“I don’t carry an AR (automatic rifle) but once we start shooting you f—ers you aren’t going to pop off like you do now. You’re worthless, the press is the enemy of the United States people and, you know what, rather than me shoot you, I hope a Mexican and, even better yet, I hope a n— shoots you in the head, dead.” Such was the anonymous phone call last May — blocked so it couldn’t be traced — to Bret L. Stephens who joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in 2017 after a long career with The Wall Street Journal where he was deputy editorial page editor and a foreign affairs columnist.
And now the press at large is regularly attacked by President Donald Trump’s followers. In a meeting between Trump and the Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial page editor James Bennet, Sulzberger warned Trump that “his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” and that calling the press the enemy of the people will lead to threats and possible violence.
Of course the warning did not stop Trump. He regularly calls the media “very unpatriotic” for such things as what he says reveals “deliberations of our government” that could put people’s lives at risk. But no one in the press has revealed such deliberations with less regard for consequences than WikiLeaks, which Trump follows.
Facing Trump’s Wrath
The highly respected anchor Don Lemon of CNN has faced Trump’s wrath. In discussing the attacks on-air with other anchors, Lemon said after an interview in 2011 when he asked Trump about his claims that President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen, Trump “vowed that he would never do an interview with me because he said I was racist, because I challenged him on an un-factual statement, a lie.” Lemon said Trump told him he couldn’t be unbiased because he’s African-American.
John Cassidy of The New Yorker in an article, “How to Counter Donald Trump’s War on the Media,” pointed out that anything Trump dislikes he calls “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” He accused the press of misrepresenting his meetings with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Vladimir Putin of Russia and with the Queen of England. “They can make anything bad, because they are the fake, fake disgusting news,” he said. He then called journalists “horrible, horrendous people,” and the crowd chanted, “CNN sucks.” Except, of course, for his supporters at Fox News.
In fact, Fox News foreign correspondent Conor Powell, who spent nine years with the network, resigned apparently for his dislike with the company’s new direction. While he did not publicly state his reason for leaving, a person close to him said that he was “uncomfortable with the direction of the news organization in recent months. Fewer news shows. More opinion shows. Less resources for reporters to report.” The individual added, “Lots of reporters are very unhappy with directions of FNC right now.”
Charles M. Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, argues in a recent commentary that Trump “doesn’t want a free press; he wants free propaganda.
He gets it from his friends at Fox News, but that isn’t enough. This wannabe authoritarian needs two scoops. So he uses the power of the presidency to produce his own propaganda, to invent facts and twist news.”
Blow writes that Trump is addressing his own GOP base. “The entire Trump presidency is about repayment to the most devout: the white nationalists, the Christian nationalists, the ethno-nationalists. They believe that America was founded as a white, Christian nation and should be governed as one. They pine over lost culture and lost heritage. They rage against blossoming minority groups and immigrants,” he argues.
After The Boston Globe asked the nation’s press to run editorials condemning Trump’s attack on the press, more than 300 newspapers did just that. Five small papers in Washington state quickly responded as of this writing. The Seattle Times, however, took a different approach. It has been running a full-page house ad featuring a letter from Frank Blethen, publisher, that addresses the Globe idea.
“Today, our Free Press is on life support. Consolidated absentee control and loss of localism imperils the health and future of our democracy. But not in Greater Seattle and Washington state. Here, The Seattle Times remains one of only five top 50 metro newspapers which is local, private and integral to the community’s fabric,” he wrote.
The Seattle Times’ Independence
Kate Riley, the editorial page editor, explained further: “The Seattle Times prides itself on its independence. Leaders of both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times editorial boards made this point as well in explaining their reasons for not participating in the editorial callout. So, The Seattle Times did not run an editorial Thursday saying, ‘No, we are NOT the enemy of the people.’ We don’t have to. We prove it every day.”
As a result of the Globe calling for action, the newspaper got a number of telephoned bomb threats. Police responded by placing officers in the newspaper’s lobby and patrols were increased near the building. The FBI is investigating the matter.
Does Trump realize that when he attacks the press, he encourages some people to threaten reporters and editors? Absolutely. The evidence shows it works. He wants his supporters to intimidate and silence anyone who criticizes him.
Perhaps they should consider what Thomas Jefferson said: “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
For Further Reading
• “Trump Will Have Blood on His Hands,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/03/opinion/trump-fake-news-enemy.html
• “How to Counter Donald Trump’s War on the Media,” https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-to-counter-donald-trumps-war-on-the-media
• “Fox News correspondent resigns after 9 years with network,” http://thehill.com/homenews/media/400663-fox-news-correspondent-resigns-after-nine-years-with-the-company
• “Afraid? Weak? Egotistical? Attack! Trump doesn’t want a free press; he wants free propaganda,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/opinion/trump-rally-fake-news.html
• “Trump called CNN Anchor Don Lemon ‘racist’ for challenging his Obama ‘birther’ claims,” https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/8/8/1786802/-Trump-called-CNN-Anchor-Don-Lemon-racist-for-challenging-his-Obama-birther-claims
• “Why no Seattle Times editorial saying we are not enemies of the people? We prove that every day,” https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/why-no-seattle-times-editorial-saying-we-are-not-enemies-of-the-people-we-prove-that-every-day/
• “Boston Globe Faces Bomb Threats After Organizing National Initiative To Support Press Freedom,” https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/8/16/1788826/-Boston-Globe-Faces-Bomb-Threats-After-Organizing-National-Initiative-To-Support-Press-Freedom
Lyle Harris Sr., a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.