Because of a free press, we know the Catholic Church covered up sexual abuse by priests. That an Oregon governor had repeatedly raped a 14-year-old girl. And that veterans were mistreated at Walter Reed hospital. Each of those stories are fairly recent in memory. If we want to go back another generation, because of a free press we know that President Nixon was a shamefully corrupt criminal and that the government repeatedly lied about the progress of the Vietnam War.
Since even long before those revelations, a free press has helped to make America great.
Climate of vitriol
For most of my 30 years in this business, it has not been necessary to point this out. The media has been regarded as an important — if sometimes unsavory — part of the American landscape. All of which makes the current climate particularly disturbing.
Recently, a conservative provocateur sent a text to a reporter saying, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Another, in a video from 2016 that is making the rounds after the Annapolis shooting, claims journalists are “the rat bastards of the earth” and says she would be “happy, frankly, to see them curb-stomped.” And President Trump has said the media “is the enemy of the American people” as part of his frequent harangues against stories he doesn’t like.
Trump’s attacks are not surprising; his instinct is to lash out and lie when challenged. But the notion of the media being an enemy of the people is perplexing.
In newsrooms from Annapolis to Vancouver, members of the media are the American people. We live in the communities we report on, we go to the same churches as our readers, we send our children to the same schools, we shop at the same grocery stores. When our cars need an oil change, we don’t go to “Media Auto Repair”; we take them to the mechanic on the corner. I’m guessing that President Trump has never taken a car in for an oil change.
All of this contributes to the sadness of Thursday’s shooting. There is no telling what led a madman to walk into a newsroom and begin killing, but it would be absurd to ignore the current climate as a contributing factor. Words matter; they matter more when you are a public figure. And it can be frighteningly easy to push a disturbed person over the edge.
All of that will be debated ad nauseam in the coming days and weeks — or at least until the next mass shooting. In the meantime, we can find encouragement in the actions of the journalists in Annapolis.
There is an axiom that says being a journalist isn’t what you do, it’s who you are. Sure, that contains a bit of self-congratulatory hyperbole, but it also contains a bit of truth. The staff of The Capital Gazette proved that Thursday night, and along the way they demonstrated that a free press will not be silenced.