Fifteen years as a newspaperman taught me a few select things. One is this:
It is the god-given right of every American to resent or even hate his local newspaper. Indeed, it is our birthright to hate any and every news organization, print or broadcast. It is not certain that you will avail yourself of that right, or that you will invoke it consistently if you do, but it is there for you whenever life doesn’t go the way you want.
Your hometown newspaper will highlight your most embarrassing utterance at the PTA hearing or detail your company’s bankruptcy, just as it will at some point ignore your daughter’s performance in the school play or miss the zoning hearing at which a porn shop is dropped a block and a half from your son’s middle school. It will herald some political views you abhor and denigrate some politicians you wish to cheer. It will spell your name incorrectly when you are named the Rotarian of the Year and dox you with precision when you are cuffed and processed for driving drunk.
A good newspaper has no real friends and some fixed and certain enemies — namely those who wish to operate without the critique or attention of others. And these are the givens even in a healthy national culture, with a politically mature leadership and norms of governance that discourage the worst fascist impulses.
But now, Trump.
If you think that a great mass of Americans aren’t content to cheer the destruction of open speech or the mechanisms of dissent at this very moment, if you think there is still an abiding reservoir of Mill and Voltaire and Jefferson on which we can draw, then suffer the social media commentary in the wake of Annapolis. Between they-had-it-coming sneers and what-did-they-expect critiques of media performance, the consensus among this president’s supporters has also congealed around the most delicate and ridiculous decouplings of Trump’s fascistic performance from its inevitable outcome:
“He was only attacking Fake News.”
No, the President of the United States was attacking a host of national media organizations by name — so many and so often over the past year that it was in effect an attack on the mainstream media as a whole. And by declaring the very product of so many institutions to be fraudulent and a great national danger, the president was creating a scenario in which any attempt to strike at the product or its creators could be handily elevated to the mantle of patriotism and heroism by extremists willing to do so.
“The shooter had a longstanding beef with the newspaper.”
Yes, he did. For seven years, the man who would shoot up the Annapolis Capital-Gazette’s newsroom bickered online and in court over the coverage he had received. Yet what is also evidenced is that his escalation to violence came at a point after Donald Trump, lost in his own grievances and impulses, used the presidential podium to declare bluntly and openly that journalists and the falsehoods they deliver were the greatest peril to the nation. Chronology makes Donald Trump’s demagoguery more complicit in Annapolis, not less so.
“The gunman was deranged.”
No kidding. And every reporter who ever did the job has stood at the newsroom mailbox or opened his emails to discover that a shallow, but permanent sedimentary layer of mental illness, pathological resentment and disordered thinking undercoats the readership or viewership of every news organization. They’re out there. And what they vent and threaten rarely has any grounding in the necessary or ethical parameters of journalism. Hell, it rarely has any grounding in basic sanity. Professional journalists toss the crazed hate mail and dodge the screamers on the phone extensions and continue to report and file. They shrug it off as a matter of weekly routine. What else, after all, can they do, other than hope that the space between someone’s rage and derangement and any resulting gunfire is not narrowed by political leaders declaring that journalists are the people’s biggest enemy and the greatest threat to the republic?
But no such luck. Donald Trump gleefully delivers the same vitriol to the unhinged supporter as to those grounded or discerning. Of course the gunman had his own grudges. Of course he was deranged. It is ever thus. What other cohort embarks time and again on mass murder? Trump’s declarations of who the great national villains are will reach all ears. And only a self-absorbed fool or an indifferent sociopath would stand behind the presidential seal and tar the press as enemies of the people and not expect an Annapolis, or two, or three, to occur. Trump is not merely one or the other, but clearly, a lethal composite of both.
“Plenty of U.S. Presidents have criticized the press.”
But not like this. Not ever with these words. And not with so little regard for the very role of a free press in a republic. A president’s pulpit is vast, constant and immediate. And the grown-ups who have served in that high office understand the importance of their every utterance; they guard against their own excesses and impulses as best they can. They do their damnedest to sound and act presidential, which is to say they conduct themselves as if they were leading not a partisan mob in search of a political pogrom, but instead the whole of a nation in which a free press itself is the only non-governmental occupation enshrined in the founding documents. Until now, a U.S. President might criticize the press coverage of a given issue; he might even deign to critique a particular narrative offered by a particular news outlet; he might piss and moan and do so from the presidential podium. But never to this moment has a president declared the institution of an adversarial press — a component of democratic governance that Jefferson, for all his combat with a young nation’s newspapers, called more essential to the people’s commonweal than even the mechanisms of government itself — to be enemy of the American people. That’s fresh. And fascist on its face.
“If this was about Trump, it wouldn’t be the Annapolis newspaper. It would be CNN or the New York Times.”
My god, look at the last contortions required to exempt Donald Trump from any complicity in the violent deaths of working journalists. Rather than admit the transitive power of Trump’s attacks on an independent and adversarial press reaches every news organization and finds the ears of the most disgruntled and deranged consumers — wherever they may reside and whatever prior grievance makes them receptive to violence — those defending this horrifying performance by an American president are fighting a rear-guard action in which Trump must first name the specific media outlet — and then people must immediately be slain there — before we dare reckon with the cost of his demagoguery.
Presumably, if someone marches into the newsroom of CNN or the Washington Post tomorrow and begins a fresh massacre, we will hear from apologists who will note that Trump, in the days after Annapolis, delivered a brief statement that no one should be killed doing their jobs: Absolution in a single, half-assed tweet for more than year of rancid provocation.
Yet all of these arguments and rationalizations — vacant and dishonest as they are — now float through our political ether. They have been launched by some professional commentators for whom partisan maneuver now prevails over all norms of governance, or even the survival of the republic itself. And they have been launched as well by the armies of bots, trolls and rabid ideologues who genuinely believe an American experiment can function with dead journalists and with only those ideas and opinions that our leader shall approve or believe. Or more credibly in the case of the foreign-launched bot diaspora embedded in our social media, they correctly believe that their own national interests will be advanced by gutting the American experiment on precisely these terms.
My guess is that Donald Trump will barely pause before the next displeasing news report, or the one after, returns him to another foaming ragefest at a free press that simply will not anoint him or acknowledge his great qualities and victories. Even after these slayings of reporters and editors at their desks in Annapolis, Donald Trump and his surrogates will continue to assert that Fake News is the greatest threat to America and that our journalists are the greatest enemies of the American people. For them and their purposes, the road to fascism will be held open, willfully and strategically so. This is no miscalculation. This is a campaign. Watch.
* * *
As if to mock the viciousness of Trump’s assault on journalism, the dead in Annapolis are beautifully representative of what is so abiding and honorable about the simple act of going to see or learn things, coming back to a keyboard, and in a limited window of time, trying to accurately relate what is known.
These dead can scarcely be caricatured by fascist demagoguery. They were not the bloated, talking heads of the national news cycle; they were not Beltway-wrapped insiders traipsing into West Wing briefings with credentials in a dangle around their necks. The dead at the Capital Gazette were, by every account, the quiet and careful footsoldiers in a daily war to simply find out enough about what might be happening in Annapolis and central Maryland — be it local court decisions, police blotter items, legislative coverage, school board politics, high school and college sports, or community events — and then get it into print or up on a website.
Two were friends.
Rob Hiaasen, who worked for years with my wife in the features section of the Baltimore Sun, was a deft and delicate voice, crafting stories that delivered ordinary and extraordinary people both. His byline was always an invitation to travel to some part of my city and spend time encountering life on a scale that other reporters recognized as precisely human. He was a pro, with a light common touch to his copy and an eye for the common man to be so honored with that gift. Personally, the memory that keeps biting me is Rob accompanying my wife — though this was years before Laura Lippman and I dated — to a coffee shop across Calvert Street from the Sun newsroom to toast with lattes the sale of her first novel. For me, having published a book, the ritual was simply a chance to encourage another Sun scribe who had grabbed at the brass ring. But Rob showed so much pride in his colleague that you would have thought Laura’s first manuscript was his own. He was beaming.
John MacNamara was a friend from days shared putting out a college newspaper, the University of Maryland Diamondback, where John covered basketball and football. His first love stayed sports reporting and he was, among other duties, still covering UM athletics for the Capital Gazette when he was killed. In a newsroom of ranting undergraduates, he was the most humble and genuinely sincere creature to ever endure a copy edit. What I think I will always remember is glimpsing the quiet pain on John’s face when Pete Bielski, the sports editor, had dummied too few column inches for a basketball photo, so that the choice was either cutting off Buck Williams’ legs in mid-jump shot or cutting four inches of Mac’s game story. I swear, I think John cut his own copy before doing violence to the image of Williams delivering from the top of the key.
These are the people I see when I think of the president declaring time and again for the villainy of journalists, or when I read the online screeds of his followers and devotees validating or excusing the insanity, stepping sideways from the pathetic spectacle of a United States President using his bully pulpit to, well, bully the free press of a republic. It is a reach to claim — and so I have not — that Donald Trump contemplated all of what was to come when he began his prolonged campaign against the American press. I don’t think he imagined the blow landing on Rob Hiaasen or John McNamara or the other committed journalists murdered with them, or that the violence would explode at a community-based newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, or even that the reckoning for his adversaries in the press would be so lethal. I don’t think Donald Trump imagines very much at all. But premeditation is scarcely required for a verdict of gross negligence — for me to say, deliberately and dispassionately, that this empty, soulless man, in his unfitness for the high office, in his petty rancor and heedless verbiage, purposely created a climate that helped to murder my friends.
That he will never reflect on his role or the context and nuance of his personal responsibility is certain. The man thinks, speaks and acts simply and crudely, and always in his own self interest. He is at every moment feral, ever seeking satisfaction and avoiding pain: Much of nation’s press has not validated him. It has criticized him forcefully and willfully. Furious and wounded, he fires back not merely at the critics but the very idea that anyone anywhere has the right or responsibility to ever treat him so. And the dead men and women in Annapolis are merely collateral to that. They are not important to the only outcomes that matter to Donald Trump, his close allies, or — most grievous of all — to a great mass of Americans who actually believe that a free and unfettered press is what actually ails this tottering republic. This is not only Trump, or the hangers-on gathered around his throne; this is us, too, undeserving of this democracy, its constant cost, and its fixed responsibilities.
What leaves me today with little hope is not the ignorant, hollow man at the center of this guttural descent into fascism. Donald Trump, it is now clear, can’t help but be what he has always been. Never mind a presidential moment or two, this man can’t even rise to the level of civic responsibility to which we once held the average adult citizen. Nor is this even about the enabling, sycophantic party in power, which would rather gorge on tax cuts and Supreme Court seats than address the rot now coursing through every putrifying limb of our body politic. Massed capital long ago purchased the Republican Party in full; there is no longer pretending every last shard of conscience or patriotism wasn’t included in the sale. No, this is about, us — too many of us who still think ourselves to be men and women worthy of a republic yet can sit compliant for what is now happening.
A citizen of the United States.
Who in the hell is that guy? What the hell is he thinking? How in the name of every rightful profanity I can summon are so many Americans trading their entire political birthright for porridge this foul? What do they think is coming when they rally to an authoritarian’s self-serving maneuver and cheer loudly at the idea that a free press is their biggest enemy? What do they think they win when a gunman marches into an American newsroom and executes five journalists at random? Cash money? More racial privilege? A new burst of freedom?
If the cynicism, partisan apologia and indifference that follows Annapolis is any indication, we are not going to remain even a flawed democratic experiment for very much longer. Not when a significant number of us are both incapable of exercising citizenship in such a sophisticated form of self-governance as a republic and undeserving of the benefits of such. Too many will know democracy only when it is gone. And if the journalists are dead or cowed, then some of us will find a fresh American hell without a single moment of reckoning.