Long accustomed to chronicling threats against the media in other countries, free press organizations are turning their attention to extreme rhetoric and threatened violence against reporters at home as President Donald Trump and his allies ramp up their attacks on the mainstream media.
For more than a year many of these organizations — including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — have issued statements raising the alarm over Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s attempts to restrict media access. Now, after Trump on Sunday tweeted out a fake-wrestling video that showed him pummeling a person clothed in the CNN logo, these organizations are starting to do what they never thought they’d need to: document violent threats and actions against the media in the United States.
“I never thought I’d be talking this way about an American president,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “These are strange times indeed.”
"I haven’t seen an appropriate response from the government since he tweeted that [CNN video] and that’s scary,” said Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications director of Reporters Without Borders in North America. “They should acknowledge it’s a serious matter to tweet something like that. To actually seemingly threaten CNN with violence in a video and to encourage that other people act that way, they need to acknowledge that is what that is."
"We see it as a demonization of reporters and the whole Trump movement has a feeling hanging over it of violence and anger,” said RCFP executive director Bruce Brown. “Why would you stoke the atmosphere that is already heavy with a sense of lawlessness with an image like that?"
CPJ’s website normally documents violence against reporters, detention of journalists or other measures to stifle the free press in places like Turkey, Venezuela or Azerbaijan. This month, though, the group will launch a project in conjunction with several other free-press organizations to document media restrictions and other incidents, including violent threats or attacks, against journalists in the United States.
“The video from [Sunday] for example will be documented and it will be available to academics and researchers so we can look at the trend, because otherwise these incidents get reported and we move on to the next bright shiny object,” Mahoney said. "This is unprecedented, but we feel it’s the only way to affect change. Record it, document the abuses of the press and then try to hold the people and make them accountable by presenting them with the data."
One donation that will help the project: the gift of $50,000 from Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) to CPJ as part of his settlement for physically assaulting Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, as he tried to ask Gianforte a question about healthcare last May.
Trump’s rhetoric, Gianforte’s assault, as well as other anti-media incidents like the arrest of a West Virginia reporter while trying to ask a cabinet secretary a question, lead to an atmosphere where more extreme measures against the press can take place, Mahoney said.
“All these things together point to a trend where the press is being undermined,” Mahoney said. "You can’t connect dots from an action to a word but you’re contributing to a backdrop where this is permitted, where it’s at least seen as though this is the new narrative that it’s open season on the press because ‘it’s all fake news.’"
The White House has thus far avoided much comment about Trump’s video pummeling the CNN logo, other than telling CNN it did not come from the popular message board site Reddit. White House spokespeople in the past have said the president’s anti-media tweets and rhetoric are his way to respond to incorrect and unfair coverage.
"I think that no one would perceive that as a threat,” Tom Bossert, the president’s homeland security adviser, said on Sunday on ABC, referring to Trump’s wrestling tweet. "I hope they don’t. But I do think that he’s beaten up in a way on cable platforms that he has a right to respond to.”
Few are suggesting that the country is starting to veer toward the path of places like Russia, where reporters are sometimes mysteriously killed after tough reporting. The United States is unique in its First Amendment to the Constitution, backed by a strong court system and bipartisan consensus in favor of free speech. But a fear still exists among free-press advocates that extreme rhetoric demonizing media organizations can lead to extreme acts.
The violent rhetoric isn’t limited to the pro-Trump right. The president’s son and some other conservatives have suggested that out-of-control online attacks against Trump and his Republican allies may have fired up James T. Hodgkinson, who shot GOP Rep. Steve Scalise and four other people last month while Republican members of Congress and staff members practiced for a congressional baseball game. Conservatives, along with many media figures, also criticized comedian Kathy Griffin for appearing in a video in which she pretended to decapitate Trump.
Neither anti-Trump rhetoric in the United States nor Trump’s tweets have reached the level of official demonization that has led to violence in other countries, free-press advocates say, though the media attacks, in particular, seem to be part of a worrisome international trend of depicting the media as enemies of society.
In Turkey, for example, the increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled journalists as terrorists and jailed reporters. According to Mahoney, even interviewing an opposition leader can be considered terrorism in Turkey. Erdogan has shut down entire news organizations and installed his allies at others, in a country that once enjoyed a vibrant and competitive news industry. Journalists have fled Turkey — now the largest jailer of journalists in the world.
"Political leaders will turn on the press as a way of trying to divert attention from what the press may be uncovering — often it’s corruption or political wrong doing. ,” Mahoney said. “To challenge what journalists are covering, one of the ways is to vilify them to say they have another agenda and to change the conversation.”
Leaders in countries like Chechnya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Iran and Egypt have engaged in inflammatory rhetoric against journalists, which translated then into physical attacks on reporters in those countries.
"It’s something we have documented where there are either comments or inflammatory speeches against journalists and then there are an increase in physical and violent attacks against journalists,” Ewen said. "As we’ve seen in the past there are a lot of citizens who do support these leaders and when there’s inflammatory rhetoric used by these people in high position of authority the citizenry will sometimes take matters into their own hands."