By Edward Fitzpatrick
The President of the United States praised a member of Congress for assaulting a journalist. Think about the message that sends to the world.
Now add in that President Trump had just spent days publicly grasping for ways to avoid blaming Saudi Arabia for the gruesome murder of another journalist.
And then, in late October, after a Trump supporter was charged with sending pipe bombs to CNN and other targets of his Twitter tirades, Trump blamed the media for stirring anger.
These are not signs of the naturally adversarial relationship between the press and politicians. These are near-daily additions to a dangerous “enemy of the people” line of attack that is chipping away at a cornerstone of our democracy.
The United States has long stood as a beacon of press freedom, but Trump seems intent on snuffing out that flame.
“While Trump may claim it’s political hyperbole, his message is still clear: It is OK to assault a reporter,” New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman said. “This is no longer a matter of simply criticizing the media or complaining about coverage. Now, we have a president endorsing violence against the press. Meanwhile, pipe bombs are being sent to newsrooms, and our allies in Saudi Arabia are covering up the murder of a Washington Post columnist. While a body slam may be slight in comparison, we need our president to make clear that no degree of violence against the press is acceptable.”
October began with Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi contributor to The Washington Post, walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get a document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. He never emerged.
Amid mounting speculation that Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate, Saudi officials attacked the press for “lies and baseless allegations” – the Saudi version of “fake news.” Rather than speak out in defense of press freedom, Trump spitballed potential alibis, sounding like a cut-rate defense lawyer as he posited the absurd possibility that “rogue killers” had infiltrated the Saudi consulate to murder Khashoggi.
One day later, a senior Turkish official undercut that nonsense, telling The New York Times that audio recordings showed that before beheading Khashoggi, a team of 15 Saudi agent had cut off his fingers – the fingers that had typed the offending words.
The Saudis backtracked, concocting a story about a fistfight. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan kept up the pressure. “Who sent these 15 people?” he asked. “Now we have to solve this case.”
Perhaps the investigators that Trump sent to Hawaii about President Obama’s birth certificate can crack the case…
But how pathetic is it that we’re left with Erdogan to defend a free press? I mean, this guy has been leading the league in jailed journalists for years. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Turkey jailed 73 journalists in 2017 and 81 journalist the year before – more than any other country both years. Clearly, Erdogan is motivated more by Middle East politics than free press principles.
Here in the home of the First Amendment, the last thing we should ever see is a U.S. president praising a politician who was convicted of assaulting a reporter. But that’s exactly what happened on Oct. 18 when Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, for body slamming a reporter in 2017. Trump said anyone who did such a thing was “my kind of guy.” Worse yet, the crowd cheered.
Late October saw the arrest of a Florida man on charges of sending at least 14 pipe bombs to CNN offices and Trump critics such as Obama and Rep. Maxine Waters. Suspect Cesar Sayoc lived in a van covered with images of Trump and a “CNN Sucks” sticker, and his social media accounts spewed far-right conspiracy theories, threats and press-is-the-enemy invective.
But Trump took no responsibility for his rhetoric or what he called this “bomb stuff.” Rather, he took to Twitter to continue his hollow harangue of the press. “Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” he tweeted.
The reality is that mainstream media’s main act involves holding the powerful accountable, whether in Washington, Providence or Fall River. That means letting voters know when a state legislator is not living in the district he represents, or when a mayor is accused of diverting $231,000 from investors in the SnoOwl app to bankroll a lavish lifestyle.
The reality is that now, when politicians like Fall River Mayor/SnoOwl founder Jasiel Correia II get jammed up, supporters follow Trump’s lead and chant “Fake news!” at reporters.
“When we need it most, the free press is under attack,” said WPRI 12 investigative reporter Tim White, a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition board. “Every day we are flooded with inaccurate, fabricated and intentionally misleading information from questionable sources posing as news outlets, and trying to make their way into our lives through social media. Yet, legitimate journalists, whose mission is to uncover the truth and serve the community in which they report, are attacked, belittled, berated and, in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, murdered. Our elected leaders should reinforce that journalism is a cornerstone of democracy and our country, instead of labeling us ‘the enemy of the people.’ ”
Edward Fitzpatrick is director of media and public relations at Roger Williams University and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. This post originally appeared on the university’s First Amendment blog.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, Boston University and WBUR-Boston.