For better or worse, I seldom give updates to specific stories I reference in my posts. Usually, I’m more concerned with the overarching theme as opposed to the nuts and bolts of these events; if you want the news, Lord knows there are any number of services that can give you up-to-the-minute headlines and analysis. Besides this, I tend to be more forward-oriented in my thinking. Again, this may be for better or for worse; while this gives me direction, I may lack for a more historical perspective, a notion aided by my relative inexperience in these matters. In this instance, however, I’ll make an exception, because it’s relevant. Remember when last we left Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte, who managed to defeat upstart Democratic challenger Ron Quist despite, you know, body-slamming a reporter on the eve of the special election? Gianforte was arrested and charged based on his conduct—alas, insincere apologies don’t suffice in the court of law—but after pleading guilty to the assault, Gianforte was sentenced only to 40 hours of community service, a $385 fine, and some anger management classes. A figurative slap on the wrist after grabbing Ben Jacobs, reporter for the Guardian, by the neck with both hands, slamming him to the ground, and proceeding to punch him. Oh, and after a civil settlement with Jacobs and an admission of fabricating his account that the reporter was the aggressor. That Greg Gianforte—what a standup guy after assaulting someone and blaming him for it first. I’m sure he’ll make a great representative for the people of Montana.
Ben Jacobs, to his credit, says he hopes to one day interview Gianforte and also expects him to be a “strong advocate for a free press and for the First Amendment.” Not sure if he’s trolling Greg Gianforte by saying as much, but dude just got assaulted, so let him have his moment, OK? Still, it’s not all puppy dogs and sunshine in the aftermath. For one, Jacobs correctly pointed to the idea that Gianforte initially lied about the affair in a “defamatory public statement.” In some respects, this may even be considered worse than the physical abuse, and certainly, a case of adding insult to injury. But Jacobs also saw his incident as one in a series of disturbing encounters between political candidates and the press, and used a platform he never sought to address this unnerving trend. From Jacobs’ statement to the court:
If this incident were simply between myself and the Congressman-elect, that would be one thing. But it’s had national ramifications on our politics and our culture. While I have no doubt that actions like these were an aberration for Congressman-elect Gianforte personally, I worry that, in the context of our political debate, they have become increasingly common. In recent years, our discourse has grown increasingly rancorous and increasingly vile. This needs to stop.
There will always be fundamental political disagreements in our society. However, these need not become personal and certainly should never become violent. I just hope this court’s decision can send a strong message about the necessity of civil discourse in our country, the important role of the free press and the need to help heal our political system.
“This needs to stop.” Hmm, quite a different tone conveyed by the likes of Ben Jacobs as opposed to, say, the putative leader of the free world. If people like Jacobs are aiming to be the angel on the shoulder of political discourse in the United States of America and abroad, then Donald Trump is the unrepentant orange-faced devil on the other shoulder, stoking the fires of discontentment among his supporters and his detractors alike, and setting his crosshairs on the mere concept of the free press. In just a short time as President, Trump has exhibited a pathological willingness to not only throw people close to him under the metaphorical bus, but to get behind the wheel and grind them into the pavement for good measure. The media, derisively referred to by the catch-all “fake news,” is a special project for Pres. Trump, particularly because an unbiased and inquisitive press is his worst nightmare. His dealings with Russia, his defrauding of investors, his umpteen ethical conflicts, his unwillingness to release his tax returns, his past degrading comments about women, his lies upon lies upon lies—I could devote an entire post to the topic of Trump and his administration’s malfeasances, but that strikes me as not only relentlessly aggravating, but boring as shit, too—these are details that eat away at his credibility, his vague air of mystique as the consummate deal-maker, his cult of personality. So, what does Donald Trump do because he must? Undermine the institution that possesses the greatest threat to this identity, an identity built on exaggeration, fabrication, falsehood, and misdirection. Thus, the mainstream media becomes “fake news.” The “enemy of the American people.” Hell, Greg Gianforte wasn’t committing a crime and lying about it to try to save face—he was doing us a valuable service! That man is a goddamn hero!
To my knowledge, Donald Trump hasn’t physically battered a member of the press. (For those Trump resisters among us, no, even this probably wouldn’t get him impeached at the rate we’re going.) Then again, he has all but undressed a representative of the news media during a press conference—recall his shouting at CNN’s Jim Acosta, referring to his employer as “fake news,” and refusing to answer his question. Even if we’re relegating the discussion to instances of bodily injury, though, while Trump may not be the one pulling the trigger, as many would assert, he has repeatedly loaded the gun, cocked the hammer, put it in the hands of someone with the intent to do harm, and pointed him or her in the direction of the target.
See, Ben Jacobs isn’t the only one who sees a danger in the making in the tone set by #45 vis-à-vis the press. As Paul Farhi, writing for The Washington Post, details, press advocates view Donald Trump’s rhetoric and incidents like the Gianforte-Jacobs encounter as interrelated, and as you might expect, there are plenty of instances of aggression against journalists to go around. Farhi recounts four of these recent examples of confrontations between politicians and reporters: 1) Nathaniel Herz, reporter for the Alaska Dispatch News, was slapped by state Sen. David Wilson as he was trying to question him in the state capitol; 2) CQ Roll Call‘s John Donnelly was pinned against a wall by security guards when trying to question FCC chair Ajit Pai and commissioner Michael O’Rielly; 3) Dan Heyman of Public News Service was handcuffed and arrested trying to get a response from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Kellyanne Conway; and 4) the Greg Gianforte episode.
These all occurred within the span of a month, no less, and this quartet doesn’t even include events like Corey Lewandowski, then-campaign-manager for Donald Trump, grabbing and bruising the arm of former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields when she tried to ask the Republican presidential nominee a question, or Michael Grimm, state representative from New York, threatening to throw NY1 reporter Michael Scotto off a balcony and break him in half “like a boy.” These are the sorts of happenings that were rarer once upon a time and should be rarer across the American political landscape—and yet they are shockingly and unsettlingly common in our present recollection. This is what happens when you say that members of the news media are among the most dishonest people on Earth and publicly call on them to be jailed. Lock her up! Lock them up! Never mind that our jails are overcrowded! Nothing says “democracy” and “freedom” like putting folks behind bars!
Arguing and providing “alternative facts” against the clear visual evidence the size of his inauguration crowd paled in comparison to Barack Obama’s. Barring journalists from events at his various resorts. Discussing effectively evicting the press corps from the White House. Insulting various news outlets on Twitter and to their face. Suggesting The New York Times and other purveyors of the news have been inciting protests against him. Traveling without reporters on trips outside the White House in violation of protocol. This is the state of journalism under President Donald J. Trump, and that there is neither a greater sense of solidarity among members of the press to stand up for their beaten and berated comrades, nor that much of a sense of disgust or outrage from the American public when these scenarios do play out, is—ahem—some scary shit. Granted, media outlets are jockeying for ratings and subscriptions and clicks, and overall, there has been an erosion of confidence within the public concerning various institutions. Even so, the war on the media and on exercise of free speech without fear of rebuke or threat of violence perpetrated by #45 is particularly frightening because it is not what we would consider a hallmark of an ideal democracy, let alone America’s brand of democracy.
With this in mind, while not merely to overstate the case of Trump and Co. murdering the First Amendment, and while, relatively speaking, the state of reporting in the United States of America is still superior to that of any number of countries, it still may be instructive to take a gander at the situations in some of those more restrictive nations and begin to comprehend what Trump’s actions and rhetoric, if left unchecked, could do the freedom of the press in the U.S. At the very least, this should help convey the sense of importance of upholding the journalistic latitude members of the news media are currently afforded. Back in January, Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, analyzed Pres. Trump’s leadership style both in terms of historical analogs and other present-day paradigms marked by a restrictiveness, if not a downright hostility, toward members of the press. On the historical front, Khazan referenced a study conducted by political science professor Kirk Hawkins at BYU of over 100 current and former world leaders across more than 70 countries. Within the study, which looked at leaders defined as “populists”—”charismatic leaders who portrayed the world as a clash between a downtrodden ‘people’ and a conspiring elite”—and spanned the period from 2000 to the present, Hawkins found that the longer these types of figures are in power, the more freedom of the press tends to decline. Thus, for the moment, someone like Trump calling the news the enemy of the American people/the “opposition” and specific media outlets “garbage” is still uncommon, and for some, even patently laughable. Over the long haul, however? Trump’s fixation on the media’s desire to engage in a “witch hunt” against him (a bit of the, ahem, pot calling the kettle black, but you know—that’s our Donald), to his most ardent supporters, may be a rallying cry to defend his honor. Hey, he’s already got Republican figures such as Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich in his corner. Who’s to say others won’t join in the fray, incensed by how the President is being treated so “unfairly?”
As for current challenges faced by journalists in countries known for suppression of the free flow of information, Olga Khazan relies on anecdotes from reporters who have met with adversity in such foreign lands, and who perhaps were not afforded the same courtesy and protections traditionally enjoyed by members of the news media in America. Ways in which members of the press have been intimidated and outright threatened include being arrested and jailed, held at gunpoint by gangs sympathetic to the populist government, or simply fired, in the case of state-controlled media. When the specter of violence is not the modus operandi, stall tactics may suffice; in China and Russia, for instance, reporters often only have access to officials via a fax—and that is liable to go unanswered, to boot. Through their struggles to access information, Khazan notes, these reporters have, through necessity, come up with some pretty ingenuous ways of gaining access to begin with. I’ll spare you the details, but the point is this: American journalists might learn a thing or two about trying to do their jobs in the age of President Trump. As is abundantly clear, the availability and candor of politicians at every level of government is far from a guarantee. For that matter, the same applies for these reporters’ safety.
The notion of a press under attack by politicians both here and abroad takes on added significance in light of recent events, specifically that of the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, while practicing for a congressional baseball game. At this writing, Scalise was yet in critical condition, but improving. A lot of commentary has been made on talk shows, on social media, and otherwise concerning the idea that Rep. Scalise and others were assaulted by James Hodgkinson, a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer. A lot of it, unfortunately, has not been good. Outlets like The New York Times and CNN wasted little time making the connection between Sanders and this act of violence. You saw those leftists threaten to burn the building down at the Nevada Democratic Party Convention in the primary season! They’re a bunch of loose cannons! If they all had guns, who knows what havoc they might try to wreak in the name of socialism! Just as all Muslims are not terrorists, not all Sanders supporters have a latent bloodlust lurking deep down in their psyches. Also, as usual, you had the familiar talking points about gun control. He was deranged and should’ve never had a gun. Maybe if everyone had a gun there at the field, this could have been avoided. Really, we need to address the issue of mental health before we talk about gun control. Stop. This is not a forum for the merits and demerits of gun law reform, though this is an important subject, nor is it a discussion of mental health, though this is also an important subject. Hodgkinson supported Bernie and had a gun. He could’ve been a Hillary supporter. He could have been wielding a knife or throwing rocks.
The who and how, I would argue, don’t matter nearly as much as the why or even the what. “What,” as in, “What the hell is going on here?” This violence levied against elected officials is to be condemned regardless of political affiliation, but I see the attacks on the media and the attack on Steve Scalise as two sides of the same bloody coin. When anger, hate, and mistrust pervade our political discourse, fueling the fire of discord, it is only natural that this blaze continues to consume everything in its path. Anger begets anger. Hate begets hate. Mistrust begets mistrust. And yes, violence begets violence—I firmly believe that. Sure, it would be irrational to say an event like the assault on Ben Jacobs caused the shooting of Scalise. These are isolated events. And yet, they seem to come from the same place, spiritually speaking. In the Trump era, unless you believe what the President is selling—and this requires more and more ideological/moral gymnastics as we go along—I feel as if there is no true happiness. There is anger, there is despair, there is embarrassment, there is fear, there is sadness—and only temporary relief when something like the travel ban is struck down. As one of my friends from a separate chapter of Our Revolution put the feeling, it’s like being in a nightmare every bleeping day without being able to wake up from it. Donald Trump is President of the United States of America. There is nothing we can do about it. May God have mercy on all our souls.
On this sobering note, if nothing we do matters concerning Donald Trump’s impeachment—and if you ask me, that’s not even all that great a prize considering Mike Pence would succeed him—does this mean we should abandon all hope and do nothing? Of course not. There are any number of causes in which to invest oneself as part of the Resistance, replete with lawmakers to petition and marches to attend. Fighting for the sanctity of the First Amendment, and materially supporting journalists and the publications they represent, too, are such an issue around which to rally. Support your local newspaper, especially if you’re like me and take issue with the accountability of the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post (and they are probably the best of the bunch!). Champion the value of good investigative journalism, and share informative pieces with people you know. Especially, um, that aunt or uncle who’s a registered Republican and feels the need to argue with you on whether or not climate change exists. You know the one.
Simply put, information is power, and to fail support a free press, a key cog in a truly democratic society, is an abdication of your responsibility to participate as an American. Moreover, it’s exactly what the knuckleheads in government want, in particular, Trump: for you to become disengaged from what is going on so that they can less visibly advance their agenda which favors donors and other special interests before authentically representing you. The Post has more recently adopted the slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” It may seem melodramatic to some, but I, for one, agree wholeheartedly. There is a dark cloud hanging over the state of journalism and political coverage today, one that has led to hostility and violence. If we do not stand with the news media as they continue to come under attack, that cloud stands to blot out the sun completely.