Under Trump, American Journalists Have Good Reason to Fear for Their Lives

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Under Trump, American Journalists Have Good Reason to Fear for Their Lives

In the minutes before a Trump rally this week, CNN’s Jim Acosta stood on a raised platform among the president’s supporters to report live. The crowd, some wearing shirts promoting the “Q-Anon” conspiracy theory of a deep state coup, pressed the platform and verbally accosted Acosta for long stretches of time, screaming that he was a “traitor” and a “liar,” and chanting witticisms such as “CNN sucks.” Acosta stood his ground and did his job, and in breaks stepped down to converse with his abusers. In the face of threats so impassioned and so intimate, his comportment was nothing short of remarkable.

Then the President of the United States of America retweeted a video of the attack on Acosta that his son, Eric, had gloatingly tweeted. Eric tagged Acosta in the video, and included ”#truth.” It currently has 51,000 likes.

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This verbal assault wasn’t anything new. Trump supporters have, from the early stages of his campaign, targeted members of press with primitive, visceral malice. Acosta’s training and years of experience at these rallies helped him mask any fear he might have felt on the job, but he later tweeted a video of the scene, captioned with, “I’m very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt. We should not treat our fellow Americans this way. The press is not the enemy.”

Acosta also knows this isn’t new. He’s dealt with it for a while, and to him it’s normal (even more worrisome). But Acosta also seems to feel it’s getting worse. He’s right: Journalists in America have become deeply and reasonably concerned for their physical safety, some of them for their lives. And the president is leading the way: If one of his supporters kills a journalist, Trump absolutely shares the blame.

But what’s this “if”? It’s already happened.

Last month in Annapolis, MD, a man walked into the Capital Gazette with a shotgun and killed five people. It’s true he held a grudge against the paper that predated Trump by several years, but he didn’t act on it until now. He also said he wanted to “kill every person” in the newsroom. We haven’t learned much about the shooter’s partisan affiliation, if he has any, so though we don’t know if he’s a Trump supporter, we do have a good idea how he feels about how Trump feels about the media.

In 2015 he tweeted this in support of a Trump lawsuit against the media, warning the paper he eventually attacked that if they kept criticizing Trump things could “end badly” for them. Though it’s uncertain whether the shooter intended “end badly” as a death threat, he had clearly assumed not only Trump’s extremist stance against the media but defended Trump against the media. It’s completely fair to draw a straight arrow from that worldview to the massacre he carried out.

No? Trump himself, or at least those close to him, seems to have acknowledged he was responsible. After the shooting he read from a teleprompter that reporters “should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.” In response to that stilted speech, CNN compiled a montage of some of the president’s threats to the press. Trump also felt compelled to add he had “a lot of respect” for reporters, but at a rally that same week he called the press the “enemy of the American people.”

And he’s still doing it.

But as noted above, the press has faced these threats for a while now. Last summer, a man repeatedly called CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, threatening to walk in with a gun and massacre what he called the “fake news” organization. Not long before that incident, Trump retweeted a video of old pro-wrestling footage of him fake-punching out a man with a CNN logo imposed over his face.

So we have two things to consider: Is the threat new? No, obviously not. But is it escalating? In terms of the level of animus directed at the press, that’s actually hard to say, because Trump supporters have been vicious even at the roots of the campaign. But the cumulative effect over the years of Trump’s ascendance has—believe it or not—normalized death threats against journalists. So yes, though the ugliness has been there from the beginning, it’s not subsiding. Every day there’s more, and that’s what worries Acosta, and it’s what worries me and my friends and colleagues.

I’ve received threats from people online, and have been told I’m on multiple but vague watch lists. Taken one at a time they’re easy enough to brush off, and I know my rank in the world and am not vain enough to be too concerned for my own safety. But the continuing trend, which has if anything increased in volume, does have me worried for high-profile reporters covering Trump, even and perhaps especially the most objective and professional at the most reputable outlets, such as the Washington Post, NBC, and the New York Times.

Interestingly, the threats seem to spike during the most difficult stretches for Trump, the times when it’s impossible to defend the man, when a die-hard supporter’s unconditional allegiance conflicts with Trump’s undeniable venality, instability, and stupidity. One response, especially for someone who might also feel alienated and, reasonably or not, marginalized, is to resolve that internal crisis of faith by trying to silence the information that causes this cognitive and moral dissonance.

For instance, I noticed a sharp rise of threats during the family separation crisis at the border, and independent journalist and author Jared Yates Sexton, who has covered several Trump rallies, noticed a spike in the wake of the Charlottesville attack and also during the border crisis (which is still going on). Most of the threats he sees, he told me, come from right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis. “It’s been a lot of specific [threats], a lot of really targeted attacks.”

Sexton said he’s had people call him at work and scream into the phone, stalk him, and photograph his house, and his book The People Are Going to Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore, which documents his experiences of the 2016 election, has an entire section devoted to the threats directed at him during the campaign. Judd Legum, founder and editor-in-chief of ThinkProgess says, “I doubt I’m one of the most highly targeted but I certainly get threats over Twitter and email.” And even Business Insider’s Pedro da Costa, who covers economics, an area he feels is “too geeky to get major threats,” still gets threats. One reporter I contacted for this story, who covers the White House for a well-known cable news outlet, even declined to comment, citing concerns about amplifying and inciting the people who have made personal threats against her.

Compounding the problem, many people seem ignorant of the spectrum of journalism, a basic high school civics lesson. Reporting is fact-based and objective. News analysis is more pointed and critical. And editorial contributors and pundits have a wide berth for opinion.

These blurred lines make things particularly strange for journalists who strive to main neutrality.

Independent journalist Dusty Giebel, a vocal Trump critic, noted that most of the harassment he faces stems from Russiagate, but it comes at him from all sides. “The central theme is, because I have a differing opinion on the significance of particular information, certain people who are anti-Trump claim I’m not loyal to my country. They call me Putin’s puppet — a useful idiot-propagandist. A foreign agent. Controlled opposition. Spy. Traitor. Someone on Reddit posted ‘Kremlin agent lives at [my address].’” Giebel says he also received an email that read, “Sending you off to the Gulags isn’t enough of a punishment, you vile commie piece of shit, the pain is for your daughter.”

Giebel exists in a neutral space, but it seems that, weirdly enough, that fact might actually make him more vulnerable to partisan attacks. To further elucidate this irony, Tommy Vietor, co-founder of Crooked Media and co-host of the Pod Save America podcast (and host of Pod Save the World) pointed out that the more mainstream, neutral outlets—which you don’t have to seek out—face more threats than unabashedly partisan and niche media groups such as his, which operate in a more insular world. “Any given White House reporter is gonna get hate-watched on CNN or have their article picked up by one of the many right-wing rags and get targeted for abuse,” he said. “But Pod Save America is a little more protected. We do take the risk of real violence seriously, though, and take steps to mitigate the risk at live shows.”

And though Paste Magazine is a quite few clicks off the mainstream, our Jacob Weindling said someone once photoshopped bullet holes on his Twitter profile picture’s head and sent him the picture. That account, he said, appears to have been suspended. Weindling also said someone looked up Paste’s address and showed it to him. Anyone can find an address online, but the direct personal communication, and its implication, as empty as it was, still rattled him.

Which gets us to the real threat: A mass shooting attempt at the offices of a major, iconic outlet, likely one of Trump’s favorite targets — the Post, the Times, CNN. Though this is the most extreme scenario, it’s sadly the most realistic. The United States provides unstable would-be attackers uniquely easy access to weapons of war, and the regular mass shootings in this country—American totems—offer familiar and simple templates. Additionally we have the religious devotion to Trump, and some of his most radical supporters would doubtlessly elevate such an attacker to martyrdom and such an event to myth.

But beneath this, percolating for a very long time, is a political narrative laced with violence, disturbingly evinced at Trump’s latest rally in the t-shirts and homemade signs of devotees to the “Q-anon” conspiracy theory—a spidering sarcoma of misinformation that foretells bloodshed when Trump and his supporters will have to rise against a coming deep state coup, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and our intelligence agencies, and justified by journalists in the mainstream media.

The theory, as easily debunked as it is, seems destined to collide with reality: The law will indeed close in on Trump, and possibly soon, and as the Washington establishment must finally comes to grips with his crimes, the underpinning prophecy of the Q-Anon conspiracy will appear to come true. Given the fact that nearly one in three Americans believes a second civil war is likely, and given the precedent set by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, when one of its believers fired an AR-15 in a D.C. pizza parlor, there’s real reason to worry about the right wing’s reaction to the imminent fall of their messiah.

Pizzagate and Q-Anon have a lot in common, not the least of which are the accusations of pedophilia and child trafficking at the highest levels of the Democratic party. It’s no coincidence, either, that those crimes are among the most unforgivable and irredeemable.

But again, I’m not making a prediction: It’s already happened. Tellingly, in response to the Capital Gazette massacre, news organizations around the country have beefed up security in ways both obvious and covert. This is true even at medium-tier outlets, which I’ve seen first-hand in Austin. It’s becoming increasingly clear to the press that it’s not a question of if someone will attempt a deadly attack, it’s a question of when.

Though this stuff is shocking, it shouldn’t surprise. Have a quick look at recent history:

A Trump troll, knowing Kurt Eichenwald was epileptic, sent him a video that triggered a seizure.

Former self-identified White House adviser Sebastian Gorka seems to have physically assaulted a journalist at the ultra-conservative CPAC conference this February.

In 2017, Greg Gianforte, Montana Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, violently assaulted a reporter from The Guardian.

In Trump’s first ever post-inauguration speech he said he was fighting a “running war” with the media.

Former senior adviser Steve Bannon called the press the “opposition party” and said the media should just “keep its mouth shut.”

Trump counsel Kellyanne Conway said, “If you are not showing the President and his main spokespeople respect, then you’re not showing the office respect, and you are inciting mob mentality if not mob violence.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sean Spicer before her constantly blubber about “unfair attacks” on Trump.

Sean Hannity once called White House press coverage a “historic beatdown.”

It’s worth pointing out again the incident last summer when a man was arrested for threatening a mass shooting at CNN headquarters. He reportedly made 22 phone calls to the station, and reportedly told a phone operator, “I am coming to Georgia right now to go to the CNN headquarters to f—ing gun every single last one of you.”

To be sure, those who make threats rarely act on them. The true threat is the unspoken one. (The Capital Gazette shooting, though, in which the attacker had a history of threats on the paper, shows this isn’t a universal truth.) The official CNN statement said this wasn’t an isolated incident, either: “This one is no exception. We have been in touch with local and federal law enforcement throughout, and have taken all necessary measures to ensure the safety of our people.”

Most corrosive of all, though, is Trump’s repeated invective that the press is “the enemy of the American People.” In the first tweet, he added a kicker: “SICK!” Since then, he’s tweeted the phrase seven times.

Hitler, Stalin, and Mao also aspersed the press as the “enemy of the people.”

Trump’s homeboy Vladimir Putin uses the phrase, too, going so far as to officially label journalists critical of him “foreign agents,” which gives the Kremlins’s security apparatus license to take severe legal action against journalists at whim. In fact, Russia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. Since 2000, at least 34 Russian journalists have been killed. For context, that runs even with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. In that same period, three journalists were killed in the United States.

The scary thing, though—and this is where we get to Trump—is that it’s actually unclear what role Putin has had in those killings. American journalists who have spent years and even decades reporting in Moscow have said that, even though these murders are politically-motivated, opposition journalists in Russia actually “don’t believe Putin ordered the murders of their colleagues.” Instead, they hold Putin accountable for creating the culture where it’s permissible for journalists to be killed for speaking out.

Trump has popped open the bottle. Here’s a list of things he’s said at his rallies to incite violence among his supporters.

- “I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
- “Part of the problem … is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”
- “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.”
- “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”
- “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
- “Knock the crap out of them.”
- “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
- “I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”

That list was compiled in March 2016.

And don’t forget Trump twice implied someone should shoot Hillary Clinton. His supporters, including an official campaign aide, did the same but not so slyly. If you’ve got the stomach, here’s a video of Trump supporters threatening violence. Here’s another.

Bottom line, Trump has created a culture permissive of violent political rhetoric, and that has included, and will include, more violence against journalists. He’s signed a permission slip for his supporters the same way he’s signed permission slips for Nazis and klansmen and quotidian racists to come out of the woodwork. One of those white supremacists, remember, drove his car into a crowd of protesters at a Charlottesville rally, killing a woman.

What’s most troubling is that this all helps him politically: The more Trump attacks the media, the higher his approval ratings go.

Trump needs to undermine the media, which poses an existential threat in the form of a running public prosecution of his rampant corruption, mendacity, criminality, and ongoing conspiracy against the United States. Trump needs absolution, which he can’t get from the objective press or the law. The only people who will grant him asylum are his dead-end base, who, faced daily with Trump’s inarguable, thorough, and well-documented awfulness, need to resolve that cognitive dissonance to stand with him. One way to do that is to be able to dismiss any criticism against Trump as fake, unfounded, and—as we just heard leveled at Acosta—traitorous.

Which brings me to perhaps the most dangerous implication of the phrase “enemy of the American people.” It implies that the press, the majority of them good-hearted people who work hard to make sense of complicated and otherwise hidden stories to give the American people a chance to construct the truth, aren’t American.

Look, in the equation “the media is the enemy of the American people,” who are “the American people,” and who is “the media”? Does Trump mean here that Black Lives Matter are part of the American people? Or that Breitbart and Fox and Friends are part of the media? There’s a sleight-of-hand happening. Words mean more than you think. And in a country where would-be attackers have easier access to guns than in most, the path from triggered feelings to the trigger itself is short. Read closely:

“I hate some of these people,” Trump once said of reporters. “But I would never kill them. I would never kill them.”

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