"Je suis @capgaznews," Jarrod Ramos tweeted in November 2015. His words echoed a slogan heard around the world scant months before -- "Je suis Charlie Hebdo" -- after the January mass murder at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris.
Ramos' tweet, however, did not offer words of support, but warning. He now stands charged with the murder of five journalists at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, at the Maryland state capital -- the culmination of seven years of failed legal actions and harassment.
In 2011, the Capital Gazette used Ramos' criminal case (he pleaded guilty) to illustrate how unwisely revealing too much personal information online can leave women and children at risk for sexual harassment. They interviewed a woman Ramos had harassed.
Ramos sued for defamation in 2012 and lost in 2013. However, he carried on complaining, frequently tweeting his grievances against the Gazette. Meanwhile, the woman he had stalked told police that he would be the "next mass shooter."
The five murders at the Capital Gazette on June 28 represent the most U.S. journalistic fatalities ever in one day, let alone one event. As a journalist myself, I was expecting global outrage over what happened at the Gazette, similar to the "Je suis Charlie Hebdo" spirit that swept social media three years ago.
I can think of some obvious reasons why it didn't happen this time.
First, the Charlie Hebdo attack was part of a Paris-wide terrorist plan in a city that rarely hears the sound of gunfire. Conversely, mass murders are literally daily occurrences in the U.S. -- 203 shootings by July 3. Someone who glanced at the news carelessly might even assume that Ramos was a disgruntled Gazette worker, not a convicted bully motivated by grandiosity (in his writings) and simmering resentment.
Second, after the horror of the Paris terrorist assaults subsided, so did the furor over Charlie Hebdo's freedom to push the limits on satire, as folks realized that many Muslims and non-Muslims objected to the magazine's content on grounds of prejudice. Unlike the French satire magazine, though, there were no questions about perspective at the Capital Gazette, where Ramos punished staffers for reporting straight-up facts.
Third, some media reports have described Ramos' one-sided campaign against the Gazette as a "feud" or a "personal vendetta," whereas "harassment" is a more accurate term. Just as with domestic assaults, media and the public tend to take "personal" threats less seriously than political or "terrorist" attacks. This is short-sighted, since men (almost always men) who get away with violence at home are at high risk to become public hazards too. Besides, the kind of stalking he pleaded guilty to, amounts to a kind of terrorism.
Fourth, and most important, many commentators are asking whether the U.S. president himself has encouraged this kind of violence against the news media. Three times in the two weeks leading up to the shooting, Trump referred to journalists as "the enemy of the American people." In August 2017, he encouraged people at his rally to chant "Boo CNN!" Journalists were pelted with rocks and tear gas as they left the event. He offered to pay the legal fees for any of his fans at a rally who are charged with assault. Last October, he said: "It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write. People should look in to it."
"Since the election, Trump has tweeted attacks on the 'fake news' 225 times," wrote Mark Sumner in The Daily Kos. "Add to that another 61 attacks on 'low ratings' CNN, 53 attacks on the 'biased' NBC news, 51 attacks on the 'failing New York Times,' and 33 slams at the 'fictional' Washington Post. That's not counting attacks on individual journalists."
After the shooting, Trump refused to comment for a few days. The White House at first declined the Annapolis Mayor's request that federal buildings fly the flag at half mast to honour the slain journalists, but relented after the Mayor mentioned the fact at a press conference. The state Governor already had all state flags flying at half mast.
Donald Trump was one of only two politicians Jarrod Ramos tweeted about, says one observer. The other was Michael Peroutka, a Maryland county politician and a wealthy funder of neo-Confederate causes, who was active in the League of the South (LOTS) until he ran for public office. Peroutka recently lost his seat on the County Council in the Republican primary race, to political newbie Amanda Fiedler.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre has quite a lot to say about the LOTS and its leader Michael Hill. An Alternet article notes that "Michael Hill had written approvingly about plans to form paramilitary groups to fight a militarized 'fourth generation' culture war, one of whose targets would be the media. 'To oversimplify, the primary targets will not be enemy soldiers;' Hill wrote, 'instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don't run.'" In other words, targeted assassinations.
Along with extreme right wing influences, Ramos has something else in common with Trump: misogyny. He was obsessed with his reversing his own conviction for a stalking a woman he'd known briefly in high school. "If you dig deep enough, this is the root of a number of mass shootings," Petula Dvorack wrote in the Washington Post. "Whether it's domestic violence or a failed marriage or a guy who got turned down in high school, a twisted, misogynistic streak helps fuel the violence."
R. Eric Thomas writes,
While domestic violence can only be linked to 20 per cent of all mass shootings in the U.S., there is an open and unfettered culture of misogyny that is stoked by men in power, particularly the President, which provides the perfect breeding ground for these crimes, and many others, to occur. Yesterday five people were shot at a newspaper and the congresswoman [Maxine Walters] received a death threat. These are not events occurring in a vacuum, and it's atrocious that anyone would behave as if they are. Any congressional leader who is not openly and repeatedly taking the president to task for his behavior is complicit. Any member of his administration who is silent in response to his bullying has blood on their hands.
In short, while Trump furthers his own ends by encouraging hatred and distrust towards the media, he also raises the risk level for journalists doing their jobs. In the same way, his policies put women at more risk than before. He uses divisiveness to keep himself in power, rather than doing the president's job of bringing the country together. Instigating right wing terrorism is just another way of distracting attention from his economic policies.
One hopeful sign that people are resisting divisiveness and coming together is that the Capital Gazette gained 800 new digital subscribers almost immediately.
As the staff of the Gazette wrote in their first edition after the shooting:
We will never forget Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, John McNamara or Rebecca Smith, our five co-workers who were gunned down in a senseless attack. But we also will always remember the bells of St. Anne's ringing as members of our staff -- past and present -- walked down Main Street surrounded by thousands who turned out to support us in a march to City Dock. We always will remember the singing on a grassy knoll across from our office in a second vigil, little more than a day after five acts of murderous rage changed our lives forever.
Along with gifts, cards, flowers, and subscribers, the Gazette staff also received death threats. "We won't forget being called an enemy of the people," they wrote. "No, we won't forget that. Because exposing evil, shining light on wrongs and fighting injustice is what we do."
Letting in the sunshine is what news media workers all want to do. Maybe if more people understood that, they would defend journalism as vigorously as they defended satire.
Image: Keith Allison/Flickr
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