In 2011, The Capital, the primary newspaper of Annapolis, Maryland, published a column about Jarrod Ramos, who had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment there for bothering a high school acquaintance by email and on social media. Ramos, a 31-year-old employee of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics with a degree in computer engineering and no previous record, had been sentenced to 90 days in jail, suspended, and 18 months’ supervised probation.
The Capital column, under the headline “Jarrod wants to be your friend,” was fairly tame. “If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably gotten a friend request or message from an old high school classmate you didn’t quite remember,” it begins. “For one woman, that experience turned into a yearlong nightmare.”
It was primarily about Ramos’ victim, name withheld. Ramos had urged her to kill herself, she said, and the bank where she worked had put her on probation after Ramos had urged it to fire her. Then the bank laid her off, and, the column said, she believed it was because of Ramos.
The Capitol in its fashion – a precautionary tale – was doing what newspapers since time immemorial do best, standing up for the little guy, the victim, putting paid to bullies. When Ralph Ingersoll founded the ad-free, left-wing daily paper PM in New York City in 1940, he had a motto that perfectly encapsulates this: “We are against people who push other people around.”
None of this mattered to Ramos, of course. He was angry at his former classmate, apparently because she had rebuffed him. Now he also was angry at The Capital, for printing the column. So he did the generally unwise and American thing and sued The Capital, for defamation.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Ramos had failed to name one factual error in the column – further angering Ramos.
He sent angry and threatening letters and messages to the newspaper, implying he would physically attack it and its staff. The Capital ignored him.
Two years ago, Ramos barricaded the rear exit of The Capital’s building – “a sleepy office across the street from a local mall” – and then walked to the front with a legally purchased 12-gauge shotgun. He blew out the glass door, and then killed five employees from the small staff: two editors, two reporters and a sales assistant. He wounded two more as they were trying to escape.
Reporters for The Capital began their coverage of the shootings as they were happening, trying to take notes amid the carnage. They did not have to get out the next day’s edition, yet that was what they knew and what they felt was owed to their calling.
“Yes,” the paper tweeted that night, “we’re putting out a damn newspaper tomorrow.”
On June 29, 2018, The Capital appeared with its own horrific news on the front page. The opinion page was left blank to commemorate the victims but for a small note saying the paper’s staff members were speechless.
This compulsion, not just to cover itself the way the paper would cover anything and anyone else, but to go on with the show – this ethos and commitment out of blood, shots, death, shock, misery and grief – displayed The Capital and reporting at its best. Nothing would bring those lives back and no one would say they died for a good reason; it was the worst of reasons; but for the survivors, the only damn meaning was to be found in their vocation.
Ramos is due to finally go on trial, to determine whether he was sane at the time of the attacks, as soon as this July.