Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Editorial: Our response to the recent murders of our media colleagues

07/10/2018 11:16AM ● By Richard Gaw
Finally, after a request by Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley was originally denied by the White House, the American flag was to be positioned at half-mast around the country last weekend, out of respect for the five Capital Gazette staff members who were mercilessly shot and killed by a lone gunman on June 29.

The sluggish, “We'll get around to it” approval was the latest jab in the gut of an industry that has had its integrity, its professionalism and its morality dragged through the quagmire of social commentary, at Red State rallies and on a presidential Twitter storm that calls journalists, “The enemy of the people,” and a “stain on America.”

Verbal criticisms notwithstanding, now they're killing us, and the once unthinkable atrocity thought to only take place in other parts of the world – in nations run by murderous thugs – has reached our soil over the past decade, and its latest story is horrifying and all too real.

In the days and weeks before the Annapolis shooting, the gunman sent out several threatening letters about the newspaper, all written in the form of a “Motion for Reconsideration,” in reference to the documents issued by a Maryland court that refused to hear the shooter's defamation case in 2016 against the Capital Gazette – a case that was dismissed – stemming from a 2011 column the newspaper published about a criminal harassment charge against the shooter that was filed by a former classmate. On June 28, a day before the shooting, he sent out a last letter, detailing that he was headed to the newspaper's offices “with the objective of killing every person present.”

“You were too cowardly to confront those lies, and this is your receipt,” he allegedly wrote. “I told you so.”

While the deaths of Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Robert Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara are a permanent wound on the country's conscience, there is another bloodbath going on in America, one that has to do with freedoms, legalities and ideologies.

According to research done by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the murder of five journalists at the Capital Gazette represented the single deadliest attack on our nation's media in recent history, a growing epidemic that may grow worse, fueled in part by an incendiary American rhetoric that gets its cues from the highest-ranked elected official in the nation. The free press, one founded on and guided by the First Amendment, has been under attack by a cross-section of Americans who have been given carte blanche to categorize any published information that does not coincide with their way of thinking as “Fake News.” Consider the dangers of such a blanket missive; it muddies the waters of truth and lies; it abdicates the role of journalists to find and tell those truths; and it beats and bludgeons the freedom of the press into soggy pieces of chewable niceties. On the afternoon of June 29, Fischman, Hiaasen, McNamara, Winters and Smith were shot and killed by such an individual who could not live with the published truth of his actions.

There have been others.

On May 30, music journalist Zachary Stoner was murdered in Chicago, just weeks after he decried the violence in the city, when attackers in a passing car fired multiple shots at him as he was driving away from an early morning rap concert in Chicago’s South Loop.

On Aug. 2, 2007, Chauncey Bailey, an editor of the Oakland Post, a California newspaper focused primarily on African-American issues, was shot and killed by a former handyman working for Yusuf Bey IV, owner of Your Black Muslim Bakery, who was found guilty of first-degree murder and lost his case on appeal. At the time of his death, Bailey was working on an investigation into Your Black Muslim Bakery’s financial dealings.

A new online database called the Press Freedom Tracker has documented that 57 physical attacks have been perpetrated on American journalists in this country in the last 18 months, ranging from being shoved by security guards to being beaten by protesters.

The United States is now the third deadliest country for journalists in 2018, behind only Afghanistan and Syria.

While those who disagree with the role of the press in America in 2018 are entitled to their own beliefs, they are not entitled to their own facts. The truth is that we have been charged with the responsibility of finding and disseminating information, verifying that it is true, and reporting it objectively. Go further into the weeds of this job description and you will find that there are no provisions that we must make friends, nor court enemies.

While we hold steadfastly to the idea that a tragedy of this kind will eventually lead to a dialogue meant to help heal the division between the press and those opposed to it, we are not confident that it is likely to begin any time soon. The attacks against our media are now brazen and frequent; meant to demean and discredit and recruit others into the fold, and their end seems a distance away.

Meanwhile, five families buried a loved one recently. On July 2, hundreds attended a memorial service for assistant editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen in Owings Mills. On Sunday, July 4, the family of sales assistant Rebecca Smith held a visitation for family and friends in Dundalk, Md.. Graveside services for editorial page editor Gerald Fischman were privately held on the same day. A memorial service for community reporter and editor Wendi Winters was held on July 7 in Annapolis, and on July 10, a memorial service for sports and community reporter John McNamara was held at the University of Maryland College Park Chapel.

We, the Chester County Press, mourn the passing of our brothers and sisters in journalism, and we pledge to continue approaching our responsibilities with the same dedication, dignity and pursuit of truth that Fischman, Hiaasen, McNamara, Winters and Smith lived by, and what they died trying to protect.