By Denise Clay
New York Police officers are seen deployed outside the New York Times building following a fatal shooting at a Maryland newspaper. (Reuters: Brendan McDermid)
When the news alert of the shootings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, came across my feed, I wasn’t surprised.
Angry? Scared? Hurt? Yes. But not surprised.
If anything, what surprised me was how long it took. That it was a local newspaper in a town that houses the United States Naval Academy. That 39-year-old Jarrod Ramos had planned his alleged assault right down to the mutilated fingertips that were apparently supposed to conceal his identity.
I know that sounds rough. It felt rough to write.
But I’ve been a journalist for close to 30 years, and while I spent two years covering white supremacist groups as a black woman, I’ve never felt more jumpy about doing my job than I do right now.
The reason for this is that the relationship between journalists and the people they cover here in America has become even more contentious than usual.
Much of that contentiousness has come from the person occupying our nation’s highest office.
The Observer published a story on Tuesday on Milo Yiannopoulos responding to journalists’ requests for comment with threatening messages.
Tagged as ‘enemies of the state’
When I was covering the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump had some really unkind things to say about his press coverage, despite the fact that it was, and in some cases still is, kind of deferential.
Donald Trump tweet: Prior to departing Wisconsin, I was briefed on the shooting at Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Thank you to all of the First Responders who are currently on the scene.
Anyone who asked him a tough question or demanded anything closely resembling accountability from him was called a purveyor of “fake news”, usually in front a crowd of supporters ginned up by whatever alleged grievance took place that day.
When he became President, however, the red meat given to the ramped-up crowds included the contention that reporters were “enemies of the state” for doing their constitutionally protected jobs.
It was a refrain repeated by many of the President’s fellow travellers, like for example Milo Yiannopoulis.
After spending a year out of sight — and largely out of mind — when his recalcitrant eight-year-old act got stale, Yiannopoulis came out from wherever he was hiding and responded to a request for comment from the Observer by saying that he couldn’t wait “for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight”.
Like he usually does when someone incredibly stupid comes flowing out his mouth, Yiannopoulis insisted he was “joking”.
Meanwhile, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity blamed former president Barack Obama. No, I’m not kidding.
Special tactical police gather near the Capital Gazette newspaper building. (Reuters: Joshua Roberts)
Trump’s sentiments won’t last
To his credit, Mr Trump did send out one of the patented “thoughts and prayers” tweets he tends to send out when large numbers of people have been killed by the guns he refuses to put any restraints on.
But since I know he’ll be back siccing his base on journalists with his irresponsible rhetoric any minute now, I’m not impressed.
In the time I’ve been a reporter and columnist, I’ve taken great pains not to broadcast or write anything that I’m not 100 per cent prepared to stand behind.
That’s because I discovered a long time ago that words are powerful, and you have to accept responsibility for how they’re used.
If we take nothing else from the Capital Gazette shootings, I hope we take that.
It’s the least we can do.
Denise Clay is an independent journalist who covers politics and social justice issues, and a member of America’s National Association of Black Journalists. She tweets @denisethewriter