Out and About (Sort of): Journalism Jolted by Howard Freedlander

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I can’t stop thinking about the murder of five journalists nearly two weeks ago at The Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis. I’ve read numerous articles about the shooting spree in the newsroom and the deranged and angry suspect. I’ve read each of the obituaries.

The mass shooting, almost commonplace in our violent country, touched me not merely because of its geographical proximity but because of its closeness to my life as a former journalist.

I was a community editor in Caroline and Queen Anne’s County. I never enjoyed a profession more. Unfortunately, the pay was terrible. The business model propagated the stepping-stone culture, implicitly accepting the premise that the product could only be so good. Content would be secondary to profit—when the latter might increase with consistently high-quality journalism.

I moved on for the sake of my family.

The journalists at The Capital, Gazette, along with other small-town and small-city newspapers, are underpaid and overworked. They accept that reality. They love their work and their communities. They believe they are performing a public service by aiding and abetting democracy.

Uh-oh. How does democracy insert itself in a discourse about journalism? Without pesky, incurably curious and sometimes cranky journalists, print or electronic, our government, for example, might function in a sloppy or corrupt manner without any oversight or accountability.

Our media keeps us honest. We can be our better selves. We can allow ethics, not greed, to guide us. We can avoid damaging headlines and investigative stories.

More than 35 years ago, I heard the famed CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite speak at a conference in Nassau organized by the owners of then Chesapeake Publishing. An owner of a small New England newspaper, he opined that community papers provided the glue that kept counties like Talbot, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline and Dorchester and their towns and villages together and compassionate.

He told the story about a pharmacist in Manhattan who died. No one knew, because the New York Times certainly wouldn’t cover the death of a small merchant. A community paper didn’t exist. What was Cronkite’s point? If people know about the good and bad things that affect their neighbors, then they naturally can offer human support and empathy.

Community cohesion results.

Large media outlets cannot cover local stories—or the pharmacist’s death—while focusing on larger matters. Too bad—bigger stories lie in waiting.

The Capital Gazette tragedy has afflicted the Annapolis community with grief and unleashed a reservoir of support. The Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County, working with a family and the Baltimore Sun Media Group, immediately responded by raising money for the Capital Gazette Memorial Scholarship Fund for select journalism students at the University of Maryland, College Park.

My youngest daughter knew and liked one of the five, the community correspondent, a woman, Wendi Winters, who loved covering and supporting local news, like her Teen of the Week column. An eyewitness to the rampage watched as Winters tried to distract the gunman by rushing him with a trash can and recycling bin. Before she was shot.

So, a lone assailant, bitterly outraged by an article written in 2011 about his conviction for harassment of a woman, attacked the newspaper, which simply performed its mission to inform. For me, he assaulted an invaluable instrument of democracy. He silenced the voices of five innocent victims.

However, he missed the mark; the newspaper published that day and every day since.

As it should. As it must.

When I read The Star Democrat, as I do daily, I might grumble about its thin content. But I appreciate its value as a community resource. Like everyone, I read the government news, reports of fires and accidents, births and deaths, academic and athletic achievements and, of course, I look at all the pictures of civic participants. I think about Walter Cronkite’s sage comments and feel thankful to be served by a community newspaper long devoted to local coverage.

Our local journalists deserve our gratitude. They serve all of us despite poor pay and long hours. Though they likely will move on to better-paying jobs, I believe they give as much as they get in experience.

Mass shootings have an impact that diminishes but doesn’t kill the spirit. Nor should our commitment to journalism as a critical tent of American democracy weaken or atrophy.

We’re protected by freedom of the press. Every day.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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