When a man first fired a shotgun through the glass doors of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., and then killed five of its staff, no one had any answers. No one even knew his name. So the speculation began.
Maybe the shooter was a disgruntled ex-employee, or maybe he had a domestic dispute with someone at the company. Maybe he had no relationship to the newspaper at all, and he was only one more angry young man with a gun determined to find somewhere to use it. Or — and this theory gained more ground than the others put together — maybe he was incited by a right-wing apparatus that casts the press as an adverse combatant in a war against the common civilian.
Some blamed Milo Yiannopoulos, who said just the other day that he wanted angry conservatives to start assassinating journalists. Others blamed President Trump, who calls the press the “enemy of the people.” Sean Hannity, apparently trying out for the Cirque du Soleil of logical contortion, blamed Rep. Maxine Waters’s call to Democrats to confront administration officials when they appear in public.
And then, thanks in part to the same reporters who had taken shelter under their desks while a gunman murdered their colleagues hours earlier, some answers arrived. The attack, it seemed, was less political than it was personal. But still.
The suspect, Jarrod Ramos, had harbored a grudge against the Capital Gazette for years: In 2015, he lost a case against the paper over a 2011 column he claimed in court defamed him. It was one lawsuit among many. In 2013, he had an “incident” with the Gazette, and before that he had reportedly posted a series of threatening tweets.
There’s more to learn, and there’s more to the case than anti-newspaper sentiment. Yet anti-newspaper sentiment remains an important part of the story.
The article that appears to have first infuriated Ramos described how he had harassed a former classmate from an area high school online. The Capital Gazette was doing its duty to cover local crime — to tell the truth about something that mattered to its readership. Ramos didn’t like that, because the truth, as he saw it, did him harm. So he sued, and he allegedly made threats.
Newspapers all over the country do their duty, too, and when the president or his partisans don’t like it, they say it’s a lie. Then they go further, and they say it’s a lie that deserves some sort of punishment. Libel laws getting opened up, or writers getting thrown in jail, or, yes, the most ardent have urged, getting gunned down.
It could be that none of this moved Ramos to allegedly kill those five staffers. It could be that the suspect was well on his way there already, but some politically motivated prompting pushed him that one last step. It could be, and likely will be, that we’ll never really know why.
But even if the suspect wasn’t a political actor, there’s a thread that ties his reported hostility to Yiannopoulos’s hostility, to Trump’s hostility, to the hostility that burns in the Internet’s deepest pits of conservative conspiracy theorizing. The suspect’s rage against truth-telling is their rage.
It’s the sort of rage that puts you at a loss when you work for a newspaper, where you see people trying, every day, to get it right because they believe in how much getting it right matters for a better country made up of better citizens. It’s enough even to glance at the headlines of Capital Gazette stories: “Helping the homeless one bag at a time in a Hanover classroom,” “Annapolis City Council apologizes for historic lynchings,” “Six things we learned from Anne Arundel’s primary.” This paper was providing its community with what all newspapers try to provide, in aggregate, for the nation.
The question, of course, is what to do now. There’s no road map to shoring up trust in the journalistic enterprise; there’s no manifesto that will change the minds of a citizenry that seems to exist in a series of separate realities. There are only people to talk to and stories to write and pages to set and presses to print them. All you can do, really, is what the Capital Gazette does every day, and what it did today, despite everything: You put out a paper.