It was far too easy to assume the worst — that the inevitable, finally, had come to pass.
When news broke Thursday afternoon that a shooter had opened fire in an Annapolis, Maryland, newsroom, more than a few minds converged on the same thought: Donald Trump. The mythmaker-in-chief, who has demonized the media almost daily since becoming president of the United States, had made this day seem not just likely but any-day-now.
Or so I confess to thinking at first. One of my regular readers, a Vietnam Marine veteran, did, too. In an email Friday morning, he wrote: “I’m concerned for your safety. Trump’s demonizing of the press has led us down a dark path.” And not for the first time, my brother wrote three days before the shooting stating his wish that I leave Washington, writing: “It’s gonna get crazier from here.”
As the story developed through Thursday evening, however, we learned that the alleged gunman, Jarrod Ramos, 38, had nursed a vendetta against the paper for several years, going back to at least 2011 — and well before Trump was elected to become the “fake news” hawker of today.
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Apparently, the Capital Gazette had published a story in 2011 about Ramos after he had pleaded guilty to harassing a woman via social media. Apparently blistered by the public exposure, Ramos field a defamation suit in 2012, which he finally lost in 2015 after an appeal. A full three years after that, his festering resentment seems to have exploded in a bloody barrage of revenge.
Like most newsrooms, the Gazette’s is a wide-open space with no place to hide except beneath desks, where reporters huddled and prayed in hopes of escaping the shooter’s notice. Some were unsuccessful. Among those murdered were editors Gerald Fischman and Rob Hiaasen; reporter John McNamara; sales assistant Rebecca Smith; and a special publications employee Wendi Winters. At least two others were injured.
Thankfully, we can’t pin this on the president. Nor should anyone wish to. It’s bad enough that my reflex was to connect the dots between Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and the Annapolis murders. He has gratuitously called out the media ever since assuming office, including as recently as Monday here in South Carolina’s capital city, where he gave a campaign-rally speech for Gov. Henry McMaster. Trump’s hour-long stemwinder on the eve of the state’s primary runoff was familiar to those who routinely follow the president.
More than once, he singled out the media in the back of the packed high school gym for ridicule. A friend, who was in the audience, remarked: “Why does he do that? They’re there to cover him. Would he prefer that they not show up, that he be a non-event? They’re just doing their job.”
Precisely. Being present when Trump does this rather than watching him on television has a very different effect. You’re more aware of the humanity of the reporters, photographers and TV camera operators, who cease to be “the media” as a negative abstraction but are recognizable as people who may be your neighbors, friends, husbands or wives. Most Americans, I suspect, have become so accustomed to Trump’s shtick that it has become like a car alarm: It’s annoying but you block it out. But rhetoric matters, and Trump’s has been toxic toward the media. “Fake news” has become the Trump base’s second-favorite mantra, following “Make America Great Again.” Inferentially, the latter hinges on the elimination of the former.
What ultimately pushed the shooter over the edge? What caused him to decide that he’d rather go down shooting than move on with his life?
What’s clear is that Trump has made it a verbal open season on journalists, many of whom have felt the sting one way or another. For all of us ink-stained wretches, the hate mail is more vicious than ever. The death threats more frequent.
This shooting wasn’t “the” shooting many of us feared would come. But Trump, nevertheless, bears some responsibility for the incendiary rhetoric that has raised the heat — and the stakes — for journalists just doing their jobs.