Deadly newsroom shooting jars journalists

Thirty-five years ago, as the editor of a suburban Boston newspaper, I faced a hostile crowd in a church meeting room over a story my newspaper had written about the public suicide of a young man. Efforts to persuade him to give up his gun blocked main street traffic for several hours and caused confusion across the city.

The gathering at the church occurred in response to more than 200 cancellations received from readers angry the story had been written in the first place, and then placed on the front page.

The room overflowed with resentful residents from the tight ethnic neighborhood where the young man lived. As many times as I tried to explain the newsworthiness of the story, they’d boo, hiss and have none of it.

A few shouted epithets about journalism and journalists. The family of the deceased sat in the front row, staring intently at me throughout the excruciating long discussion.

Finally, the crowd thinned and we agreed to call it a night. My personal consequence: four flat car tires in the church parking lot, and a scribbled note on the windshield consigning me to hell. Several nasty letters to the editor followed, a few of which were printable.

It was a nerve-rattling experience. Yet I accepted it as the tough nature of the news business, and moved on, albeit with a greater understanding of the role difficult news decisions play in the lives of the people affected by them.

The point is journalists learn to live with criticism from people who strongly disagree with our reporting and news decisions. Occasionally, the appraisal is vile, even threatening.

But rarely does it cause us concern for personal safety, especially within the seemingly secure confines of a newsroom, even when shoe boxes of bitterly critical letters are delivered to your doorstep, as happened in the public suicide case.

That notion of newsroom invulnerability was shattered in January of 2015 with an attack by three terrorists on the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in retaliation for cartoons lampooning Islam. Twelve people were killed, including the top editor.

Now, an attack by an enraged shooter has occurred in this country, at the community newspaper serving Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland. Four journalists and a sales assistant were killed in Thursday’s newsroom tragedy at The Capital Gazette, commonly known as The Capital.

The Washington Post described it as the deadliest attack on journalists in the U. S. in decades.

It is a stark reminder no newsroom is immune from the climate of media loathing and violence prevalent in today’s society. Schools, movie theaters, nightclubs, churches, outdoor concerts and now a newsroom have experienced mass shootings in recent years in this country.

Jarrod W. Ramos, the 38-year-old charged with the Annapolis shootings, apparently had no record of extremism such as that which motivated the Charlie Hebdo attack. He did, however, harbor a long-standing grudge against the paper, including an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit, over a column written seven years ago detailing criminal harassment charges involving a female high school classmate.

Tom Marquardt, former editor and publisher of the Annapolis paper, said he wasn’t surprised authorities identified Ramos as the shooter, explaining Ramos had constantly harangued The Capital after the column published, causing the paper to notify police and also consider requesting a restraining order.

“I remember telling our attorneys, ‘This guy is going to come in and shoot us,’” Marquardt told the Baltimore Sun, which owns The Capital.

Marquardt retired from the paper in the fall of 2012. His warning unfortunately proved true Thursday at about 2:40 p.m. (EDT) when a gunman, armed with a pump-action shotgun and smoke grenades, shattered the newsroom’s glass doors and randomly started firing away. Editors, reporters and others in the room dove under desks to frantically avoid the gunfire.

Ramos’ outrage against The Capital had been personified on a 2011 Twitter page he dedicated to foul-language disparagement of the paper. The introductory statement read: “Dear reader: I created this page to defend myself. Now I’m suing … and making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.” Later on, he also made reference to the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Marquardt tried to put the jarring news in context with a Facebook post when he first heard it: “I can’t even fathom with any degree of understanding what happened at my old newspaper today. The Capital, like all newspapers, angered people every day in its pursuit of the news. In my day, people protested by writing letters to the editor; today it’s through the barrel of a gun.”

Journalists across the nation are reflecting on what this senseless shooting means to them. We are flooding The Capital with offers of help and heartfelt sympathy for the families and colleagues of the victims.

The journalists slain in Annapolis were doing their essential job of informing the public and serving the news needs of the community.

They are deserving of special commendation for commitment to those noble goals. They are fallen soldiers in the battle to report the news without fear or favor.

Bill Ketter is the senior vice president for news of CNHI, LLC. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com.