This is not a game.
On Thursday afternoon, a man bearing a shotgun and smoke grenades entered The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. He opened fire through the glass doors of the newsroom. He kept shooting, reloading when his gun emptied.
By the time the police found him hiding under a desk, he had killed five people and wounded two others.
It appears he held a grudge against the newspaper.
Seven years ago, he pled guilty to harassing a female former high school classmate. The Gazette reported on the incident and his guilty plea.
A judge dismissed his suit as without merit when he couldn’t demonstrate that any part of the reporting was inaccurate or that the coverage had harmed him in any way.
That’s not surprising.
One thing I’ve learned in nearly 40 years as a journalist is that mistakes or inaccuracies may irritate or annoy people, but the hard feelings most often dissipate with a correction and an apology.
The truth, though, can enrage people, because there’s no way to make it go away.
Most newsrooms and most journalists have known guys who nurse imagined grievances like the person who slaughtered five people for telling the truth apparently did. Most of them, thank goodness, are harmless, wounded souls so invested in their own highly evolved fantasy lives that they can’t bear to hear even a whisper of reality.
They fume. They troll online. They mortar and buttress the walls surrounding their private Never-Never Lands by posting things long on venom and short on logic.
But they don’t shoot people.
There are, however, some genuine dangers out there, people like this guy, whose rage builds and builds because they cannot deny the message.
So, they do their best to destroy the messenger.
It would be comforting to think that such thinking is confined to the lunatic fringe.
But it’s not.
The president of the United States offered his condolences to the families and friends of the fallen at the Gazette. He said his thoughts and prayers were with them.
That was nice.
Three days earlier, though, at a rally in South Carolina he said journalists are “the enemy of the people.”
Donald Trump has complained often about journalists.
He has said they aren’t nice to him.
He’s been particularly angry about reporting regarding his presidential campaign’s possible ties to Russia – three campaign staffers have pled guilty to offenses and others have been indicted – and his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. The president first denied he knew of the pay-off to the porn star, but, when faced with legal penalties for lying, acknowledged he had known about it all along.
The truth enrages.
This president also tries to discredit or destroy the messenger, because he cannot deny the message.
The sad thing is he’s not alone.
Too many people in this country – people who ought to know better – do the same thing. Because they cannot deny the message – cannot suppress the truth – they try to shut down or shout down the messenger. These folks run the gamut from high school administrators who want to tell students they can’t write or even talk about problems in their schools to high-powered business people who think any story, however factual, that doesn’t make them look like geniuses must be fake news to alt-right activists who urge audiences to kill journalists.
The alt-right activist said he was just joking.
Bet the folks in Annapolis are just laughing themselves sick right now.
I didn’t know any of the people killed in Maryland, but I do know people who were their friends and former colleagues. It appears those who died were like most journalists I have known – hard-working, good-hearted and loyal to two masters.
And, most important, the truth.
They, like most of us, didn’t go into this business thinking that trying to tell the truth would be the easiest way to make friends.
They – we – became journalists because the truth matters.
Someone has to try to tell the truth, even when – especially when – the most powerful people in the country won’t.
This is not a game.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.