Evan Berkowitz: The press is free, but are we safe?

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PITTSFIELD — Annapolis, Md., isn't like other state capitals. It's smaller, cuter, quainter, even — the smallest by land area of any state's seat of government. But somehow it doesn't fall victim to the plights of other capitals that play second-fiddle to their state's largest city. There's no Brutalist architecture, and the Naval Academy ensures it's more than a company town. In fact, the Maryland statehouse is the oldest one still in use as such, as my Old Line State friends often reminded Massachusetts-born me.

The Annapolis Capital — its steadfast newspaper where a gunman opened fire Thursday, killing five people — is not too different. It's a local paper, where the acorn-topped spire of that 18th-century statehouse rises up on royal blue in the masthead each morning. A place, like so many others, where the family of bylines that greets readers at breakfast becomes comfortable, known and respected.

Not too different

This horrific event hits home for all journalists because The Capital, and its sister publication, The Gazette, are not too different from other lionhearted locals where we and our friends work nationwide.

Not too different from The Press of Atlantic City, N.J., say, or the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal. Not too different from The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., or the Southeast Missourian in that state's Cape Girardeau.

Not too different from The Berkshire Eagle, where I spend my nights on Adobe InDesign.

In journalism school, you learn about the people who have been targeted, killed or imprisoned for seeking truth and reporting it. You hear that for some, journalism is a dangerous career choice. But you think that applies in Russia or Iran, or other places where the press is strangled by its government. Not in Annapolis, or Louisville, or Pittsfield.

The president and his rhetoric have changed that. Thursday's tragedy, as no doubt hundreds of writers have already posited, represents the extrapolation of his speeches and declarations that the press is an enemy of the people — however twisted in the mind of someone who shoots to kill. While the perpetrator's motives are not yet known, already people in the darkest corners of the Internet, including Reddit's r/TheDonald, have gleefully connected the mass shooting to their idol's rhetoric.

The president has spent his entire campaign and administration not only lying to the press but actively demonizing its members, singling them out at rallies to whooping, vulture-like crowds and characterizing them on Twitter as scum of the Earth.

Seeds of violence

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In Mois s Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," which dissects reaction to the brutal, hate-motivated murder of a gay college student in Wyoming, a priest says that hateful words are "the seed of violence."

They don't need to be calls to bloody action, they don't need to be explicit — they may not even draw a second notice as they are uttered. But they grow, and they become a man beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead, or a reporter shot and killed at his or her place of work.

And it's not just the president.

It's people on Facebook and Twitter who comment under our articles — as they inevitably will under this — that we are just a bunch of un-American liars.

It's my neighbor who, after learning I worked at The Eagle, innocently joked, "Well, I won't hold that against you."

It's my friends, even, not a Trump supporter in the bunch, who throw around "Fake News" like it's funny because, in the moment, it is.

All are the seeds of violence, intentionally or not.

I worked at a small weekly local paper in Alexandria, Va., last summer. My twice-daily Metro ride took me over the Potomac with a view of the White House peeking past the Jefferson Memorial. On the editorial page each week, above a syndicated cartoon and whatever letters readers had sent in, our third president was quoted.

"Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe," Jefferson wrote on January 6, 1816.

Now, 202 years later, I'm not so sure.

Evan Berkowitz is a news designer and copy editor for New England Newspapers Inc. He graduated in May from the University of Maryland.


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