The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After newsroom shootings, a quick collapse into blame and division in a polarized country

Police said they had one suspect in custody after five people were killed and several were injured at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md. on June 28. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The first tweet was urgent and spare: “Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us,” wrote Anthony Messenger, a summer intern at the Capital Gazette, a struggling small-town news­paper in Annapolis.

But within minutes after that 2:43 p.m. tweet Thursday, a devastating shooting in a suburban office building prompted reactions that again demonstrated the country’s wrenching divisions.

On Twitter and other social media, shreds of good news — reporters and editors at the Capital pronouncing themselves safe — were quickly overwhelmed by accusations and assumptions, mostly unfounded, about who was responsible and how the shootings fit into the story of a divided and angry nation.

With five of his colleagues dead and two others wounded, Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital, felt compelled to offer a defense of the work his colleagues do. He begged people on Twitter to “stop asking for information/interviews. I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community.”

Libby Casey talks with five Washington Post journalists about how they tell a story that seems to happen again and again. (Video: The Washington Post)

A shooting at a newspaper, even a local paper that mostly steers clear of national politics, opens a window into the economic dislocation that has altered the way Americans work and how they learn about their communities.

“We keep doing more with less,” DeButts tweeted. “We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets & local entertainment . . . We try to expose corruption. We fight to get access to public records . . . The reporters & editors put their all into finding the truth. That is our mission. Will always be.”

From inside the Annapolis newsroom, reporter Phil Davis provided an immediate narration of the chaos around him. “Gunman shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees,” he tweeted an hour after the attack. “Can’t say much more and don’t want to declare anyone dead, but it’s bad. There’s nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload.”

Moments before the shooting began, Davis, who writes about crime, courts and local sports, had retweeted a story about electric scooters coming to Baltimore. His own latest story, about an Army veteran who died Wednesday evening while paddleboarding in the Chesapeake Bay, had just been posted on the Capital’s website.

Now, the Capital Gazette, descendant of the seventh news­paper to be created in colonial America, in 1727, had to cover news about itself, always a difficult and discomfiting task. “A shooting has occurred at the Capital Gazette in Anne Arundel County,” said the lead story on the paper’s home page at 3:10 p.m.

In a country where trust has been in sharp decline, suspicions about what might be behind a shooting in a newsroom quickly became a dominant part of the story of the tragedy in Annapolis.

On Fox News Channel, reporter Trace Gallagher told anchor Neil Cavuto: “We checked in earlier, Neil, with the ideological bent of the Capital, again, it’s one of the oldest newspapers in the country . . . we kind of looked at the editorial board, who’s on it, what topics they cover, it’s very much a local newspaper. . . . Doesn’t really seem to have a major ideological bent, if that plays into the motive at all.”

Cavuto felt the need to assure his audience that the paper was not overly controversial: “Eyeing through it on the Internet, I don’t notice any rabid editorials or polarizing coverage. It just seems like a very solid local paper.”

Journalists around the country offered their support to their colleagues in Annapolis, and many added a defense of their craft: “On this horrific day, let’s establish that journalists are not ‘the enemy of the American people,’ as President Trump has tweeted,” wrote NPR correspondent Melissa Block.

An industry group, Investigative Reporters and Editors, tweeted out the text of the First Amendment.

On his radio show, Fox News host Sean Hannity immediately questioned whether Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters’s call for continuing public harassment of Trump administration officials might have inspired the Capital shooting. “Honestly, I’ve been saying now for days that something horrible’s going to happen because of the rhetoric,” Hannity said. “Really, Maxine, you want people to call your friends, get in their faces?”

The Capital’s reporters urged patience. “We also don’t know anything about motive in this incident,” reporter Chase Cook tweeted at 6:03 p.m. He spelled out the facts he had been able to collect, then added, “I’m devastated.”

The far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had sent out a message to reporters on Tuesday saying, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Now, without knowing who shot up the Capital newsroom, some people were connecting dots.

Yiannopoulos put out a statement saying that his inflammatory words were “a private, offhand troll to two hostile reporters,” “a joke” that was never meant to be widely distributed. “You guys should decide whether you think I’m ‘disgraced, irrelevant and over’ or ‘so dangerous I inspire mass shootings,’ ” he wrote on Facebook. “I can’t be both.”

In Annapolis, the shootings were a blow not only against the local paper, but against neighbors. “The Capital Gazette is my hometown paper,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in a statement, “and I have the greatest respect for the fine journalists, and all the men and women, who work there. They serve each day to shine light on the world around us so that we might see with more clarity and greater understanding.”

With a daily print circulation of about 29,000 as of 2014, the Capital had only 31 people on its editorial staff. “We are close,” tweeted reporter Danielle Ohl. “We are family.”

Sportswriter Bill Wagner put word out that “I am okay. Thank God I was not at the office . . . However, many of my colleagues and friends are not okay and that is solely where my thoughts are right now.”

The surviving staffers, augmented by colleagues from the Baltimore Sun, which bought the paper in 2014, worked against the most crushing deadline of their careers.

“I am okay physically, so far, mentally I am a mess,” wrote Capital photographer Paul W. Gillespie, who was in the newsroom when the shootings took place. “I am in shock trying to process this horrible situation.”

“I can tell you this,” Capital reporter Cook tweeted. “We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.