Trump Rhetoric Puts Journalists at Risk

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Photo by Ajay Suresh, Creative Commons

Should reporters be executed?

Donald Trump apparently thinks so. As reported by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, in his book The Room Where It Happened, Trump said, “reporters should be executed. They are scumbags.” A former advisor to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis confirms that he witnessed a similar exchange between the president and Secretary Mattis.

This is the most recent example of Trump’s incendiary language escalating, and it is putting journalists’ lives at risk.

The Pattern

What began as Trump calling news stories and organizations Fake News escalated to calling journalists Enemies of the People, which in turn escalated to saying that The New York Times had committed “a virtual act of treason.” Now he calls for journalists to be executed.

I am a communication and leadership professor and have spent the two years studying Trump’s language in preparation for a book that launched last week. I have documented twelve kinds of communication that historically have influenced people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.

One of the forms of communication that leads to violence is discrediting journalists and other sources of objective information. Another is conflating the leader’s identity with the nation. And a third is demonizing those the leader sees as criticizing him or her. Trump uses all three of these, plus the other nine forms.

One of the trends I document is that such language diminishes society’s capacity for empathy, so that acts of violence that previously would have been unacceptable become normalized.

Demonizing Journalists Leads to Violence Against Them

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times warned a year ago in The Wall Street Journal (yes, you read that correctly) that, “the president’s rhetorical attacks continue to foster a climate in which trust in journalists is eroding and violence against them is growing.”

A year after that warning, we have seen unprecedented levels of violence against American journalists by police and citizens. This became most visible during the civil unrest that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd. Data compiled by U.S. Press Freedom Tracker notes that between May 26 and June 3, 45 journalists were arrested; 180 were assaulted, 145 of them by police. Another 40 had their equipment damaged.

A few examples:

MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi was shot with a rubber bullet while covering unrest in Minneapolis. He told the police, “We’re media.” The police replied, “We don’t care.”

A Louisville TV reporter was shot by police with pepper balls while reporting on the air. Her news anchor asked, “Who are they shooting at?” She replied, “At us. Directly at us.”

A Pittsburgh TV photo journalist was attacked by protesters, and says he was “stomped and kicked,” and that other protesters had to come to his rescue. He was rushed to the hospital.

But perhaps the most vivid example happened on June 1 live on most news channels. During the ill-considered clearing of a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square, several police in riot gear assaulted an Australian TV cameraman. police also attacked a CNN camera operator. They pounded him and his camera with their shields, which were marked POLICE. They smashed the camera into the ground and then pushed the cameraman and his colleague out of their position. One of the police beat them with a club as they tried to get out of the way. And all of this just so President Trump could have his picture taken in front of Saint John’s Episcopal Church.

Another pattern I document is that Trump tends to escalate his language as he gets closer to an election. We can expect him to ratchet up his incendiary language against journalists and others.

Standing Up to Trump’s Language

But I also document that when he is forcefully challenged he tends to back down, as most bullies do.

Consider when last month Trump said he would call up the active duty military to keep order in the streets, even though by law the military is not allowed to have a domestic law enforcement role. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, on a call with President Trump and governors, urged leaders to “dominate the battle space.”

That was too much for former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who finally broke his self-imposed silence.

In a story in The Atlantic, Mattis said, “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate’… Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict — between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.”

Mattis then spoke of Trump: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”

Mattis’ candor prompted prompted other retired three-and-four star officers to do the same. Secretary Esper backed down and agreed that the “dominate the battle space” language was inappropriate.

Trump stopped calling for the domestic mobilization of the active duty military.

Standing Up to Trump

So what can we, engaged citizens, do? What can public officials do? What can activists do? What can Joe Biden do?

We can do what Gen. Mattis did, and what the generals and admirals did.

We can do what A.G. Sulzberger modeled for us in the Wall Street Journal a year ago. But it requires more than a single voice, and more than journalists to make the case on behalf of journalists.

First, we need to see the pattern and to name it.

Second, we need to name the foreseeable consequences of such language: It creates the very social conditions that can lead people to accept, condone and commit violence against journalists.

Third, we need to unambiguously call on Trump, or any other leader who uses such language, to stop. And to make clear that they hold that leader accountable for the violent consequences of such language.

Helio Fred Garcia is the author, most recently, of Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It.

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