My friend worked at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. My friend is dead. Shot by a madman with a gun that, in America, madmen can routinely legally possess.
My friend worked with me for a decade at the Baltimore Sun, where I wrote a column before I came to Denver. He was a newspaper character. His big brother is a famous newspaper character. He is the kind of person who populates newsrooms, not the kind you’re told is an enemy of the people. My friend Rob Hiaasen was, as far as I know, no one’s enemy.
I’ve worked in newsrooms all my adult life, and even before I was an adult. Newsrooms are a place for profane, off-kilter, wonderfully cynical, big-hearted, some not so big-hearted, newspaper-as-family people who, for the most part, and despite constant threats to the business, could never think of doing anything else.
A mutual friend, Michael Ollove, who worked with us at the Sun, wrote these words: “Rob Hiaasen was a sweet soul in a hard-nosed, cynical business. There wasn’t a better colleague or friend, generous, empathetic, supportive with a whimsical sense of humor that delighted readers and pals alike. There are no words to make this loss comprehensible.”
Rob Hiaasen was 59. The obits say he was a mentor to young journalists. I believe that. I knew him best when he was young and eager and already a very funny journalist with a decidedly quirky take on life, like the column he wrote not so long ago on a hard winter’s day about the joys of, yes, snow snorkeling. He left the Sun at some point — I don’t know the details, but I’ll assume his departure was another painful step in the long, long decline of daily newspapers — but got a job in nearby Annapolis as an editor and a Sunday mostly-humor columnist.
Threats from crazy people are part of the business, and have been so long before the Trump era. I’ve endured several stalkers during my career. When I worked at the Rocky, one man would call and leave threatening messages nearly every night at about 2 a.m. I used to laugh at these and pass them around. And then one day he told me in a message he knew my address and he knew the names of my family. I called the cops, the cops found the stalker and warned him to cut it out and he stopped. Life went on.
But not Rob Hiaasen’s life. A man was angry about something that was written about him in the paper. Not by Rob. The columnist who wrote it no longer works there. The shooter sued the paper for defamation. He lost the suit because he couldn’t cite even one word in the offending column that wasn’t true.
Six years later, he got a gun and he killed five people in the newsroom, blasting terror from a shotgun, reporters huddled under desks, one tweeting that there was no worse feeling than hiding from a shooter and hearing him reload. The shooter had barricaded the back door, leaving no place to escape. And now, for reporters already under siege, many wonder if there will be other such shootings. When it was all over in Annapolis,Capital Gazette reporters tweeted that there were would be a paper the next day. And there was.
Five dead. And in this horrible case, one of the people killed was gentle Rob, whose big brother was the gifted novelist and newspaper columnist Carl Hiaasen, in whose footsteps Rob was so proud to follow. There are no footsteps now. Just a very large and enduring footprint.
And that’s all I can manage to say, except that the epidemic that is the mass-murder crisis in this country has hit home. Of course, it already had. In Columbine. In Aurora.
And I know how wrongly demonized the people I have worked with for nearly 50 years in newsrooms across America have been. I have a close newspaper friend in Denver whose very close friend lost a son at Aurora. And I became friends with some of the families I covered at Columbine. Next April will be the 20th anniversary of that terrible day.
And now? This is now. I mourn for a friend, I mourn for my business. And, as all of us do, I mourn knowing there will inevitably be more tears, after more shootings, after more deaths, in what has become an endlessly tragic news cycle that America has steadfastly refused to address.