On a hot, humid day, I took my grandchildren, 10 and 8, to see the newly unveiled monument in Annapolis to the five journalists killed three years ago in the Capital Gazette newsroom. They were only remotely interested.
The plaque containing the words of the First Amendment establishing freedom of the press struck me as so poignant. The mass murder by a vengeful gunman angry about the Gazette’s coverage of a harassment charge represented to this former newspaper editor a blatant attack on freedom of journalistic expression.
Ironically, the gunman is pleading insanity for his well-planned fatal attack on people shot simply because they were journalists. Their only crime was their occupation. The gunman wanted to make a point.
And so he did, terrifyingly methodically.
When he claimed the vibrant lives of five defenseless victims, he was telling the world in unmistakable terms that he hated media representatives for doing their jobs. That he committed a previous crime worthy of mention in the Capital Gazette was, in his twisted mind, an unforgivable offense.
Revenge was his only outlet.
Now the shooter, Jarrod Ramos, 41, is using the legal option of claiming insanity as his defense. Forget that he planned the attack on June 28, 2018, even to the extent of barricading the back door to block newsroom employees from leaving. When the police came, he hid behind a desk.
He knew what he was doing. The jury will decide.
The legal machinations are beyond the scope of this column. The shooter will get his day in court. As he should, like any other despicable criminal.
Journalists also have become victims of overzealous police. What worries me more is the targeting of reporters by such people as the grievance-charged rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, when democracy, as represented by the majestic U.S. Capitol, was under siege. A New York Times reporter found herself barraged by threats and insults.
The press is not perfect. Its practitioners would concede that. However, its intentions are mostly pure: report the news, inform the public and be honest—and impose an unforgiving spotlight on government and corporate corruption.
I omitted another necessary standard: be fair, regardless of your personal beliefs and deadline pressures.
I have no regrets about exposing my grandchildren to ugliness in their community. Their mother knew one of the victims, as did many people in Annapolis. She was the community reporter who loved to cover events small and big. She was beloved, an adjective not normally applied to a media person.
Founded as the Evening Capital in 1884, the Capital Gazette, known better simply as the Capital, became something else on June 28, 2018. It became a rallying point for the community. It became a treasured asset, to be preserved and supported despite the constant threat of dismantling by owners coping with increasingly diminished advertising and readership.
And now, Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for its ruthless cost-cutting and undermanned newsrooms, will be controlling the fate of the Capital, as well as the Baltimore Sun. Civic engagement, spurred by a healthy newspaper, will diminish, sadly so.
Jarrod Ramos attacked the First Amendment and a community institution. While he needlessly snuffed out lives, he awakened a community to the glue that kept it together.
Unfortunately, economic conditions may close the newsroom, not an angry shooter intent on revenge.
Such an outcome would be a terrible jolt to a community still reckoning three years later with a mass murder of five journalists.
A paperless city of 60,000 residents, containing the state capital, the U.S. Naval Academy and 372 years of history since its founding in 1649, would lack an anchor of civic engagement.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.