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Josh Kurtz: Good Vibrations and a Very Important Message

The names of the victims of the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting were projected against a wall during Saturday’s “Annapolis Rising” music festival. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

By all accounts, Saturday’s daylong “Annapolis Rising” music festival, a fundraiser for the victims of the Capital Gazette shooting and first responders, was a resounding success. The midsummer weather couldn’t have been nicer, thousands of people showed up, and there was a great variety of music and entertainment.

As a journalist, hearing politicians, musicians, celebrities and community leaders talk about the importance of preserving a free press was nothing short of inspiring. So was seeing T-shirts, buttons, and signs trumpeting the need to protect reporters and the work we do. I especially loved the exhortations to “hug a journalist.”

But as the national media landscape grows more cluttered, complicated and uncertain, it’s hard to know exactly what all these Good Vibrations mean. When the president of the United States refers to journalists as enemies of the people, discussions about the media and their role in American society have surely gone off the rails.

So it was interesting and lovely on the one hand to hear these expressions of love and support. Whether you knew them or not, the memories of the five Capital Gazette staffers murdered in the June 28 newsroom massacre — Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Gerald Fischman and Rebecca Smith — hung heavy in the air.

But one couldn’t help but wonder whether the talk about press freedom, while 100 percent sincere, was almost an afterthought.

Clearly everyone at the concert on Saturday felt the horror of the shootings in the Capital newsroom. Gun violence rocks every community and so the incident clearly unnerved and affected everyone who came to Saturday’s festival.

The alleged shooter was a madman. Whether his decision to walk into a newsroom and open fire was an attack on the concept of a free press in the strictest sense is debatable.

The guy was out for vengeance. Newspaper employees happened to be his victims because he disliked something he had read. For those of us who practice the craft, that’s a scary notion.

That people want to use this horrific incident to bolster the media is fine, even welcome. But would the sentiments about protecting the free press be as heartfelt and profound if violence wasn’t part of the equation?

It’s easy to say you are for freedom of the press. People say it almost routinely.

But in the United States, even with President Trump’s constant and high-profile diatribes against “fake news,” it’s easy to take for granted the notion of a free press and most people probably never really think about what it means.

Later on Saturday night, after the show was over, I was struck by the same feeling walking past the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial at the Annapolis City Dock. People were lounging on the statue of Haley reading to children, eating ice cream cones, taking selfies, enjoying the waterfront views. And why not?

But that statue was placed there strategically, near to where Haley’s legendary ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was sold into slavery. Did anyone pause to reflect on that sordid aspect of our nation’s history?

It’s a little disquieting to think that it took a slaughter in a small city newsroom to get people thinking about freedom of the press. Donald Trump did not beget Jarrod Ramos, the alleged Capital Gazette shooter. But they both have contributed to the sense of urgency that journalists do important work — work that must be valued and protected.

The most important thing I heard on Saturday night wasn’t “hug a journalist.” It was “subscribe to your local paper — and vote.”


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Josh Kurtz: Good Vibrations and a Very Important Message