MIKE MASTERSON: Dying at desks

A costly amendment

Posted: July 3, 2018 at 2:58 a.m.

Weighing heavily on my thoughts as we enter the July Fourth week are the five killed and two wounded in last week's shotgun assault on staffers of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md.

The suspect, 38-year-old Jarrod Warren Ramos of Laurel, Md., had a lengthy feud with the paper ever since being the subject of a critical 2011 article by former columnist Eric Hartley. That column discussed a criminal harassment charge filed against Ramos by a Maryland woman.

Ramos sued Hartley and the paper's former publisher Tom Marquardt for defamation in a 2012 civil action dismissed as groundless. But the court's rejection failed to stem Ramos' resentments and anger. He frequently tweeted rants against the paper's journalists, a wire service story reported. For instance, in 2015 Ramos tweeted that while he'd like to see the paper stop publishing, he'd prefer to see two of its journalists "cease breathing."

His irate tweets about the newspaper and its writers prompted Marquardt to notify police in 2013; he also told his wife at the time: "This guy could really hurt us," the news account added.

Dark foreshadowings of what sadly would come to pass.

Police arrested Ramos cowering beneath a desk within minutes without firing a shot.

The aftermath would be called one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in our nation's history. Surviving journalists said they hid beneath their desks listening terrified as the gunman reloaded and kept firing. Under that level of paralyzing pressure, anyone would be wondering if they'd be next. There was no place to flee or way to fight back.

News agencies reported the slain as Rob Hiaasen, 59, a former feature writer for the Baltimore Sun who joined the Sun-owned Capital Gazette eight years ago as an assistant editor and columnist; Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent who headed special publications; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; staff writer John McNamara, 56, who had long covered high school, college and professional sports; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant.

Having been the editor at three daily Arkansas newspapers since 1971 and a columnist published in this newspaper three times weekly since 2001, I closely related with Hiaasen's career, although he was somewhat younger.

Journalism clearly flowed through his DNA to become Hiaasen's life calling. His older brother, Carl Hiaasen, 65, is a longtime columnist with the Miami Herald, a former investigative team member, and author of more than 20 novels.

A common trait columnists share, other than deadlines, is the knowledge that whatever opinions we form, whether humorous, irritating, outrageous, serious or revelatory, those words forever have our names attached to them. You own what you espouse, even if it should later be proved wrong, at which point the proper remedy is to simply say so.

The Hiaasen brothers certainly have understood how that aspect of the job goes with the territory. You accept the criticism, anger, affection and praise in stride, hoping the mix winds up over time in a balanced center of sorts that reassures that people are reading.

Based on a story by reporter Jean Marbella in the Baltimore Sun, it quickly became apparent Rob and I spent much of our careers following similar frequencies while pursuing mutual interests.

"Current and former co-workers remembered him as a lanky, endearingly goofy storyteller," Marbella wrote, "committed to both the reporting and narrative writing ends of his profession. 'He could be deadly serious about doing investigative reporting, but he also had a soft side,' said Tom Marquardt, former editor and publisher of the Capital Gazette. "'He had a special insight into people's lives and their character.'"

So -30- to fellow journalists who bid farewell practicing the sacred First Amendment in their newsroom. And thank you, Rob, for making such a positive difference in so many lives over the years. Your big heart for mentoring and the words regularly pouring so freely from it clearly mattered a great deal.

Keeping pols honest

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced the other day how proud she was to announce her department's newly formed Public Integrity Division. We all should be pleased.

Other states have had Bureaus of Investigation that work closely with national, state and local law enforcement to root out corruption, especially the amply pampered, fed and watered thieves in silk ties and shiny shoes who continually craft devious ways to siphon taxpayer monies from the public trough into their wallets.

Rutledge said public integrity officers will join the FBI and the Arkansas State Police in the Public Corruption Task Force.

To her credit, our attorney general also created this division without additional cost to taxpayers by reallocating positions within her existing budget. Here's hoping these officers will have the integrity, tenacity and abilities to catch every last public servant and would-be briber with his or her personal ladle in the taxpayer's trough.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 07/03/2018