Before we even knew the name of the alleged perpetrator of the shooting at Annapolis’s Capital Gazette newspaper, people were trying to get into his head. Just after the news broke, Sean Hannity said on his radio show: “I’ve been saying now for days that something horrible was going to happen because of the rhetoric. Really, [Rep.] Maxine [Waters]?” In its coverage of the bloodshed, Fox News’s Trace Gallagher revealed that the network had checked the publication’s ideology, in case there was a political motive afoot.
Elsewhere, pundits and anchors and hosts and contributors riffed about how the attack may have figured into a larger context. On MSNBC, host Nicolle Wallace asked about the “climate, the rhetoric in this country about news organizations.”
And then, just hours later, we learned that the suspect is named Jarrod W. Ramos and that he has nursed a grudge against the Capital Gazette going back several years. In 2011, the newspaper had written about a criminal harassment case against Ramos, triggering a defamation suit from him in 2012. Defendants were columnist Eric Hartley, Capital Gazette Communications and Thomas Marquardt, who then served as publisher and editor. Defamation suits must cite false information, something Ramos couldn’t do. A circuit court ruling and, ultimately, an appeals court decision both tossed the case.
If the horror of it all doesn’t strike you just yet, sample this story from reporter Matt Pearce and Richard Winton of the Los Angeles Times. In an interview, Marquart said he’d felt powerless to counter the harassment that Ramos had visited upon the newspaper. “If it’s him, I’m gonna feel f—ing responsible for this. I pray it’s not him.”
So that’s the backstory. A multiyear grudge. As to why Ramos allegedly snapped three years after his complaint against the newspaper was tossed — well, we don’t know those details. And we may never learn them.
Shunt aside the uninformed chatter about motive, and what’s left is a story about human loss and local news. On Thursday night, social media filled with tributes to those who’d lost their lives. Rob Hiaasen, brother of author Carl Hiaasen, was killed in the attack and remembered as a caring and curious editor.
The journalists died while performing public service. In recent days, the staff has produced coverage of the induction of the Class of 2022 at the U.S. Naval Academy; the Maryland gubernatorial primary; “Six things we learned from Anne Arundel’s primary“; a dispatch on the Anne Arundel state’s attorney’s race (by Phil Davis, who tweeted out bulletins on the shooting); a story detailing how “Belair Bath & Tennis swim team is 2-0 after defeating Pointer Ridge, 293-265, in Prince-Mont Swim League action on Saturday” (from the Bowie Blade-News); a piece on the prospects of Shake-N-Go in the Annapolis summer basketball league.
The ethic that emerges from those links — cover everything — explains why staff writer Eric Hartley in July 2011 wrote a story under the headline “Jarrod wants to be your friend.” Read it. The piece documents how Ramos contacted an old high school classmate via Facebook and thanked her for being nice to her back in the day. They corresponded a bit, until Ramos turned scary. According to Hartley’s column, there were “months of emails in which Ramos alternately asked for help, called her vulgar names and told her to kill herself. He emailed her company and tried to get her fired. She stopped writing back and told him to stop, but he continued. When she blocked him from seeing her Facebook page, he found things she wrote on other people’s pages and taunted her with it, attaching screenshots of the postings to some of his emails.”
He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge, though he couldn’t abide Hartley’s coverage of the episode. As a defense lawyer told the Daily News, “I remember at one point he was talking in a motion and somehow worked in how he wanted to smash Hartley’s face into the concrete. We were concerned at the time. He was not stable.”
The man who stalks a woman online and files frivolous actions at the county courthouse — he’s just one of the archetypes that you encounter when you’re covering local news. Usually these individuals — thank goodness — don’t act on their resentments by grabbing a long gun and allegedly shooting up the offices of a small newspaper. This time, tragically, was different.
Over the past few years, chatter about media and democracy has centered on the work of the often-slandered journalists in Washington. For the sake of perspective, however, consider that the White House Correspondents’ Association represents about 600 journalists. Now stack that number against the 32,000 editorial jobs at newspapers around the country (as of 2015), not to mention the thousands employed in radio and TV news. These are the people who get by on measly salaries far from the spotlight just to bring us stories about city council meetings, swim teams and, yes, authentically dangerous people.