For the first time in its four decades of existence, the Committee to Protect Journalists—which usually focuses on the curtailment of press freedoms in authoritarian countries—has just issued a “safety kit” outlining specific physical safeguards for American reporters covering the 2020 presidential election.
Especially reporters who attend campaign rallies staged by President Donald Trump.
“We felt it was a good time to create something specific to the United States,” CPJ’s Emergencies Director Maria Salazar-Ferro told The Daily Beast. “We’ve been speaking to journalists who have been to recent rallies, and the rhetoric is coming from people who are participating in the rallies, and there was a lot of aggression around ‘fake news’ and ‘the press is the enemy.’ And it’s reverberating beyond the actual political event as well as online.”
Salazar-Ferro attributed the surge in U.S. journalists’ anxiety largely to Trump, who at campaign rallies regularly refers to the reporters who cover him as “scum,” “the enemy of the people,” “stupid,” “very rude,” “liars,” and “the lowest form of human life”—an insult which at least grants journalists their humanity.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which maintains a database of Trump’s Twitter posts that mention the media, recently analyzed 18,000 of the president’s tweets and concluded that he’s “increasing the amount of his anti-press language on Twitter while reviving the targeted social media tactics he used as a candidate.”
“He also renewed his focus on individual journalists and—after a multi-year hiatus—Fox News,” the Press Freedom Tracker report added. “Trump’s broad condemnations of the press on Twitter continued escalating; while the media was ‘corrupt’ or ‘dishonest’ in 2015 and 2016, now it is fake, treasonous and an ‘enemy of the people.’ ”
Salazar-Ferro said, “So far the journalists we have spoken to have expressed the biggest concern around covering Trump rallies, and generally around online harassment.” She noted that Trump’s “rhetoric is very charged, and so far the threats that journalists have told us about seem to be linked to that aggressive rhetoric. And the rhetoric that has been used in the United States has spread around the world, with leaders stoking aggression against journalists—and it’s a thing that really concerns us.”
The safety kit—which was prepared by CPJ’s London-based security consultant, Colin Pereira of HP Risk Management—is crammed with the kind of advice that might also work for a person who has suddenly been dropped into a tiger’s cage.
It includes such tips as “Look out for individuals in the crowd who may become aggressive or cause trouble, and try to avoid them as much as possible”; “Wear clothing without media company branding and remove media logos from equipment and vehicles if necessary”; “If the crowd or speakers are hostile to the media, mentally prepare for verbal abuse”; and “If a crowd becomes hostile to the media it may help to deliberately avoid eye contact and stop taking pictures.”
“The overall impression,” Pereira told The Daily Beast, “is that there’s an uptick in incidents against journalists. The feeling is the climate has gotten much more hostile…
“I certainly think the rhetoric and the behavior of the administration condones a lot of this activity or creates a platform for it,” Pereira added. “But I don’t think you can blame it purely on the administration. There’s a lot of deep-seated distrust and hatred of journalists among certain sectors of U.S. society, which maybe the administration is a symptom of, rather than being a causal effect of. It’s hard to draw a line between the two, really.”
Pereira, who also consults with media organizations in addition to CPJ, continued: “We advise a number of clients in the U.S. Previously we never used to advise them about the U.S. We used to advise them about places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So yes, in the last three years, we’ve definitely started advising them about life in the U.S., dealing with the online threat in particular, harassment, doxing, swatting, and in some cases violent attack.”
In a relatively recent case of “swatting”—in which an attacker makes a prank call to the cops, alleging a crime in progress and dispatching a large number of armed police officers to a victim’s home—Pereira said he investigated an incident in the United States “where the police dispatched snipers to someone’s house… The journalist’s mother and daughter were in the house at the time, and it caused a great amount of anguish to the family, because the police barged in.”
In this case, however, “it was far-right-related, I wouldn’t say it was Trump-related,” Pereira said. “If you go to a Trump rally or you’re on the campaign trail, I think it’s unpleasant, and people are shocked at what’s happening, but I don’t think they’re in fear of their lives.”
This past June, however, Orlando Sentinel reporter Michael Williams was physically attacked by a man in a MAGA hat, who smacked his cell phone to prevent him from recording a squabble with an apparent Trump detractor after the president’s reelection campaign launch rally.
“What happened that day was definitely an anomaly from my experience,” said Williams, who these days covers business for the Albany Times-Union. “Everybody else I spoke with at the rally was pleasant and perfectly nice. I actually walked up to a woman wearing an ‘Orlando Sentinel Equals Fake News’ T-shirt, and spoke with her, and she was fine.”
The cops handcuffed Wiliams’ assailant—an arrest Williams captured on video—and later the prosecutor got the reporter’s permission to drop the charges if the man underwent anger management training.
“I didn’t want to ruin his life,” said Williams, who at this writer’s request reviewed the CPJ safety kit.
“Everything on this list is good advice,” Williams said. “The only thing I would add is just how important it is for a newsroom to have their reporter’s back during incidents like this and how fortunate I was to work for a newsroom that did have my back at the Orlando Sentinel.”
CPJ’s Salazar-Ferro, meanwhile, said reporters covering the Democratic primary race have reported no threats of violence.
“Not yet,” she said.