Trump’s Assaults on Journalists, Once Verbal, Have Become Potentially Lethal
After years of being tarred as “enemies of the people,” reporters describe a crescendoing fear that Trump-inspired threats to their personal safety have only just begun.
Journalists working in the United States, nominal bastion of the First Amendment, are now “soft targets” for violent mobs—thanks, it seems, to President Donald Trump.
“Remember, ALL JOURNALISTS are soft targets, and are fair game in the coming revolution!” a Trump loyalist posted this past weekend on the suspended social media platform Parler. “Don’t be afraid to take reporters down by any means necessary!” (Politico congressional correspondent Olivia Beavers, who tweeted a screenshot of the alarming post, redacted the identity of the Parler user “bc I don’t want ppl rallying behind this idea to be able to easily find each other/band together,” she explained.)
Before @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter account was permanently banned on Jan. 8—a belated corporate response to his barrage of toxic lies, smears, and conspiracy theories that culminated in last Wednesday’s lethal mayhem at the Capitol—the 45th president had posted at least 2,520 tweets defaming members of the press and the media as a whole as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” among other epithets, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which catalogues threats and attacks on the Fourth Estate.
“We see journalists who are being hurt while the words ‘fake news’ are being yelled at them,” Kirstin McCudden, the Freedom Tracker’s managing editor, told The Daily Beast. “We see women on air who are grabbed while ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ is yelled at hem. We know that what he says has an effect on how journalists are treated.”
During the Trump-incited assault on American democracy, thousands of his acolytes, many of them armed with guns and makeshift weapons, swarmed the Capitol steps, smashed windows and doors, and rampaged through the building in search of House members, senators and even Vice President Mike Pence who were busy certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, but no reporters were among the five people killed.
It wasn’t apparently for lack of trying.
“I was very afraid for my safety and my team’s,” CNN senior national security correspondent Alexander Marquardt told The Daily Beast about his experience covering Wednesday’s onslaught in Washington, D.C. “We were vastly outnumbered, surrounded, with no real escape route. We’re lucky we got out physically unscathed, just shaken, and our camera was hit. I’ve covered parliaments stormed, foreign coups, riots and protests across the Middle East and this was by far the most universally hostile crowd I’ve been in. In the city that I call home.”
Marquardt tweeted a harrowing video (shot by CNN photojournalist Ronnie McCray) in which rioters on the Capitol plaza chanted “CNN sucks!” and manhandled Marquardt and his colleagues while warning ominously: “There’s more of us than you… We could absolutely fucking destroy you right now.” At one point a member of the mob physically attacked McCray, smacking his camera, before a concerned citizen interposed himself between the CNN team and the mob. “You get the fuck out of here before you get hurt,” he hardly needed to advise them.
“Trump is directly to blame for the aggression and hostility we witnessed on Wednesday,” Marquardt said. “It is a direct result of him calling us ‘the enemy of the people.’ The rioters used the same exact phrasing. Trump, his allies, and right-wing media poisoned the minds of millions of Americans and now we’re seeing the result of that. In the summer of August 2017, I went to my first Trump rally, in Phoenix. He went on a particularly long and nasty anti-press tirade. A friend and colleague who was sitting not too far away texted me: ‘Is this the rally where one of us gets killed?’ Things have only gotten worse since then.”
A second video from Wednesday, posted by Bloomberg tech reporter William Turton, shows angry Trump enthusiasts threatening journalists and attacking camera positions with flagpoles and other weapons as they kicked down tripods, damaged equipment and bellowed profanities.
“Yes, the president’s rhetoric that the media is the enemy of the people causes violence towards journalists,” said Axios congressional reporter Kadia Goba. “This isn't new. I’ve covered Trump rallies and was always concerned when Trump would assail the media in front of his supporters causing them to turn to us to boo and yell.”
On Wednesday, “We saw rioters take the time to defame the Capitol by etching ‘Murder the media’ on a door inside the building,” Goba added. “Of course we’re targets of MAGA extremists. That’s been the case for a while… There’s always perceived danger for journalists on the front lines. Sadly, the front line now includes the U.S. Capitol.”
Beyond the attacks of last Wednesday, “We are also hearing about broader concerns over the spread of conspiracy theories and the growing threat that this poses to journalists’ safety,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “There were several incidents where journalists were specifically targeted during the violence.”
CPJ was among the organizations that financially supported the launch of U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in early 2017, as the Trump administration began, “because we were concerned about the verbal attacks and online harassment of journalists by President Trump, and the ongoing need to monitor the United States in the same way we monitor countries around the world for their treatment of the press,” Radsch said.
The past four years, she said, have featured a disturbing increase in incidents and threats, especially in the form of law-enforcement arrests of reporters who are simply doing their jobs (122 arrests in 2020 compared to 9 in 2019, according to Freedom Tracker statistics). The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the danger, bringing “a level of risk and a level of preparedness that reporters need to be aware of,” Radsch said.
“In the most recent attacks on the U.S. Capitol, we saw the targeting of journalists who were there to document what was happening, the singling out of them, the hostility of the rhetoric that has been coming from the very top for the past for years and has continued, and hearing that and seeing that enacted on the steps of the Capitol and inside the Capitol.”
Along with threats from people energized by presidential lies and conspiracy theories, “what stands out over the past several months is this increased level of violence against journalists and the targeting of them by law enforcement,” Radsch said. “It seems as though they’re facing danger from every side.”
Physical attacks on journalists, for instance, spiked alarmingly in 2020—jumping from 34 incidents in 2019 to 282 in 2020, according to Freedom Tracker statistics (a figure that is likely to rise to more than 300 once all the reported attacks are accounted for).
“Trump has been targeting journalists since the 2016 campaign, when he described ‘the dishonest news media’ and the ‘disgusting news media’ and so on,” longtime CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta (the cable outlet’s newly named chief domestic correspondent and weekend anchor) told The Daily Beast. “He then came up with ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people.’
“I have personally been on the receiving end of probably hundreds of death threats and other threatening messages. I needed security to go to Trump rallies. I had to speak with the FBI on numerous occasions. My home was swatted. I have been physically assaulted. And I am not alone. Many of my colleagues have had to endure this hostility as well. This all stems from Trump's incendiary rhetoric.”
Acosta added: “There is no question journalists are targets and will be for years to come. There is no turning back. I don't describe Trump as a phenomenon in American politics. He is a deformity. Our political discourse has become deformed. He is largely responsible for that. But so are many of his apologists and propagandists.”
HuffPost journalist Igor Bobic documented the heroism of Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman, who tricked an angry MAGA mob into chasing him in the opposite direction of the unlocked doors of the Senate chamber.
“I feared for my safety while recording the lone officer holding back the mob. I didn’t know what to expect turning the corner. If he wasn’t there to confront them, I’d have run straight into them,” Bobic told The Daily Beast. “A New York Times photographer was assaulted by rioters in another part of the building, so I was extremely lucky to make it out unharmed.”
Bobic added: “Absolutely, Trump is directly to blame for inciting violence against journalists. He’s been doing it for years. January 6th was only the culmination, and I fear it’s only the beginning.”