Last week in Maryland, the Capital Gazette went about its business after the horrific deaths of five employees and published its next issue. It’s what newspapers have traditionally done after a calamity, whether a fire, a flood, or any other disruption. They found a way. Editors and reporters believed that what they produced was important. They still do, and perhaps even more so today than in print’s heyday, because the press, at its best and most professional, remains an essential source and curator of factual information. We mourn the loss of those who were gunned down: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith. And, because it’s our mindset, we try to keep things in perspective: Most newspaper offices have never been heavily secured. For every big metro with guards and barriers, there were many more street-level or second-floor operations on Main Street where irate readers could walk up to the front counter and yell at the editor. In newsrooms like those, going back to the 1970s and even earlier, there was always — always — a residual fear that someday one of those people would try something really dangerous.
There have been targeted murders of reporters (Don Bolles in 1976), but violence against a paper itself is rare. Has the potential for an attack gotten worse? Statistically speaking, yes, if you look at the accelerated rate of mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years. But it’s probably a stretch to say that we’re in any more danger now than the occupants of other workplaces, or schools, or churches. This is the new reality, the unhinged and seemingly random mayhem that in many cases can’t be blamed on exterior political or social passions. If anything, the events of last week should serve to strengthen the resolve of journalists to keep doing their job.
There is a lesson, though, that could be drawn from the shooting in Annapolis, and it has nothing to do with anti-media rhetoric. It may be time to rethink what constitutes a direct threat, and to adjust our actions accordingly. The gunman, Jarrod W. Ramos, had posted many threats against the newspaper’s employees on social media. They were so disturbing that the former publisher, Tom Marquardt, told The Los Angeles Times, “I said during that time, ‘This guy is crazy enough to come in and blow us all away.’” Here’s one of Ramos’ messages, from Feb. 8, 2015: “I’ll enjoy seeing @capgaznews cease publication, but it would be nicer to see Hartley and Marquardt cease breathing.”
Eric Hartley had written a story in July 2011 about the man’s conviction for criminal harassment, headlined “Jarrod wants to be your friend.” It detailed exchanges on Facebook between Ramos and a woman that turned into what Hartley called a “yearlong nightmare” that exploited personal information about the victim on others’ social media accounts and may have even cost her a job. Ramos used the hashtag #CapDeathWatch. The woman’s lawyer told USA Today, “This guy was the most dangerous person I’ve ever dealt with in the court system,” and added that Ramos had started harassing his family. Ramos, acting pro se, went on to sue for defamation. The case and his appeal were thrown out. The detective who investigated Ramos’ attacks against the paper in 2013 said that his postings did not rise to the level of “direct, threatening correspondence,” and that he hadn’t actually entered the building. The detective noted that the newspaper had decided against pressing charges: “It was described as putting a stick in a beehive.”
We recount these events to point out that they fit a pattern all too common in mass shootings. After any number of these “tragedies,” we’ve become accustomed to hearing that the perpetrator’s messages, warning signs, imagery, and vows of violence did not “credibly” threaten anyone. So we ask: At what point will the public demand that pernicious social media postings be treated as being literally real? We have teams of investigators who monitor and infiltrate child pornography networks, and people who possess this material end up in federal court and go to prison. Similar standards should be developed to protect the public from people who propagate threats of violence. The online world is not an alternative universe: It’s part of daily life — one that includes any number of unstable or mean-spirited individuals who, in our free society, have easy access to weapons.