Before we start, I want to be crystal clear that no one deserves to die in a workplace shooting. Short of self-defense, no act is heinous enough to provoke and excuse this kind of absurd violent outburst.
I also refuse to blame the victims. Most of them had nothing to do with the column that precipitated this tragedy, and even if they had, a bad journalistic decision shouldn’t cost you your life.
But as the story of five shooting deaths at the Annapolis Capital Gazette unfolds, I firmly believe their editors and that columnist share some culpability. Having read the 2011 column that set this sad scenario in motion, I can’t stop cringing.
The suspect in this mass shooting, whose last name will be withheld here, is clearly mentally ill. The Gazette column describes a man who relentlessly and horrifically stalked a former high school classmate, online and through email, for a year before she finally resorted to the courts to put a stop to it.
It was the kind of nightmare that no one who offers kindness to an acquaintance should ever have to endure.
The cautionary tale of Internet peril is a good one, and that story would have had the same impact without publishing the offender’s name. What baffles me is, what on God’s green Earth made those Gazette editors decide to out a mentally ill man who wasn’t a public figure on his best day.
Go ahead and put a line in a police blotter, but not this!
Thinking back to my phenomenal former editors like Greg Rivara, Rick Nagel, Mike Cetera, Paul Harth, and Dave Parro, none of them would’ve let that column get past the first draft. A story on Web stalking? Sure! Telling the story without the names? You bet! But calling out a private citizen, who clearly has major issues – by name and in detail – would’ve meant a stern lecture and starting from scratch.
And the editor who came up with that sarcastic, smarmy and needlessly nasty headline – “Jarrod wants to be your friend?” Aside from selling newspapers, what the hell was he or she thinking? What could they possibly hope to accomplish by taunting a mentally ill man?
Why do I suspect a Gazette editor and that columnist reached out to the subject only to be angered by his response, and they let that anger cloud their judgement?
The late, great Mike Royko always said his biggest regret was “peeling a grape with an axe.” As he wound down to three columns a week, Royko anguished over the times he excoriated a low-level city worker or bureaucrat who was simply following orders.
But as local newspapers slowly die, using a hatchet to go after grapes has become the norm.
When was the last time the Daily Herald, a Shaw newspaper, or the suburban Tribune papers broke a big news story? They haven’t for over a decade. When you add up very young reporters, a general lack of talent, editors desperate to save their jobs, and publishers awash in red ink, journalistic standards go right out the window.
Since they can no longer break the big stories, they’re going after easier and smaller targets.
When the Daily Herald blew their Gliniewicz coverage, they disproportionally took it out on a lowly Elgin animal control officer who, while certainly in the wrong, did not deserve nearly that amount of newsprint.
And the Shaw newspapers have become nothing more than one big police blotter.
I’m very fond of Shaw Media’s DeKalb Office General Manager, Eric Olson, but we are currently engaged in a long-running debate over papers running police reports. Eric says it’s an important part of informing the community and the most popular part of the paper, while I insist it’s nothing more than a conviction in the press.
And what paper ever prints that any of those folks were exonerated?
Shaw Media will run an update reflecting an acquittal if the subject calls and proves the charges were dropped. But that just reminds readers – who’ve already made up their minds – of the original story.
When your journalistic focus boils down to going after non-public people who aren’t used to that level of scrutiny – and especially mentally ill people who aren’t used to that level of scrutiny – bad things are bound to happen.
How many innocent defendants have lost their job just so Shaw Media and Paddock Publications can pander to readers’ prurient interest and get a few more Internet hits?
There’s a similar situation brewing in Kane County right now. A mentally ill individual is sending rambling, semi-threatening emails to myself, and a number of public and elected officials. Though those missives are troubling, and I would caution my involved friends to be more careful in the short term, outing this individual would make it so much worse.
And despite my liberal friends’ dire proclamations, this tragedy had nothing to do with Donald Trump, or Milos Yiannopoulos’ call to assassinate journalists (a desperate cry for attention), and everything to do with a truly terrifying editorial decision that spun completely out of control.
I’ll say it again. I can’t imagine what those editors were thinking. These are utterly pointless and unnecessary deaths.
Local newspapers and journalists must get back to, as former Kane County Chronicle Managing Editor Greg Rivara always insisted, “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.” Nobody deserves to die for it, but afflicting the afflicted is just plain wrong.