The Media Today

Capital Gazette shooting shows the vulnerability of journalists

June 29, 2018

Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Wendi Winters, and Rebecca Smith were killed on Thursday. They worked, respectively, as the editorial page editor, editor and columnist, editor and sports reporter, reporter and community columnist, and sales assistant at the Capital Gazette media group in Annapolis, Maryland, which a shooter infiltrated with a shotgun and smoke grenades yesterday afternoon. Their colleagues hid under their desks and heard the shooter reload his weapon, before police responders entered and arrested him. “He didn’t have enough bullets for us,” Phil Davis, a Capital Gazette crime reporter, told The New York Times.

America’s 154th mass shooting of 2018 has already poured further fuel on the country’s simmering debate over gun laws, which rocketed into the public consciousness in February with the murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Speaking with Anderson Cooper last night, Capital Gazette staff writer Selene San Felice made a forceful contribution to that ongoing conversation. “I’m gonna need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers,” she said. “So, thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”

From archives: NYT reporter’s thought about media coverage of mass shootings goes viral

Because it happened in a newsroom, this attack feels different. Unconfirmed reports emerged overnight that the shooter had a longstanding grievance against the Capital Gazette, which he unsuccessfully sued over a 2011 article detailing his online harassment of a woman. Before details of this potential motive began to surface, Twitter raged with speculation as to whether the anti-media slurs of President Trump and his acolytes may have driven the incident. In the hours afterward, the narrative seemed to lose traction.

Trump-inspired or not, however, police made clear this was a “targeted attack” on journalists. And it is alarming, in and of itself, that reporters and other reasonable observers felt the attack could plausibly have been rooted in the president’s rhetoric. Writing from the UK this morning, I’m reminded of Jo Cox, the Labour Party lawmaker murdered while working in her district a week before the Brexit vote in 2016. While Cox’s killer did appear to have been driven by hard-right views, the incident sparked a nationwide debate over how far individual acts of violence can be blamed on bubbling, angry divisions in the country.

Cox’s murder also exposed the vulnerability of those whose jobs depend on meeting members of the public. Yesterday afternoon, police reinforcements were assigned to outlets like The New York Times and the LA Times. They were sent as a post-Annapolis precaution. Nonetheless, we should not aspire to live in a society whose newsrooms need an armed guard.

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ICYMI: A notable difference in the coverage of the Florida school shooting

Below, more on the shooting at the Capital Gazette:

  • File under “journalists are amazing”: Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook tweeted yesterday that staff would be “putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” and that’s exactly what they did.
  • “She chronicled her community”: The Capital Gazette’s sister paper, The Baltimore Sun, profiled all the staffers who lost their lives yesterday.
  • “Too personal to ignore”: Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik launched into Sean Hannity, after he blamed California Democrat Maxine Waters for the attack.
  • No rabid editorials…: As the shooting unfolded, Fox News took flak for saying it had “checked in on the ideological bent” of the Capital Gazette for possible clues. In a later interview with Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, Fox’s Neil Cavuto added that the Capital Gazette site doesn’t show “any rabid editorials or polarizing coverage,” BuzzFeed reports.
  • Linked debates: Don’t forget that the NRA also positions itself against the media. See this friendly February reminder from spokesperson Dana Loesch that the press freedom and gun debates are linked: “To those who bring bias and propaganda to CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, your time is running out. The clock starts now.”


Other notable stories

  • State legislators in California yesterday passed a bill imposing tighter restrictions on big companies’ use of personal data. The rushed legislation headed off a tougher proposal that had been set to go to a ballot initiative in the fall.
  • WNYC gifted the assets of DNAInfo—the New York and Chicago news website controversially shuttered late last year—to Block Club Chicago, a new hyperlocal site powered by cryptocurrency-based marketplace Civil. In February, CJR’s Adeshina Emmanuel profiled Block Club Chicago.
  • For CJR, Alexandria Neason writes that overstretched California education reporters are increasingly turning to student journalists for tips. “When newsworthy things happen on campus that have implications beyond the college gates, student journalists offer local reporters a starting point—and sometimes a directory—for potential sources,” she says.
  • CBS’s Jamie Yuccas sat down with the former ICE spokesperson who resigned abruptly in March, only for the interview at his home to be interrupted when two men knocked on the door claiming to be Department of Homeland Security agents.
  • And Slate’s Will Oremus says media organizations are struggling to deal with Facebook’s recent retreat from news. “It’s been a painful transition for publications that had come to depend on it—including Slate,” he writes.

ICYMI: Kennedy’s retirement sets off months of SCOTUS coverage

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said “Unconfirmed reports emerged overnight that the reporter had a longstanding grievance against the Capital Gazette.” It should have said “Unconfirmed reports emerged overnight that the shooter had a longstanding grievance against the Capital Gazette.” The post has been updated.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.