People have disliked the media since the creation of the media, and why not? It’s much easier to blame the people holding authority accountable instead of the authority itself. It’s much easier to blame the people bringing unpopular truths to light than to acknowledge what’s actually true. The media has been a safe scapegoat for generations, and likely will be for generations to come.
That being said, an alarming shift has taken place over the past few years; instead of journalists being passively blamed for all of life’s problems, they have been more actively threatened. It’s not just the media’s fault — the media needs to pay for their faults.
The marker of when this shift took place is painfully clear. I noticed it as a journalism student. No one thought twice about my college major until 2015. Suddenly, my career path was a problem. Suddenly, I needed to “rethink” my choice of joining a “dishonest” industry.
2015 was the year Donald Trump’s campaign took off. He sounded off at the media constantly, dubbing them “fake news” and regularly calling journalists “the enemy of the people.” He tweeted cartoons that depicted violence against reporters. Naturally, he was unapologetic about all of it.
During the election season, around the time Trump first called the press “the enemy,” I asked my Trump-supporting friends to tell me directly why I, specifically, was an enemy of America. The solitary response I received was someone telling me to “not take things so personally.”
It’s pretty difficult to not take it personally when the President of the United States declares your industry, and your industry alone, the enemy of the state. If it happened to any other industry, the nation would be up in arms. Farmers are the enemy of the people? Doctors are the enemy of the people? Firefighters are the enemy of the people? It would never fly. But journalists? Sure, whatever.
Things like this happen slowly; it’s not like Trump said this once and the majority of America bought it.
It started by calling out bias. For the record, bias should be called out when it legitimately occurs, but that’s not what Trump did. Anytime anything was reported that painted him in a mildly negative light (which, unfortunately, is an everyday occurrence) he called it bias. The press is UNFAIR, he would say. They’re not being nice to me, they don’t want me to win the election, they’re in bed with Hillary, etc.
He then implied the press was actively lying. It no longer was just a matter of reporting facts in a biased tone; Trump claimed they were deliberately trying to deceive. Mona Charen, a conservative commentator, noted “They took the whole question of media bias and weaponized it to become a very large part of the right-wing critique of the world.” Unfair became fake, and fake became evil.
It should come as no surprise, then, after all this rhetoric that confidence in the press hovers at a mere 32 percent.
I have said this for years: this is how journalists get killed. This is not a joke. Attacking the integrity of the press has serious, life-or-death consequences. Unfortunately, we learned that consequence firsthand. Five employees at The Capital newspaper in Annapolis were gunned down in their newsroom.
Yes, the gunman had a long-standing beef with the paper. Yes, he had a history of violent threats in his background. No, there is no evidence that his actions directly related to any of Trump’s statements.
It doesn’t matter. The rational the Annapolis gunman had behind his actions were the same that I’ve heard from every Trump rally-goer who is given a platform to speak. The anger that caused the Annapolis gunman to lash out is the same anger that Trump perpetuates every day. The threats received by The Capital are being received by every news outlet and every journalist every day.
If you think I’m exaggerating, ask a journalist sometime if they’ve received a death threat recently. Among my personal contacts, I can’t name any who haven’t.
Katy Tur learned the effects of Trump’s vitriol firsthand. While covering Trump’s election rallies for NBC, Trump regularly called out Tur by name, pointing at her and calling out “Little Katy, she’s back there.” After one particularly abusive incident, she was given secret service protection to escort her from the rally location to her car.
Media security has increased dramatically at political rallies. Nearly every major news network has hired private security for their journalists, and it’s no wonder why. Jim Acosta of CNN faced a barrage of hostility from attendees at a Trump rally last week.
Remarkably, Acosta spoke to his hecklers between shots and engaged with them on their level, signing autographs and taking selfies while chants and jeers of “CNN sucks” echoed around him.
That’s the job that journalists take on: they enter dangerous situations and put themselves directly in front of those who wish them harm. They don’t deny or filter out the stories of people who hate them — they’re the ones who tell those stories.
Of course, most people didn’t view Acosta’s experience in that way. He received an outpouring of support from his colleagues, but acknowledgement of the very real and dangerous threats against him were limited to those within the industry.
The support certainly was not present at the White House. Acosta has had a long-standing rift with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (mostly due to her disdain for questions that make her face her own hypocrisy) but the most recent press briefing was particularly tense.
Having just returned from the Florida Trump rally, Acosta turned to Sanders and asked her to clarify the President’s position. He wanted her to declare to the public that the press, her direct point of contact on a daily basis, is not “the enemy of the people.” She refused, and continued to perpetuate the notion that the media makes “personal attacks without any content other than to incite anger.”
As if to add an exclamation point to her statement, Trump made his position remarkably clear on Twitter:
This does not simply affect prominent journalists who appear regularly on TV. It affected me as a journalism student years ago. It affected David Hogg when his high-school-level journalism training prompted him to pick up a camera and record what was happening after the Parkland shooting this year. It will continue to affect every young American who chooses to enter the media industry for years to come.
A free press is literally the cornerstone to a functioning democracy, and this administration is leading the charge to trample it into the dust one reporter at a time. Most don’t seem to understand (or perhaps simply refuse to acknowledge) the severity of what is happening. They don’t think Trump should say the things he does, and they don’t always agree with him, but there isn’t anything that can be done. Right?
Wrong. We all need to stand up and fight against this, strongly and swiftly. Here’s how:
1. Brush up on your media knowledge.
Every critique of the media I’ve seen has lacked a fundamental understanding of how media organizations work. Newspapers, 24-hour networks, nightly news programs, radio shows, advocate news websites, and late-night comedy shows have all been lumped together as if they all operate the same way and are held to the same standards of unbiased reporting. (Hint: they don’t.)
Go to your local library and pick up a book on the media. Take a Journalism 101 class at your local university. Write your local paper or radio station and ask them about what they do and what they stand for. Listen with curiosity and empathy.
Learn what bias actually means. Learn how to spot it when it occurs. Learn to discern the difference between personal opinion and bias within factual reporting.
Consume more media overall — watch and read more stories from more sources to gain a broad perspective on how each media source reports their pieces.
If you can’t consider yourself an industry expert, be wary of criticizing how they do their jobs.
2. Use your voice.
Journalists are all speaking out against the current rhetoric against the press. More people who aren’t journalists need to do the same. When you see a headline about a reporter being threatened, call attention to it. When you read about Trump calling honest reporting “fake news,” declare he is wrong.
The first thing authoritarians do is turn the public against the free press. If you value the freedom a democracy grants you, you cannot allow that to happen.
3. Pay for your news and donate to public media.
TV networks and internet news sources are largely sustained by advertising, but subscribership matters. Pay the monthly fee for the New York Times online. Pay for your local paper. Donate to your local public radio station. These are the organizations with their feet on the ground that break the news. Show your support in a tangible way to ensure reporters can keep reporting.
Whatever you do, don’t give in to hatred and fearmongering. That’s what the real enemy of the people is counting on.