying media. Trump has not used that term, but he uses anglicised versions constantly – “dishonest media”, “fake news” – as do his administration lackeys. Authoritarian regimes abroad, from Venezuela to Syria to Myanmar, have followed his example.
In a way, because of this slow-boil of tension, this was a day we knew was likely coming eventually. Everyone gets death threats and abuse online in this line of work. I get them sometimes. But I never allow myself to imagine they might be credible. I’m lucky; those whose work is high-profile, especially women, get it much, much worse than I do.
“I’ve had people email death threats, threaten to cut my dog’s throat, tell me I’d pay for my fake news. My mom told me to stop tagging my neighborhood on Instagram, I told her she was over-reacting,” Anne Helen Petersen, a reporter for Buzzfeed News, wrote on Twitter. Laura Bassett, a reporter for HuffPo, replied that “I had a guy post my home address in the comments section of Fox News and urge people to come over and kill me. He served a year in jail and is out now”. In a harrowing recent piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, Petersen wrote:
“When ignored, these threats can sharpen and multiply. What begins as displeasure with a piece can escalate to confrontations that are chilling in their cruelty. Abuse and menace have become a way of life for women in journalism. But like so many things in women’s lives, the labor of confronting that menace is largely invisible.”
Words like die, cunt, traitor, we’re coming for you, enemy of the people seem to come unmoored from their meaning on a medium like Twitter, where they can become just part of the surreal cacophony. Our individuality is attacked by the words, but we in turn deindividuate those who send them. Don’t feed the trolls, we say. It’s the background noise of the internet. We complain of them sometimes not in terms of utterances by real people who might pose a real threat but almost as if we’re complaining about bad weather. “RIP your mentions,” we’ll quip. It is stoic gallows-humour. Journalism often requires such detachment, but it’s a coping mechanism that is hard to maintain on a day like today.
I have written this piece so many times before. You develop ways, as a journalist, to deal with these events; you go through the stages like it’s grief, only second-hand. I’ve written pieces in denial. I’ve written in anger. I’ve written pieces that try to bargain for legislative compromise or change. Certainly, I’ve written pieces in depression. Lately, I’ve started to write like things will never change. Most of the writers I know have written some or all of those pieces too.
It was already an accelerating phenomenon, but the first mass shooting I wrote about when I came to America was Sandy Hook. I was in Texas. In the car, I pulled over to the side of the road as I listened to Barack Obama’s voice crack as he spoke at the memorial service. Later, writing drunk at some road-house bar, I ended my piece for this magazine:
“If this very real sense of national anger is not capitalised upon, America will sigh and it will dwindle; just like after Clackamas, after Oak Creek, after Aurora, after Oikos, after Seal Beach, after Tucson, after Fort Hood, after Binghampton, after Brookfield, after Meridian, after Wedgewood, after Virginia Tech, and after Columbine. The media will briefly obsess over trivial details in the killer’s life story, then wring its hands and agonise about its coverage, and then swiftly forget as the cycle turns.
And in six months or a year, another kid with a grievance will pick up another assault rifle, take a breath, and step out into another cold grey dawn.”
What I got wrong was the timeline. Back then, it seemed like every six months there was a tragedy. But since then, the hellish tempo has only increased. I covered the shooting of Trayvon Martin. I dug into the online world of misogynist message-boards where the shooter who gunned down students in Isla Vista, California because he couldn’t get a date was radicalised. I covered the shooting of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in their own home by their neighbour. I covered the shooting by white supremacists of five black teenagers in Minneapolis outside the doors of a police precinct, where they were protesting the shooting by police of one of their friends just the week before. I covered the shooting of two police officers in Brooklyn by a man who had earlier that day shot and killed his wife. I covered the massacre in Las Vegas.
I’m not a specialist: that’s just the news. At times it has felt like I was witnessing some kind of mass psychological breakdown at the societal level. An epistemic crisis of communication is dividing us, fueled by social media algorithms that silo us into filter-bubbles – throttling the business of local media outlets like the Capital Gazette into the bargain – while anonymous forums and message-boards become incubation-chambers for hatred and misogyny and violence. All the while the National Rifle Association spends millions lobbying Congress to smooth the path for those men to buy firearms unimpeded.
So now perhaps the only stage left is acceptance. Those kids with a grievance I wrote about after Sandy Hook, or the men whose anger and resentment has been whipped up like a forest-fire in a gale, they will keep stepping out into that cold grey dawn. And I will write this story again, and again, and again, and again, and again.