The Capital Gazette shooting, one year ago, reminded us of another threat to good journalism
One year ago this week — on June 28, 2018 — a man named Jarrod Ramos walked into the office of the daily Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., and gunned down three editors, as well as a young sales assistant and a 65-year-old columnist/reporter. Since 2011, Ramos had been angry at the paper and several of its staff members — none of whom were among the fatalities that day — after a columnist accurately wrote that Ramos had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment of a woman he had vaguely known in high school. The matter began around 2009, according to court documents on-line (https://tinyurl.com/RamosCourtDocs), when Ramos contacted the woman on Facebook, thanking her for being the only person who was nice to him in high school. According to the woman’s testimony, they exchanged pleasant emails for a while, but he eventually became belligerent, telling her to kill herself, calling her vulgar names, and sending her screenshots of her own social media posts. She went to the authorities “as a last resort,” she later told NBC News.
Ramos had been angry at the newspaper staff for seven years.
On July 26, 2011, Ramos pleaded guilty to criminal harassment in the District Court of Maryland. A judge imposed a 90-day jail sentence, then suspended it and placed Ramos on probation for a year and a half, requiring him to continue therapy and to leave the woman alone. The woman eventually moved from the area, fearing for her life. Even her attorney was afraid that he and his family would be stalked and killed, he told media outlets last summer.
On July 31, 2011, five days after Ramos pleaded guilty to the criminal charge, a court reporter for the Capital Gazette, Eric Thomas Hartley, published a column detailing the harassment described in the case. Hartley used the case as a jumping-off point to discuss the potential perils of social media and on-line harassment (the problem was somewhat new at the time, as Facebook only became available to non-college students in late 2006). Hartley quoted a county police detective who said, “Facebook and networks like it offer the chance to reconnect with old friends. But they can also invite unwanted attention.”
Without the column, area residents (particularly women Ramos might meet the way he “met” his first victim) wouldn’t have known the extent of the harassment.
Without the column, area residents (particularly women) wouldn’t have known the extent of the harassment.
Soon, Hartley and the newspaper staff themselves became victims of a brand of harassment that can be unrelenting and yet difficult to stop. Ramos started mentioning Hartley’s and the publisher’s names in social media posts, even apparently using Hartley’s name in a Twitter handle. The paper complained to the police, but decided to drop the matter when police said they didn’t think Ramos was a threat. A police report noted that the parties decided pursuing a complaint would be like “putting a stick in a beehive”; in other words, they were so intimidated, they were afraid to protect themselves.
It’s clear that by writing about Jarrod Ramos, Eric Thomas Hartley did a service to the community. Other women (and their families) who have been subjected to this sort of subtle but continued harassment have seen it go on for years and become more dangerous.
Although the column was true, in July of 2012, Ramos filed a defamation suit against the Capital Gazette columnist, the paper, and its publisher. The paper filed to dismiss the complaint. Circuit Court Judge Maureen Lamasney held a hearing on March 29, 2013, in which she granted the newspaper’s motion. According to court documents, she asked Ramos to point out any statement that was false or a way he was harmed, but he could not. “The article was simply not defamatory…” she said. “They reported a criminal case. They reported a matter of public interest.”
Ramos tied the paper up in court from 2012 to 2015.
Ramos appealed the decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Two years later, in a decision filed in September of 2015, Judge Charles Moylan wrote, “The appellant is aggrieved because the newspaper story about his guilty plea assumed he was guilty…he is aggrieved because the story was sympathetic toward the harassment victim and was not equally understanding of the harassment perpetrator. He wanted a chance to put the victim in a bad light in order to justify and explain why he did what he did. That, however, is not the function of defamation law.”
He added, “He is not entitled to equal sympathy with his victim and may not blithely dismiss her as a ‘bipolar drunkard.’ He does not appear to have learned his lesson.”
“He does not appear to have learned his lesson.” — Judge Charles Moylan
One year ago, after Ramos stormed the newspaper offices and executed five newspaper staffers, much of the media coverage focused, rightly, on the victims’ humanity and dedication (a welcome change from the demonization of the media we hear). Some of the coverage also focused on Donald Trump’s continued reference to the American media as “enemies of the people,” a term he used again on Twitter just three weeks after the slayings, and a term he has not used for foreign dictators, foreign trolls, or the shooter. (It begs the question of why, after seven years of hostilities, Ramos decided to finally act, an answer that has yet to be made public. Ramos’ trial is set for November 4, 2019).
Time Magazine, at the end of last year, named the five Capital Gazette murder victims, as well as other journalists killed during the year, as the Person(s) of the Year, referring to them as “The Guardians.”
But much of the coverage of the Ramos rampage failed to impart another lesson worth remembering — good journalism, even when it’s a deep dive into a local police matter, has risks besides the obvious ones. Newspapers often have to pay lawyers to defend themselves against even the most baseless lawsuits, not to mention to help them obtain what should be public records so they can do investigative reporting. A court battle is costly, even if the paper ultimately wins. Ramos was able to tie the paper up in court for years before he committed his unthinkable act.
Even a deep dive into a police matter has hidden risks and costs.
Yes, there is investigative reporting
Most people are aware of the financial hits news outlets have taken over the last two decades — competition with sites like Craigslist for advertising, the rising costs of newsprint, resulting layoffs — but don’t think about the legal costs and other costs that newspapers incur when they go beyond routine reporting. Just getting what should be a public document can take months (examples are here). And just this past December, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Trentonian newspaper in New Jersey was falsely (and publicly) accused by the mayor of burglarizing the mayor’s office. The newspaper had to fight to get public information from the police to determine what happened. Ultimately, the city acknowledged that a maintenance man had knocked over papers on the mayor’s desk overnight, and there was no burglary.
An investigative reporter in New Jersey was accused of burglarizing the mayor’s office in December. It turned out that a maintenance man had knocked over papers on the mayor’s desk.
That reporter, Isaac Avilucea, received a “Courage Under Fire” award by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists this past weekend. He has apparently done investigative reporting in the state’s capital for some time, but as part of a very small reporting staff.
So while we hear complaints that journalists aren’t doing in-depth reporting anymore, quite the opposite is true on both large and small scales, but with limited resources — and outlets may not be able to afford to continue much longer. Paying for a newspaper subscription or sharing important articles on the web helps media sources continue to do their work.
We hear complaints that journalists aren’t doing Watergate-level reporting, but the opposite is true — when they can afford it.
While I served as the editor-in-chief at a community newspaper chain in New Jersey two years ago — after starting as a reporter twenty years earlier — our publishers continually warned me about the consequences of publishing one specific in-depth story about the business dealings of a candidate running for office. Since we would be the first outlet reporting it, it would likely provoke a legal challenge, they noted — even if our facts were airtight. The politician was known to be litigious. His pushback might cost money that our small chain no longer had. I remembered a pre-internet time when we routinely faxed controversial stories and reader letters to a lawyer to review before they went into print, a time we could better afford to brook challenges. (The candidate ultimately lost the election before we had a chance to finish the story, but the message was clear — we had to pick our battles carefully.)
Since the 2016 election I’ve often heard people boast of canceling their news subscription because they didn’t agree with one decision or story angle in a publication. While media criticism is important, and the reputable outlets are still listening and evolving since 2016 thanks to it —a decision to cancel a subscription should be weighed carefully, and those who turn away from one news outlet will hopefull find another to support. People complain that they don’t want to pay to read a newspaper article because the paper’s parent company has a lot of money — a statement akin to saying you won’t pay for a computer because Apple has a lot of money, or you shouldn’t have to pay for a car because General Motors has too much money. News outlets (whether on-line or in print) need to sustain themselves.
The decision to cancel a subscription should be weighed carefully.
Politicians who take jabs at the “mainstream media” — a nebulous term — are effectively trying to delegitimize the handful ofremaining outfits that can do national investigative journalism like during the Watergate days. What would happen if the New York Times or Washington Post weren’t around? Who would watch federal government? It’s no wonder politicians don’t want them to survive.
The Capital Gazette, owned by the Baltimore Sun, likely has more resources than smaller papers. And there are some non-profit organizations that help. But many outlets couldn’t afford to withstand a legal threat from a couple of Jarrods — never mind worse.
It’s important to support good reporting whereto you find it — and to imagine a time when news reporters can’t dive deeply into a police matter because of the potential headaches. That time may not be too far off.