Sign on the Office Door: No Firearms, Please

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Jul. 9, 2018 12:00 am   3 min read

If ever I hoped for news to be fake, it was on June 28, when headlines screamed that a gunman had shot up the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland.

One of the five people killed, community engagement reporter Wendi Winters, was once my neighbor in Montclair, New Jersey, and a volunteer at my son’s school.

Rob Hiaasen, another victim, was shot down on his wife’s birthday. His brother, Carl Hiaasen, is the bestselling crime novelist, but Rob wrote about more familiar things, like getting a haircut at the barber shop down the street or reacting to the death of his first girlfriend.

In my newspaper career I’ve faced many people angry over things I’ve published. A poke in the nose was usually the worst potential threat. But in a time of mass shootings and deep political divisions, when the president cries “fake news” and vilifies reporters as America’s enemies, real bloodshed was probably inevitable. The doors here at Arkansas Business Publishing Group feature a sign: “No Firearms Allowed.”

No sign, of course, would have stopped the Annapolis tragedy. Shooters aren’t rule-followers, and the Capital Gazette gunman simply blasted through the office’s glass doors with a shotgun before taking lives.

The violence was over in a few minutes, but Hiaasen, Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith were left dead or dying. All but Smith, a sales worker, were journalists.

The suspected gunman, 38-year-old Jarrod W. Ramos had a grudge against the paper, which had reported on his conviction for stalking. He had sued for defamation but lost when a judge ruled the paper’s reporting was accurate.

The shooting came days after the conservative writer and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was quoted saying that he couldn’t wait “for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Yiannopoulos, you may recall, is the former Breitbart News editor who lost work after defending pederasty, including a hypothetical relationship between an adult man and a 13-year-old boy.

The vigilante quotation was a step too far for many conservative outlets, and Yiannopoulos was castigated. But he’s not alone is suggesting journalists should die for the sin of reporting facts.

Newspaper workers have no more right to safety than bankers, office workers or CEOs, but they shouldn’t be cast as targets, either. They also can’t work in fortresses, because public interaction is their lifeblood. Readers drop by with tips and photos; people come into the office to buy ads and be interviewed.

There’s also a misconception that journalists are the people who blather on cable TV. In fact, the vast majority are like Fischman, writing editorials about the local city council, or McNamara, covering sports at the high school or college up the road. They’re neighbors, working hard in a challenged industry. It’s a tough job, and not particularly well paid. But for an informed public, the work is vital.

Tom Marquardt, a retired Capital Gazette publisher and executive editor, summed it up beautifully on Facebook: “The Capital, like all newspapers, angered people every day in its pursuit of the news. In my day, people protested by writing letters to the editor; today it’s through the barrel of a gun. Sure, I had death threats and the paper had bomb threats, but we shrugged them off as part of the business we were in.”

Now, he said, newsrooms have joined the growing list of places shattered by mass gunfire. “These victims are people who persevered through layoffs, ownership changes and declining readership to stick with the reporting they loved.”

Last week, news organizations nationwide reviewed their security arrangements. Lynn Hamilton, general manager of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said parent company Wehco Media Inc. of Little Rock was conducting “a group-wide security evaluation” led by the human resources directors “at all Wehco newspapers.” Other Arkansas news outlets are undergoing similar reviews.

“Active shooter situations are among the most traumatic and disturbing of all emergency crises,” Hamilton wrote in a memo to all employees. “They are very difficult to predict and can occur without warning as just happened in Maryland. It is important that we work on security procedures to keep our staff safe.”

The memo included a link to a University of Texas video offering tips for surviving a mass shooting. The basics, as Arkansas Business reported in 2016 after studying active shooter preparations at workplaces, schools and churches, boil down to “run, hide, and fight,” in that order. Those tactics, with luck, can help employees survive to face another day.

And that’s what the lucky ones did in Annapolis. They went back to work, and the next day’s paper came out on time.

 

 

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