Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
“…That they might be better citizens.”
Those are the last words on The Capital Gazette’s editorial page today, which was otherwise left mostly blank, besides the names of five co-workers slain in the deadliest newsroom shooting in American history.
In the end, those words convey the purpose of journalism: to create more informed and, therefore, better and more engaged citizens. And that is the very opposite of being the “enemy of the American people,” as President Trump routinely asserts, in contradiction of the US Constitution.
The suspected shooter/loser who police say targeted reporters at the Annapolis newspaper was clearly unhinged, nursing a yearslong grudge against the paper that was expressed in unsuccessful lawsuits and a constant barrage on social media.
We do not yet know if there was a specific spark that lit the firestorm unleashed in the unsecured newsroom Thursday at 2:33pm. But we cannot ignore that this mass shooting occurred at a time when threats against journalists are at “epidemic levels,” according to a recent report issued by the International Federation of Journalists.
Every working journalist knows this to be true – some threats are simply from trolls, others from hyperpartisans and other sufferers of the twisted group think of social media, mob mentality.
These threats have escalated at a time when the President of the United States often seems intent to fan the flames. This gives a sense of permission among his followers and creates an ongoing feedback loop of fear and anger.
While we have seen political leaders and their lackeys call journalists the “enemy of the people” in other countries throughout history, none of this is normal in America. And so it is worth chronicling closely and calling out as bullies attempt to intimidate voices whose purpose it is to hold power to account while pursuing the truth, without fear or favor.
“Journalists have never been at the top of the popularity list,” the legendary columnist Carl Hiaasen told Erica Hill on CNN’s New Day, while paying tribute to his brother Rob, a beloved local journalist who was gunned down in The Capital newsroom. “If you’re doing your job as journalists, you’re usually pissing somebody off.”
It is precisely this check and balance that the founding fathers imagined when they included a free press in the Constitution. But when the Second Amendment is pitted against the First Amendment, we have to recognize that our country is facing a challenge of a different magnitude.
The Capital can trace its roots back to 1727 – some six decades before the Bill of Rights – and yet, the deadliest mass shooting in a newsroom only just occurred, with an apparent madman wielding a shotgun.
Something has changed. It would be naïve to ignore the demonization of journalists occurring on hyperpartisan platforms and descending from a President himself, who seems intent on undercutting independent institutions – from journalism to the judiciary and Justice Department – whose primary purpose is to hold power to account.
Pushing back against this toxic tide of our times is entirely consistent with our jobs as citizens and journalists. Democracy depends upon an assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens.
As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
Or, as Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh of Maryland reminded us on “New Day”: Free speech is the greatest protection against tyranny … .journalists are not only our friends; they are our protectors.