On a brilliant Thursday in late June, a deeply disturbed 38-year-old man armed with a pump-action shotgun opened fire in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md.
Frantically seeking a witness while reporting on the shooting as a stringer for The New York Times, I send a Facebook message to John McNamara, an award-winning sportswriter and news editor at the paper.
Surely, Mac—a friend, mentor and editor to the skinny kid who used to be me in spring 1982, when I started as a cub reporter at the University of Maryland’s student paper, The Diamondback—would describe whatever happened in vivid detail on deadline and employ his Irish gift for putting words around it just so.
I obsessively check my cell phone for news, any news.
At 3:45 p.m., I gasp when I see the tweet from Phil Davis, the Capital Gazette police reporter: “A single shooter shot multiple people at my office, some of whom are dead.”
My throat tightens. I knew the world changed in 1999 at Columbine High; so many have fallen in mass shootings since then, as “never again” keeps happening again with heartbreaking frequency. But a newsroom? This is the “Crapital,” the “Crab Wrapper,” the paper everybody kvetches about but everybody reads, every day.
So many have fallen in mass shootings, as “never again” keeps happening again with heartbreaking frequency.
Baltimore’s WBAL News Radio interrupts afternoon talk with a bulletin: Five are dead after a gunman shot his way into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper.
The phone rings. Let it be Mac.
It is not he but a fellow Diamondback alum providing, on background, the names of the dead: Mac, along with two others connected with the University of Maryland, the editorial writer Gerald Fischman and Rob Hiaasen, an editor and columnist. The Gazette’s longtime and beloved community columnist Wendi Winters and the young ad sales assistant Rebecca Smith also died in the rampage.
I am suddenly nauseous. It would be a natural human response to pause and weep for Mac and his fellow fallen newspaper staffers, to rage against whatever sociopath would gun down people putting out a newspaper.
But there is news to report, so I do as I have done for more than three decades: say a quick prayer and keep moving. Give in to emotions on a big, breaking story, however horrific, and you become the journalistic equivalent of the surgeon with shaky hands.
Give in to emotions on a big, breaking story, however horrific, and you become the journalistic equivalent of the surgeon with shaky hands.
For much of two days and well into the nights, I keep moving. But in the hurry-up-and-wait lulls between police updates, a court hearing for the suspect, seeking eyewitnesses and comments from friends and loved ones of the victims, my mind meanders through the decades to when I first met Mac at the daily Diamondback in May 1982. I had been assigned to cover a daylong energy conference at the university’s adult education center. Exasperated and trying to make sense of the event, I recorded the whole thing. I filed my lead: “U.S. Energy Secretary James Edwards, utility officials and other energy experts gathered Saturday at the conference center at University College to discuss the complexities of America’s energy crisis.”
Mac, the paper’s managing editor, told me, with his baby-faced leprechaun smile: “This is called a label lead. That means you could have written it before the event even happened. Focus instead on what happened, what’s new, what’s news.”
Then Mac patted me on the back and said: “Don’t worry about it, kid. Every cub makes this mistake. Now you won’t anymore.”
That is how John McNamara taught—with compassion and grace, at a student newspaper that put a premium on comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, where the editor in chief who mentored Mac, David Simon (of “The Wire” fame), would write, “The journalist is the kid who stood at the edge of the playground, plotting his revenge.”
John McNamara taught with compassion and grace at a student newspaper that put a premium oncomforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable.
Neither Mac nor Fischman nor legions of other Diamondbackers in that newsroom crucible could imagine a higher calling in life than journalism.
Nor could any of us have conceived then of an America where the president regularly condemns the Fourth Estate as the “enemy of the people,” where alt-right commentators and extremist groups call for the assassination of journalists, where a Capital Gazette column exposing a deranged man’s criminal harassment and stalking of a former high school classmate would prompt him to shoot up a newsroom.
At last, exhausted late Friday night, I send The Times my final feed, but I cannot turn off the adrenaline or stop reading about the rampage or watching the videos—until I recall the words I found on Mac’s Facebook page the previous day, when I still thought I was preparing to interview him: “Are we not all precious in God’s eyes?”
With that, I break down, and the image of myself as the hardbitten newspaperman that I have maintained over the past two days crumbles. I weep—for Mac, for his wife and college sweetheart, Andrea Chamblee, for his colleagues, for all of us. For they are us, and we are them but for grace and circumstance.
How do I find God in the violent death of my long-ago friend and mentor and four of his colleagues in a newsroom?
I have covered hundreds of murders and other untimely deaths. But this one’s personal: I had never before known a victim I was reporting on, and as a journalist, I know you have to move on, for another story, another deadline looms always. Yet I can’t shake this one easily.
I think of the words of a hero, the writer Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.... We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.”
The social or moral lesson in the murder of five? It sounds absurd in the context of the newsroom massacre, save perhaps for the lesson that the United States does a pitiful job keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill mass murderers.
The Capital Gazette massacre is not only about incalculable loss but also all the gifts the departed gave us and leave us.
But I keep mulling over that Didion quote and keep asking: If we must strive to find God in all things, how do I find God in this, the violent death of my long-ago friend and mentor and four of his colleagues in a newsroom?
I pose the question to my priest-confessor, spiritual director, counselor and friend, the 84-year-old Jesuit Bill Watters. He patiently tells me, yes, we must see God as the crucified Christ in the lives stolen from us by a man filled with hatred. The tall, thin, Irish priest also does what he does so well, gently nudging me toward the light and helping me see anew that sometimes the light can shine brightly, even at the precipice of darkness.
Remembering Mac and his kindness and what he taught me in that college newsroom half a lifetime ago sends me on a journey to beginnings—to what made me switch my major from pre-law and never look back—and doing so somehow rekindles my passion for journalism more than anything has in years.
In the aftermath of Mac’s death and those of his colleagues, we the press—unaccustomed to getting much love in this age or any other if we are doing our jobs right—suddenly found ourselves embraced in an outpouring of support. Across the country, 350 newspapers published editorials affirming the work of a free press as essential to a democracy in these febrile times and rebuking the president for labeling journalists “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news.”
And the loss of Mac and his colleagues brought forth an abundance of admiration for those who have recognized the value and the power and the dignity of seeking out the stories of others, sharing them with the world and enriching us all.
As with so many untimely deaths I have covered, the story of the Capital Gazette massacre is not only about incalculable loss but also all the gifts the departed gave us and leave us. And there we find God and his light, even amid the darkness.