When I saw the news about the deadly shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, like most Americans I was shocked and like most journalists, I was horrified and heartbroken. Five people are dead.
“The door of the Capital Gazette had been blown to pieces. It was in shattered pieces all on the carpet and this guy was holding what looked like a big shotgun and moving across the entrance of the Capital Gazette office pointing the gun deeper into the office like he was targeting people,” Keith Cyphers told CNN affiliate WJLA.
When the gunman walked inside, he could easily see the entire newsroom. Most of the staff were at their desks and the editors were in their offices lined up on the left.
“It’s a completely open newsroom,” said Terry Smith, a columnist for the Capital Gazette.
A completely open newsroom. That line goes right into my heart.
My very first journalism job was at a small daily paper in Oregon called the Corvallis Gazette Times. I wrote obits, selected letters to the editor, and would get put on stories nobody wanted. The GT is in an old mid-century brick building, with a big open entryway, glass offices on one side and an expanse of open desks shoved on the other side that made up the newsroom. I sat nearest the door and one of my duties was handling walk-in customer service (reader questions and complaints). My back was to the door at all times. There was literally nothing between me, or the rest of the newsroom, and any person who walked into the building.
The first thing I thought of when I read about the Capital Gazette shooting was, quite truthfully, that could have been me. I know it sounds cliche to say that. Every journalist could be targeted at any time, particularly in a climate like the one the President of the United States has created by having an endless, escalating flame war with the press. Still, when I read the description of the Capital Gazette newsroom, it hit me right in the gut. I was 21 when I worked in Corvallis. I sat at the first desk in the newsroom, with my back to the door, in a completely open space.
I suspect this was something my husband thought of when we talked about the shooting last night. He told me, “I wanted to cry when I saw what happened.” And he looked at me with a look that said everything. He was heartbroken for the Capital Gazette staff and their families. But he was also grateful it wasn’t me.
It’s really easy to paint The Media as a faceless monolith with no ties to communities or even humanity. For years Trump has been calling the press “the enemy” and “fake news” and encouraging people at his rallies to harass journalists. He’s made the entire press his target, his foil, in a war he wages on the First Amendment, truth, and the liberty of thousands. For all the hand-ringing about civility, there’s never really been a drop left for journalists — not ever, but certainly not in the Trump era.
Journalists have always had a tough job. They are routinely ranked between lawyers and car salespeople on indexes of most-hated. You might ask why we do it. We do it for love. Smirk if you like, but the hard-boiled truth is that journalists love their communities, their country, the Constitution, and the truth.
We certainly don’t do it for money. I made $5,000 my first year as a journalist and I routinely worked 40 hours a week at a job that was supposed to be part-time. When I became a full-time staff writer, I worked 10-12 hour days and had to be available seven days a week, day or night, holidays or birthdays or anniversaries be damned. My first five years in Las Vegas I had to be outside a big box store at 4 am on Black Friday to interview people in line. There’s no holiday pay or overtime in journalism. There’s just the job and your phone buzzing at 6 am or midnight, likely both on the same day. You get paid a pittance and in exchange for being a truth-teller, you accidentally agree to take the frustration and the anger that the community you serve feels and misdirects at you instead of the scoundrels who deserve it.
So when I say we do what we do because of love, I mean it. Because what else could possibly be worth the misery we endure?
There is also honor and purpose in journalism. A healthy democracy requires a free press. We need the press to be a watchdog, to share the stories of this American life. We need the Fourth Estate, no matter how much the president or titans of capitalism or polluters or murderers disagree. I have often marveled at the person who goes on a diatribe against the media and when I ask them how they know about the local election or high school sports scores the answer, of course, is there local press. You need it even when you hate it.
Let me remind you that journalists are people, too. We care about our neighbors and communities. I’ve spent 20 years working in and around journalism. We have families. We are your neighbors. We have kids in the same class as your kids. We sit next to you at church. We love our communities.
This really is a thankless job where, for the most part, you only hear from people who don’t like you, don’t like your writing, don’t like that you exist. I’ve been called everything. I’ve been threatened with rape and all forms of violence — and that was at community weeklies where I wrote sweet stories about kids at spelling bees. There are men who look at mastheads, find a woman’s name, and call her simply to yell at a woman. There are people who hate us and have never met us.
Journalism is a genuinely hard job. I’ve seen a person’s last breath in a hospital bed surrounded by her family, seen people at their worst, seen people at their most triumphant, made Make a Wish dreams come true by rallying the community, got turkeys donated to the homeless shelter on Thanksgiving when the original donor bailed, got school supplies for kids, held the hands of dozens of cancer patients for dozens of stories, alerted my community to danger, held my community up after 9/11, hung out at the drive-thru wedding chapel, stood between the protestors on both sides … and so much more. I say this not to bring glory to myself, but to remind you of the valuable service journalists do in communities all over the world, to remind you of our humanity.
People look at journalists and think we’re a bunch of lying assholes. Of course, there are a few of those in the thousands of people who do this job, but that’s not the majority. The majority are people who really do love and care about people, their communities, their country, and the world. The fact that people still do it — still love it — in the face of constant vitriol says a lot. We love you, even though you never love us back.
To the people who work at the Capital Gazette: I lift you up; I cry with you; I admire the fact that the presses never stopped rolling even in the depths of your despair and grief. Because the presses never stop rolling. If anyone understands that, it’s journalists. We do the job no one else wants, but everyone needs. And we will never stop.
Photo credit: Emmily Bristol