Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Do you hate reporters? Or do you love them? As somebody whose newspaper career lasted long enough to get a second mortgage and run for the Senate, I assure you that both absolute attitudes are both absolutely wrong.
Which sounds like something a journalist would say, right? Right. But listen anyway:
Journalists are neither as heroic as they were once seen in the mid-1970s glow of post-Watergate glory nor as unscrupulous as they’re often depicted on network TV crime dramas where “nosy reporters” come across as amoral creeps ruining the day of a public servant or, worse, a glamorous celebrity.
I spent 30-something years as a full-time newspaper person and I’ve been welcomed into people’s living rooms and shoved out of them; infrequently from the same room within minutes. I’ve been hollered at, lied to, threatened, manipulated, insulted and ignored with extreme prejudice.
None of it mattered as long as I got my facts straight and could back them up whenever they were shaped into readable copy. I didn’t expect to be loved or even appreciated for it. I just showed up for work wondering what would happen next and how I’d make it clear to others.
I didn’t know journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Wendi Winters. But I feel safe in saying they carried roughly similar expectations with them Thursday into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. What they couldn’t have expected was that they wouldn’t leave the building alive.
The four journalists, along with sales associate Rebecca Smith, were shot dead at or near their desks Thursday afternoon by a man armed with a shotgun and smoke grenades. Authorities say the suspect, identified as Jarrod W. Ramos, had a grievance with the paper over a story published seven years before about a guilty plea in a harassment case. Apparently, he believed his privacy had been invaded – by a story whose facts were available to anybody, reporter or not, with access to court records.
From the available information about the “offending” story, it’s one that I would have routinely written without prejudice to its subject and with acknowledgment of the publicly available facts. In other words, I would have been doing my job, nothing more, nothing less.
This is, finally, what’s so infuriating and chilling about what happened in Annapolis on Thursday: that simply carrying out one’s obligation to tell the truth can get one murdered.
The grief and outrage still coursing throughout America over this act is, on some level, reassuring in that most of the nation, however its individual citizens may feel about journalists, doesn’t believe they should be murdered for doing their jobs.
I wish, however, that I could feel more assured in an era where trolls now feel even more entitled by social media outlets and the internet to say all manner of ugly, horrific and violent things that are as dangerously, even willfully misinformed as the alleged motives behind yesterday’s murders.
In a time when newspapers continue to contract, compress or go under entirely, forcing dedicated honest professionals to find the best ways to tell people what they need to know, the last thing – the very last thing – this emotionally battered republic needs is a free press that fears for its life for wishing to stay free.
Because I’m trained to be skeptical, even towards my own skepticism, I willing to concede I’m overreacting. And I would be – if this were 40, 30 or even 20 years ago. I’m not so sanguine about it now.