Even for this White House, which is hardly known for friendly press relations, the Aug 2 standoff between CNN’s Jim Acosta and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was a stunning low point.
In recent weeks, Trump has tweeted that the media is “fake news,” “disgusting,” “dangerous & sick” and the “enemy of the people,” and called out the New York Times, NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN as examples of offenders.
“I think it would be a good thing,” said Acosta, “if you were to say right here at this briefing that the press, the people who are gathered in this room right now are doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier, are not the enemy of the people.”
Sanders did not give Acosta the answer he was looking for.
She instead accused the press of “lowering the level of conversation” and complained of her treatment at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. She then noted that she is the first Press Secretary in history to need Secret Service protection. In the end, she defaulted to her boss.
“I think the President has made his position known,” she said.
The White House moved to provide security for Sanders after Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen Restaurant, politely refused Sanders service.
In the wake of a Presidential tweet denouncing Red Hen as “filthy” and probably “dirty on the inside,” the small farm-to-table restaurant, located in a rural Virginia town of just 7,000 people, was shut down by protesters, subjected to death threats and inundated with thousands of negative Yelp reviews — all of which suggests that Trump’s base is easily moved to action. This is where the concern lies. This is what’s at the heart of Trump’s escalating attacks on the press.
When an unhinged gunman killed four journalists and an advertising representative at the Capitol Gazette, the White House ominously declined Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley’s request that flags be lowered to half-mast.
The decision was reversed a day later, after that refusal became national news. Apparently, being perceived as openly indifferent to the murder of journalists is where this administration draws the line. For now.
This, however, redeems nothing.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that Trump verbally attacked the media no less than 1,000 times between the announcement of his candidacy and January 2018.
It’s not just Trump – and it’s not just words. The CPJ also counts 44 physical attacks on journalists in North America last year, the majority of which occurred while reporters were covering political protests by right-wing extremists.
Last May, Montana Republican Greg Gianforte slammed a Guardian reporter to the ground and punched him in the face after being asked a question about health care. While Gianforte won his race the next day, a Republican Party official later resigned her position after saying she “would have shot” the reporter if she’d had the means.
And just last Friday, a live caller to C-SPAN threatened to shoot CNN’s Brian Stelter and Don Lemon. “They started the war. I see them. I’m going to shoot them. Bye.”
Denial about where this is headed is unhelpful.
The Boston Globe has denounced the Trump administration’s “dirty war on the free press,” and organized media outlets across the nation to publish editorials in defense of the First Amendment on Aug 16.
“Dirty war” is an appropriate choice of words. This was the Chilean military junta’s term for a period of state terror, lasting from 1974 to 1983, that “disappeared” 30,000 students, trade unionists, journalists and artists, much of it carried out by paramilitary death squads.
Targets included anyone loosely considered a left-wing activist, and the intent was to make dissent so dangerous as to silence any opposition.
Whenever we see the rhetoric of filth and disgust mobilized against any sector of our society, whether it’s homeless people or the press, we should be very alarmed. There has never been a more critical time to engage in free speech with our words, with our time, with our money and our bodies in the streets.
As Sinclair Lewis made clear in 1935, it actually can happen here, and the signs are there for anyone to see.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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