The old saying advises against picking fights with those who buy ink by the barrel. After five journalists were shot and killed last week at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, we learned that someone with a grudge and a gun can even the odds.
Still, I don’t see many attempts in the media to figure out what pushed 38-year-old Jarrod Ramos over the edge.
There is no excuse for violence. Reporters shouldn’t have to wear bullet-proof vests to the newsroom.
But here is what bugs me: When people kill cops, we in the media run stories about how we need to understand why. When terrorists attack our country, we explain what America has done wrong. When immigrants are victimized by hate crimes, we see stories about what motivated the culprits.
And now? Aren’t journalists curious about why someone would hate them — and what they represent — enough to want to kill them?
Ramos had a major beef with the Gazette. He filed a defamation lawsuit in 2012 after the paper published a column about his harassment of a former female classmate. The lawsuit was dismissed, and an appeal went nowhere. Ramos was frustrated, and he peppered Gazette reporters and editors with profanity-laced tweets. The police were notified, though they concluded — wrongly, it turns out — that he was harmless.
Simply put, Ramos felt the paper had not treated him fairly. So we have to ask: Did it?
Commentators rushed to say that reporters just tell the truth. But anyone who believes that has never been a reporter.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not blaming the victims. We may never know all the contributing factors to this tragedy. All we know is that it’s heart-wrenching to hear the siblings and children of the fallen talk about how “heroic” they were just for doing a job they loved.
Journalists are not loved. As a free-thinking Mexican-American scribe on the job for 30 years — 12 of them as a full-time staff writer at three newspapers — I’ve been threatened by liberals and conservatives. One group is narrow-minded, mean-spirited, bigoted, and intent on putting me in my place. Then you have the conservatives.
Yet I want to know why people despise their morning newspaper. Often, they see it as out of step with the community; often, they’re right.
I remember when I realized that newspapering was broken. The cause wasn’t the Internet, 24-hour news channels, liberal bias or website paywalls. It wasn’t the fact that many people don’t have time to read, and those who do often don’t believe what’s on the page.
Rather, it was when newspapers lost their way and went from referee to gladiator. Reporters used to be told to keep their opinions to themselves; now they’re told to get on Twitter and share their opinions with the world.
It is a noble calling to — as the creed states — comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Not so much when we’re playing favorites, punching at the powerless and voiceless while treating the wealthy and well-connected with kit gloves.
I saw that happen while serving on editorial boards, where not every reader or elected official gets the same service.
I saw a district attorney come into the office to complain that he was not being treated fairly, and my bosses bend over backwards to improve the treatment.
I saw an editorial get “fixed” at midnight, minutes before going to press, because it bashed a city councilwoman who was running for mayor — and whose husband served in the state legislature. The official had seen the advance online version and called the top editor at home to raise hell. Worse, the writer tasked with the late-night rewrite shifted the criticism to a local Latina civil rights attorney who was not so well-connected.
Being on an editorial board is a weird gig. You turn your back on corporate law and become a reporter to defend the little guy. Then one day, you get called upstairs to shape the voice of the newspaper. Suddenly, you’re doing public relations for The Man. Instead of protecting the little guy, now it’s your job to hold him still so the big guy can get in one good punch.
What happened at The Capital Gazette is ghastly. But unfortunately, the story gives journalists the chance to do three things that don’t help: play the victim, blame President Trump, and make themselves the story.
Instead, journalists should use this tragedy to examine if we treat everyday people fairly, and whether we give them sufficient opportunity for redress when they think we don’t. That means engaging in something we avoid like a 9-to-5 office job that requires wearing a suit: introspection.
Ruben Navarrette, a contributing editor to Angelus News, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a Daily Beast columnist, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.”
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