Witcover: Gun violence invades a newsroom

Amid President Trump's war on American mainstream journalism as "fake news," an offended reader of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, shot and killed five staffers in its newsroom Thursday (there’s no indication that anything Mr. Trump has said had anything to do with the tragedy).

Among those killed was a longtime columnist and editor, Rob Hiaasen, 59, who earlier had been a feature writer at The Baltimore Sun, were I also had worked, though I did not know him. But the event struck me hard, because many years earlier I had gotten my own start at a similar small-town weekly in Hackensack, N.J., reporting and writing stories on local happenings.

Rob’s brother, Carl Hiaasen, a celebrated columnist and author in Florida, told The Washington Post that Rob "had dedicated his whole life to journalism. And he loved that paper. He loved that newsroom. And he loved the idea of hometown, old-fashioned journalism."

He went on: "I've been in this business for 42 years and ... watching the horror unfold on cable news and writing my columns about it and all ... And yet this is a horror that unfolds in this country it seems like every few weeks."

That was only an oblique reference to the ongoing national discussion of rampant gun violence or to Mr. Trump's war on the Fourth Estate that some might have seized upon as more evidence to allege indirect responsibility on him. In this case, it seemed there was plenty of grief and pain in the shootings alone without bringing politics into the regrettable matter.

(The man arrested as the shooter, Jarrod Ramos, 38, had filed a defamation lawsuit against the paper and a writer over a July 2011 article that covered a criminal harassment charge against him. The case was dismissed, and Mr Ramos later lost an appeal seeking to reverse the ruling. None of the shooting victims was involved in the paper's coverage of that lawsuit.)

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, pro-Trump Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee called Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the carpet. They angrily charged him with stalling on the Robert Mueller investigation into Russia's U.S. election meddling that he oversees, and demanded he end it and inform the public of its findings.

The harassment was a clear repudiation of the congressional obligation to support Mr. Mueller's inquiry for as long as it took to get all the facts, even if that included calling on the president to testify, to which he has yet to agree.

This and many other examples of an administration in dysfunction are arguments for constitutionally protected American journalism that is under attack by Donald Trump, apart from the regrettable physical assault of that small-town newspaper in Annapolis of which he was not involved.

In this copycat world in which there are plenty of bad actors quick to pick upon ways to inflict damage or punishment, we can only hope the tragedy there does not open the door to further newsroom assaults fanned by the public climate of anti-journalism in the Trump era.

At the same time, responsible mainstream journalism requires that there be no comparable response in newsrooms and in dealing with public figures by fighting fire with fire. The recent episode of denying White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she of the many arrogant slanders against White House reporters, the ability to dine out in peace was a lapse in public courtesy.

In all this, however, Mr. Trump unnecessarily invites attack and contempt. His personal assailing of Democratic Rep. Maxine Watersof California, who is not one to turn the other cheek, characteristically pushed back in spades.

The whole phenomenon of mutual discourtesy and political warfare inspired by Trump's demeanor and hostility to all those who dare oppose him, in words, in print or on the air, has led us into perhaps the most venomous and inflammatory era ever in our national politics.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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