Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Wendi Winters were journalists who survived layoffs, newspaper ownership changes, declining readership and even a denigrating president who called the work of people such as them “fake news.” But none of them, nor Rebecca Smith, a 34-year-old sales associate who had joined the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis last fall, could survive the barrel of a gun.
Jarrod Ramos, a disgruntled reader who failed to exact his revenge in a court of law, allegedly shot them down Thursday as they worked, probably oblivious to his name or his beef. Fischman was the 61-year-old editorial writer who forsook hyperbole to subdue the most formidable politicians. His cogent prose and unwavering accuracy left little to dispute. Hiaasen was the 59-year-old father of three with a writing style never absent of humor or grace. McNamara was a 56-year-old rabid sports reporter who took on additional assignments just to stay employed in a profession he loved. Winters was a 65-year-old mother of four who relished the opportunity to cover community news and who baked cakes every Christmas for her colleagues. Four journalists dedicated to their mission regardless of obstacle or complaint.
They were getting close to retirement, when their long hours would come to a rewarding close and mornings would be filled with a leisurely reading of a newspaper over a cup of coffee. Instead, they were added to a list of defenseless people caught in a national killing spree that seems to spare no institution. Not schools, bars, malls, churches, music festivals or even a congressional ballfield.
There was a time when a complaint was something to deposit in a box or take to a supervisor. If that failed, there was always the courts - or a letter to the editor - to air grievances. Now, complaints are being dispatched without mercy down the barrel of a gun. How long can this carnage go on before we drop the rhetoric about guns and face what the nation is becoming? Why does it take grieving high school students to speak for us, to fill the moral vacuum created by a president who prefers to spend his time relentlessly and personally attacking anyone who dares to oppose him?
President Donald Trump isn’t responsible for the Annapolis tragedy any more than the Second Amendment is. But he and his supporters seem to have forgotten that the Constitution that gives them the right to bear arms is the same document that safeguards the right to free speech. You cannot honor one amendment without honoring the other 26. Those dedicated Capital Gazette journalists, like others before them and surely others after them, fought for free speech at all costs, including death. It’s not prayers their survivors and co-workers need; it’s respect for what reporters and editors do every day.
In my 42 years of journalism, I never knew a reporter whose goal was anything more than reporting unvarnished facts, no matter what the consequences. They wore that policy like a badge of honor. They put their names on the stories they wrote and added contact information. Reporters at small newspapers, such as Capital Gazette, were open to visitors, many of whom came with grudges. While friends and family grieve, their lives forever altered, the names of the five victims will eventually fade as the nation moves on to its regular routines, until the next massacre intrudes.
I wonder what Gerald Fischman would write if he were at his desk the morning after the shootings. Like always, I know he would find a perspective that was magically unique and eloquently expressed. It would make readers reflect. That powerful voice has been silenced along with those of Fischman’s colleagues who perished alongside him. But I hope others step into a breach that has become a lot more dangerous but no less important to the survival of democracy and the First Amendment.
Tom Marquardt is the former editor and publisher of Capital Gazette Communications.