Opinion: Some professions are more than professions

This one feels different.

And what does it say about this country when one has seen enough mass shootings to become a connoisseur of them? But yes, what happened last week in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis does feel different. It feels too close for comfort.

Part of it is that a colleague lost his brother and that a friend of mine says a friend of his knew another of the victims. Part of it is that I’m familiar with the area where it happened; I bought my wife a Christmas gift at the mall across the street. But the bigger part, I think, is that the killer targeted a profession of which I have been proud to be a part for 42 years. He attacked journalism.

There’s a lot of that going on these days.

I will not blame the murders of Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith on the toxic, anti-media environment so gleefully fostered by the president and his followers. I prefer to blame the killings on the killer, a 38-year-old man who, we are told, nursed a years-long grudge against the paper.

I will, however, say that in routinely denigrating reporters, in advocating violence against them, in wearing T-shirts calling for them to be lynched, the president and his people did set the stage for what happened, creating a toxic atmosphere that could only have encouraged it. They are not guilty of these murders, but they are not wholly innocent, either.

And it seems fitting that we’re having this discussion now. This week, after all, we celebrated the 242nd birthday of these dysfunctional, disjointed and disunited States. So it’s a good time to remind ourselves that there’s a reason the Founders made the press the only profession protected by name in the Constitution. They understood its critical role as the people’s watchdog. They understood, as Thomas Jefferson famously noted, that you’d rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press.

Some professions are more than professions. Some professions are callings. Apologies to any window washer, accountant or electrician reading this, but I suspect few people ever gravitated toward those careers with idealistic thoughts of serving the greater good.

But that’s exactly why many people become soldiers and cops, teachers and clergy. And yes, it’s why many become journalists.

They attend the meetings, dig through the court papers, pin down the public officials, run toward the disaster, work long hours for often modest pay in service to a hoary, cheesy and utterly sacred ideal: the people’s right to know. Even when the people hate them in response.

Well, we “enemies of the people” had a death in our family last week. Five, to be exact. Now here we are, nearly a week later, flags fluttering, fireworks bursting, hot dogs grilling, as America celebrates freedom. And in newsrooms across the country, keyboards clicking, phones buzzing, news gathering, fact checking, as a grieving family meets its calling to safeguard and empower that selfsame freedom.

I used to tell my journalism students that any explanation they brought me for missing a deadline better involve blood loss. I meant it as a joking-but-serious warning to procrastinating young people that this profession takes its mission seriously and does not tolerate excuses.

Well, last week, even with actual blood loss, actual death all around, Capital Gazette journalists were working on laptops in the parking lot, doing their often-thankless job. Reporter Chase Cook tweeted: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”

And they did. Of course they did.