Excuse me if I think the president’s tweet about the mass shooting at an Annapolis newspaper rings hollow and useless.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” President Trump tweeted shortly after news spread Thursday of the latest mass shooting in America.
Another mass shooting. More thoughts and prayers from politicians. “Thoughts and prayers” – these words are empty and impotent when mass shootings occur with outrageous frequency, yet there is little or no meaningful bipartisan action to pass laws to help prevent them.
When spoken by the president, however, the words invite a special degree of cynicism about their sincerity. After all, the president has been relentless in villainizing journalists and his attacks on a free press. He’s gone so far as to regularly single out news organizations and reporters by name, pointing them out with scorn to his supporters, calling journalists in general “the enemy of the people,” as he did again at a rally two days before the newsroom massacre. He’s even mocked a reporter with disabilities.
Egged on, supporters take his cue, booing journalists at rallies, wearing T-shirts with vulgarities and messages about hanging reporters.
Earlier in the week, the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos reportedly texted a reporter that he couldn’t wait for vigilantes to start assassinating journalists. In the outcry that followed and after the Annapolis massacre, Yiannopoulos said he had only been joking. What a thing to joke about.
Let’s be clear: The latest mass shooting in America does not appear to be the act of someone carrying out a random attack on journalists. The alleged shooter reportedly had a longstanding grudge against the newspaper.
But you can understand why the shooting stirred outrage and a sense of heightened fear in the journalism community, where many already felt under siege before the shooting, given the president’s incessant attacks.
Across the country, journalists are speaking out about the hate mail and personal attacks they regularly receive. Some report receiving death threats. Here at the newspaper, in emails sent to me and in letters to the editor, I’ve seen a disturbing, increasing level of vitriol from readers who, using language like the president’s, blame the news media for the country’s ills.
The president’s attacks make it harder to do our jobs, but we soldier on.
The survivors of Thursday’s mass shooting at the Capital Gazette still put out a newspaper that night, working through their anguish from a nearby garage and with help from journalists from the Baltimore Sun. This is what journalists do. It is a tribute to the profession and to the integral role it plays in a democracy.
Thursday’s victims included four journalists and a sales assistant: Robert Hiaasen, an assistant editor and columnist; Gerald Fischman, the newspaper’s editorial page editor; John McNamara, a sports writer; sales assistant Rebecca Smith; and Wendi Winters, an editor and community reporter. Together they had more than 80 years’ experience.
Hiaasen’s death is being mourned among members of the family at John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, where he was a fellow in 2004. I’m blessed to be an alumnus of that group.
On Facebook on Friday, the program’s director, Dawn Garcia, remembered Hiaasen as “the gentle giant with the whimsical sense of humor; the evocative storyteller and talented writer devoted to journalism and his family; the guy who always was generous and kind toward everyone.”
Doesn’t sound at all like an enemy of the people.
In a sense, President Trump’s attacks are personal, but they are greater than that because they threaten all Americans. An independent press is one of this country’s shared values, a treasured institution we hold dear because it is a function of a true democracy.
We’re not the enemy, Mr. President. We’re democracy’s friend and staunch ally. We hold public and elected officials – including even presidents – accountable for their words and their actions. We believe fiercely in the public’s right to know.
There is little glory in what we do, yet we do our work at great sacrifice to our families, sometimes even to the detriment of our own health. Long hours, working late nights, weekends, holidays. Checking and rechecking every fact, because making a mistake undermines your credibility. Anguishing when you get home about whether you got every little detail right in the story you just filed. A never-ending workload – the news doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. on a Friday. Journalists do this because theirs is not a career but a devotion to their craft and the mission.
No, we’re not the enemy. I am proud to be a journalist.
On Friday, President Trump said “journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.”
That’s true, Mr. President. And I’ll go a step further: Journalists should be free from the fear of being attacked by you for simply doing the work that is a hallmark of a democracy.