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Trump’s Rhetoric Has Made Attacks on Journalists the New Normal

We used to take our relative press freedoms and safety for granted. Not anymore

Diana Hembree
Oct 15, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: weerapatkiatdumrong/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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It was the third time someone had shot out the windows at our alternative newspaper.

Based in a small university beach town on the California coast, the Santa Cruz Phoenix had apparently enraged some readers, since we came to the office that morning to find our plate glass window blasted to pieces by a shotgun — again. This was many years ago, before everyone had security cameras, but judging from our work shifts, the vandals had struck at the same time as usual after everyone had left — sometime between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. As an editor in my twenties, I wasn’t so much frightened as angry about the big mess I had to clean up.

Grumbling as I swept up the broken glass and shotgun shells, I wondered what we had published that drew such a furious response. Was it our stories about fraud, police beatings, Lockheed, illegal dumping? We had theories but no clues, and the police were no help at all, especially since the then-chief had openly said he disliked us.

Looking back, what strikes me was our lack of worry for our safety. The office was located in a storefront on a semi-industrial commercial street that was deserted by late night. Sure, we looked over our shoulders as we entered and left our aptly named “shotgun office,” where one shot could theoretically enter the front and pass through the back of the building. Now I would be beside myself, but back then, the broken windows were business as usual. Eventually we gave up replacing the glass and simply boarded them up, making the office rather dark and gloomy but saving on glass bills. After that threats were confined to occasional messages like “Commies, get out of Santa Cruz” in notes shoved through the mail slot. It would have seemed like we dreamed up the shotgun blasts, except for the plywood where our windows used to be.

The reason we weren’t frightened (besides being young and feeling invulnerable) is that we were convinced no one was out to kill us. This may have been just an illusion of safety, but journalists in the United States have always enjoyed far greater freedom to do their jobs without fear of violent reprisal compared to many other countries, including Mexico and Russia, where journalists are murdered with impunity.

This was driven home some years later, at a conference for investigative journalists in Juarez, Mexico, after one delegation of Mexican reporters arrived late and huddled tensely in a corner of the hotel ballroom. When some friends and I joined them for coffee, they told us their editor, who had been reporting on the local drug lords, had been gunned down in front of their office the day before. “The narcotrafficantes say that we are next,” one said. “The situation is very grim.”

Their editor was one of the 1,323 journalists around the world who’ve died since 1992 in the line of duty, many of them murdered or executed, according to 2018 data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The United States is not exempt — 39 U.S. journalists have been killed for their journalistic activities, including 10 in the Vietnamese, Chinese and Haitian communities — but historically we have been safe in comparison to our colleagues in other countries.

[Trump’s] verbal attacks on journalists during his campaign inspired lynch-mob-style T-shirts worn by some supporters at his rallies that said “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

This may now be changing, partly as a result of President Trump’s virulent assault on journalism. His verbal attacks on journalists during his campaign inspired lynch-mob-style T-shirts worn by some supporters at his rallies that said “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” (after a storm of protests, the T-shirt was withdrawn from stores). The Committee to Protect Journalists counted more than 1,000 Trump tweet attacks on the media from the announcement of his candidacy to January 2018 alone.

Although politicians have a right to criticize journalists, Trump’s constant tirades against the mainstream press as “Fake News!” and his criticism of individual reporters as “liars” and “bimbos” has been followed by a surge in harassment and “hate-mongering” toward of U.S. journalists, including death threats, doxxing, and assaults, according to CPJ.

The message to undemocratic “allies” is still worse. As Columbia Journalism Review put it, “Trump’s ‘fake news’ attacks have global impact.”

Trump’s coziness with dictators in North Korea, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, coupled with his reckless attacks on journalists, are like a green light for media persecution by corrupt leaders. Steve Coll of The New Yorker put it eloquently: “When the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.”

Witness the shocking disappearance of Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, who went to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey for routine paperwork on October 2nd and never emerged.

Khashoggi, described by his grieving fiancee as a warm, open-hearted man and a “lonely patriot,” had recently fled Saudi Arabia. Although he supported some Saudi reforms, he had written columns for the Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including stories condemning his planned executions of dissidents, including a women’s right activist and clerics. If what Turkish intelligence officials say is true — that they have hard evidence that Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered by Saudi officials inside the embassy compound — “it would be in a category of depravity all its own,” wrote CPJ executive director Joel Simon. “What makes Khashoggi’s alleged murder so chilling is its sheer brazenness.” (See update below.)

No one can undo these horrible crimes, but the United States could enforce some consequences.

Just days earlier, journalist Mario Gomez Sanchez was gunned down in Chiapas after receiving death threats, and the body of 30-year-old investigative reporter Victoria Marinova of Bulgaria had been discovered in a park in the northeastern city of Ruse. She had been beaten to death.

No one can undo these horrible crimes, but the United States could enforce some consequences. Even the American Conservative wrote that “Trump has threatened ‘severe punishment’ for alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Let’s hope he means it.’” But in Khashoggi’s case, this seems increasingly unlikely.

The evidence against Saudi Arabia appears overwhelming. U.S. intelligence officials intercepted a message that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia had ordered an operation to lure and detain Khashoggi. Turkey has confirmed that a 15-member team from Saudi Arabia, including a forensics expert, arrived shortly in Istanbul before Khashoggi’s arrival at the embassy, booked a hotel and left the same day. U.S. intelligence officials have told the Washington Post they have been presented with the audio and videotapes of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture, and murder inside the Saudi embassy compound in Turkey.

Yet Trump seems determined to deny Crown Prince bin Salman’s responsibility, making the preposterous suggestion that Khashoggi’s death may have been the work of a “rogue killer.” Rather than solving this brazen killing, he’s creating a smokescreen for the murderers while fostering an atmosphere that encourages hostility and violence against people whose role is enshrined in our Constitution.


Not long after I published this story, CNN and other news outlets carried the news the Saudi government admitted that its agents killed Khashoggi in the embassy, ostensibly during a “botched” interrogation. It seems that the Saudis have run out of other cover stories, having been unsuccessful in convincing the public that they knew nothing about his disappearance or that some “rogue killer” must have done away with the journalist. Since neither of these stories were convincing, especially after Turkey shared audio and videotape evidence of his killing in the embassy with U.S. intelligence officials, the latest story seems designed to shield the Saudi Crown Prince by claiming that he did not order the operation. Perhaps Saudi Arabia will also be able to explain why an illegal kidnapping would require a 15-man squad, an autopsy expert, a body double and a bone saw.

As the horrific details of the journalist’s dismemberment and death emerge, Trump has not only refused to condemn Saudi Arabia, he took the opportunity at a Montana rally to praise a Congressman who assaulted a reporter — the first time, as one paper said, that the president “has openly and directly praised a violent act against a journalist on American soil.” The next week, explosive devices were mailed by unknown sources to CNN, which Trump has frequently criticized, as well as to Obama, Clinton, and other prominent Democrats he has targeted.

“There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media,” said CNN President Jeff Zucker in a statement on October 24, shortly after the explosive device mailed to the network’s New York offices led to an evacuation. “The president, and especially the White House press secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.”

I cover consumer affairs, science, the workplace and fraud.

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