Journalists have long been the target of attacks, harassment, acts of intimidation, arrests and even death around the world. In this country however, most journalists and most Americans for that matter, have been shielded from some of the harsher realities the press faces in other parts of the globe. That all may be changing now – and it’s not a good thing.
Wednesday night, news broke that Guardian’s reporter Ben Jacobs was allegedly body-slammed by House GOP candidate Greg Gianforte on the eve of Montana’s special election. According to Fox News reporters who were in the room when the attack reportedly happened: “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.” They go on to say that they watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter.
Perhaps the most damning part of the entire account is when the eyewitnesses say: “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.”
Prior to the release of the Fox News account, Gianforte’s office put out a defensive statement which included the following: “Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”
This framing of a ‘liberal journalist’ or ‘liberal media’ is nothing new. We’ve heard it time and again from conservative politicians, pundits and the right’s echo chamber for years now (despite the fact that most media isn’t liberal by any stretch of that word). What’s different now however is that we’re in an environment where open vitriol and aggression against the press have become normalized – and its no coincidence.
All throughout the campaign trail, Donald Trump verbally attacked the media, riled up his crowds to do the same and created a tense atmosphere for the dedicated journalists covering his events. He would often point to the press penned in somewhere at his rallies and make statements like “See the dishonest people back there?” To which his loyalists would repeat such antagonistic statements, or throw their own insults right in reporters’ faces who were usually only separated from the crowds by metal barricades. Many tweeted, wrote and discussed how uncomfortable they sometimes felt at these campaign rallies.
Trump clearly played the role of victim; the entire system was “rigged” and the “dishonest media” was out to get him. It was actually a brilliant strategy. Portraying himself as somehow the underdog, even though the self-proclaimed billionaire was backed by some of the most powerful entities (and money) around. Tapping into right-wing talking points against the media that have infiltrated the minds of millions of Americans through outlets like Fox News, he just articulated what many on the right have been saying to themselves for years.
Now one could possibly dismiss Trump’s anti-media statements as just mere strategy if it weren’t for his continued attacks against the press once in office. He has not only regularly referred to them as “fake news” (whenever he didn’t agree with their coverage), but the President of the United States has gone so far as to call the media “the enemy of the American people.” No one should take that lightly.
A free and independent press is one of the bedrock principles upon which this country has always functioned. Holding power accountable and being a check on government is what journalists have done throughout history because that is their fundamental purpose. Has the media failed to do so at times? Of course. One need only look at the colossal failure of the press to do its job leading up to the Iraq war where they often served as a mouthpiece for government talking points and failed to adequately question things. But overall, journalists and the press at large do incredible work parsing through the noise, investigating, probing, getting answers, representing the public’s interest and getting truth and information to the people. Trump’s relentless attacks on the media are not only outrageous, but they are downright dangerous.
Recently, news broke about Trump reportedly asking then-FBI Director Comey to end the investigation into his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. But buried in this bombshell story was accusations that Trump reportedly also told Comey he should consider jailing reporters who published classified information. Let me repeat: that we should consider throwing journalists in jail, this is where we are.
Around the world, reporters are targeted, arrested and thrown behind bars every single day. Authoritarian regimes crush dissidents on a regular basis, often going after journalists first. In 2016, some 259 journalists were jailed worldwide according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The nation with the highest number of jailed journalists? You guessed it, Turkey.
Earlier this month, President Trump welcomed Turkish President Erdogan to the White House. The same Erdogan who has cracked down on news outlets, shut down papers and TV stations (more than 100), and thrown journalists in jail. According to the CPJ, there are at least 81 journalists imprisoned in Turkey as of December 2016 – all of them facing anti-state charges. Erdogan’s security team is also accused of violently attacking protesters outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence here in Washington D.C. as Erdogan allegedly looked on during this recent visit.
Erdogan’s attempts to hold on to power and silence his critics are beyond troubling, and the fact that our President reportedly made comments about jailing journalists should bother everyone who believes in democracy, a free press and a society that isn’t ruled with an ironed fist.
Late last night, Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault. We have yet to see if this helps or hinders his bid for Montana’s seat. While the outcome will speak volumes on where we are as a society, just remember that Trump won the Presidency making all kinds of disparaging statements against the press and inciting others to do the same. Now he thinks he’s some sort of King himself. Thankfully all the hard-working journalists out here will gladly remind him that he’s not with every stroke of their pen and every word they type.