When I came to work in South Florida Friday morning, there were TV satellite vans parked in front of the building. The office was quiet when I walked in. There’s always a buzz going on in the newsroom, always chatter, so it was unsettling to hear nothing. After a while people started gathering in small groups, sharing memories of Rob. There were tears, and laughter, and stories of this gentle, good-natured person who always had great writing feedback for his colleagues, this guy who liked to go out and play catch on his lunch break.
On Thursday, June 28, a man stood in front of the glass entryway of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland and fired a shotgun into the building, shattering the windows. He stepped through the wreckage and continued to fire and reload, fire and reload, shattering the lives of his victims, their families, and their coworkers. Five people lay dead at his feet and several more were wounded. There are reports that he used smoke bombs. He may have intended to use grenades that were found in a bag he allegedly carried with him. Police responded quickly to the scene and found the gunman hiding underneath a desk when they arrived.
There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload
— Phil Davis (@PhilDavis_CG) June 28, 2018
Among the dead was Rob.
Robert Hiaasen was a veteran reporter and columnist who worked for a number of years in my newsroom in South Florida before moving on to the Baltimore Sun and finally the Capital Gazette. We never worked together, but a number of my colleagues knew him, including my friend and cubicle-mate. To a person, they have nothing but fond memories of him. He was one of the five murdered on Thursday, along with Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Wendi Winters.
Journalism is a shit job. The hours suck. Town council meeting run until 3 a.m.? Journalists are on it. Hurricane? They’re on the clock, sometimes for days. Mass shooting? Get out of bed – we need you here. Not to mention no one is ever happy with the work they do. Journalists are always left second-guessing themselves. Layoffs are a frequent threat, wages are stagnant, and benefits are being chiseled away.
It takes a certain type of person to rise to the call, to see the importance of the role, and become a journalist.
The remaining staff of the Capital Gazette managed to cover their own shooting and still put out a newspaper the next day. These are tough, committed people.While I’ve worked as a reporter here at The Wild Hunt, I’m not a reporter for my local newspaper. Sure, I’ve written for it, but my bread and butter, the reason I’m on their payroll, is for my work on the strategic side. How do we stay relevant in the digital age? What sort of treatment does this or that story deserve? What do the latest changes to Google or Facebook mean for our website traffic? Do we need a stand-alone website built for the in-depth reporting we have done or for the passion project we have invested in? Do we need someone to go to bat for the story against the corporate owners who aren’t interested in journalism at all? These are the things that have typically fallen within my wheelhouse. I’ve also worked as an editor, helping to direct reporting coverage, reading stories, giving constructive feedback, paying attention to patterns and bringing them to light so that they get the exposure they deserve.
I work closely with beat reporters. I talk with them daily. They, and their editors, work tirelessly every day to get every story right. They bust their asses to get sources and get them to talk on the record. They are uniquely passionate about uncovering the underlying facts of a story and presenting them in as unbiased and fair a way as possible. Very few people are so committed to going where the facts lead them, even if it means they end up in painful or uncomfortable places.
Do they always get it right? No.
But the best have an awareness of their own fallibility and know where their blindspots are. I’ve excused myself from writing or editing news stories in the past when I didn’t think I would be able to give them a fair shake. Mostly though, I am capable of turning off many of my biases, and I always ask for a second read to ensure that’s what I’ve done.
While the Capital Gazette shooter’s motivation is unclear, it seems that he felt he had been libeled. The courts disagreed and twice dismissed his case. When Donald Trump calls journalists the “enemy of the people” and public figures like Milo Yiannopoulos call for our murder, these words carry a weight as heavy as a bullet. Those words put a target on our backs. Those words have consequences and meaning.
When journalists are murdered while doing their jobs it is a direct attack on the health of our democracy, which is dependent on a robust, free press. Who else is going to keep elected officials accountable? Who else is going to report on the company that’s dumping waste into the water supply? What the country is going through now – and no bones, a legitimate failure of democracy is upon us – is due in part, at least, to the rapidly shrinking free press. Falling revenues are happening because there aren’t a lot of great business minds working at newspapers. Failing to leverage change and being too narrow in communities covered are perhaps the greatest failures of the press.
So where do we go from here? Every aspect of American life is under threat. Schools, newsrooms, concerts, workplaces, government offices. Innocent people are being murdered in great quantity with firearms. Some would say that it’s time to harden soft targets and concede that we live in a war zone.
I’m not sure what the right solution is, but local newsrooms, by definition, cannot be turned into secure bunkers. We are by nature and design a part of the communities we serve or hope to serve.
In our Pagan community, institutions like The Wild Hunt may not have a physical office, but our reporters are still frequently targeted with threats and abuse online. In response, these folks still turn in news stories every day. Journalists will not stop doing their jobs under threat or coercion. We’ll keep showing up.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.