The Media’s Role In Trump’s Assassination Threat Against Hillary

There’s a sacred Constitutional right we need to discuss after Donald Trump’s assassination dogwhistle against Hillary Clinton — and it’s not the Second Amendment, it’s the First. When a major party’s presidential candidate suggests “there may be” something “the Second Amendment people” “can do” to prevent his opponent from picking judges, it’s time we talk about the role freedom of the press is supposed to play in the healthy functioning of our democracy.

We all know the formula by now. Donald Trump makes an offensive spectacle of himself (Mexicans are rapists! Ban Muslim immigration! Megyn Kelly’s on the rag! “I could . . . shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters! Screw those Gold Star parents!”), to the pleasure of his right wing base and the chagrin of reasonable Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. Journalists toss the public’s predictable outrage around like a political football, netting the candidate endless free media coverage. Just when everyone assumes this time he’s gone too far, he goes further, and the latest volley replaces his previous folly in a news cycle that feeds on superficial histrionics and elides understanding, civics, and even basic facts.

Thankfully, a number of media outlets are finally going off-script. But it’s worth asking: Why did it take an assassination insinuation to break the cycle?

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For the better part of a year, when talking about Trump, corporate news media seemed to take their lead from Jon Stewart’s glee when the real estate mogul first descended that escalator to announce his candidacy and bring the level of political debate down with him. And really, who could blame a comedian like Stewart for wiping an excited tear from his eye and thanking Trump “for making my last six weeks my best six weeks”? Satirists’ jobs became instantly more fun as soon as a know-nothing narcissist with a notoriously short fuse and a party platter of bigoted ideas decided to try to buy his way into the Oval Office. But journalists, whose job it is to uncover corruption, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” and to serve the public interest?

Journalists should have known better.

Throughout Election 2016, broadcast, cable, print, and online media reported on Trump’s campaign as little more than a Doritos-dusted circus act whose impact was not worthy of serious investigation — yet which somehow merited wall-to-wall attention, the better to feed the 24-hour news beast. Some corporate outlets, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show or Jamil Smith’s work for MTV, sprinkled substantive reporting and analysis into their constant coverage.

Unfortunately, far more often corporate news outlets ignored their responsibility as members of the Fourth Estate, leaving that deeper journalistic duty to independent media orgs such as Mother Jones, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Atlantic, “Democracy Now!,” FAIR, and The Establishment. Meanwhile, each time news outlets aired Trump’s speeches on loop or quoted his every information-light rant without providing factual corrections, they granted his candidacy increased legitimacy, without which he would not likely have won his party’s nomination. Despite the party line that Trump’s success is due to his “outsider” status, his rise to political power would not have been possible without access to this institutionally-approved megaphone.

CBS CEO Les Moonves
CBS CEO Les Moonves

Why was Trump able to game the journalistic playing field this way? Because the most influential structural bias in corporate media is not racism, or misogyny, or any other regressive bigotry — it’s commerce. As I’ve documented in my book and in media literacy keynotes and workshops for 20 years, corporate media consolidation has created a climate in which news outlets prioritize profit over all other factors: over journalistic ethics, over the need to nurture an informed and critical electorate, and over the health of American democracy. To be clear, a great many individual journalists are fighting to do the best work they can within this system, but they are too often stymied by the top-down commercial motivations of their employers (a small handful of mega-merged media conglomerates own the vast majority of all the news and entertainment we watch, read, hear, and see), who will always place the needs of the boss’s business above any other factor . . . even at the risk of propelling an authoritarian demagogue inches away from our nuclear codes.

Hey, don’t take my word for it; let CBS CEO Les Moonves explain. “This is pretty amazing,” Moonves mused in February at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, waxing rhapsodic about how ringmaster Donald Trump was heralding a financial jackpot for his company in the form of massive political ad spending:

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? This is pretty amazing . . . Who would have thought that this circus would come to town? But, you know — it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say. So what can I say? It’s — you know, the money’s rolling in, and this is fun.”

The less substantive political media coverage is, the more politicians need to buy campaign ads to get their message to voters who wouldn’t learn about their policy records or positions just by following the news — a boondoggle that couldn’t please Moonves and other corporate bigwigs more.

That wasn’t the first time Moonves cheered on Trump’s destructive mayhem. At an investor presentation in December, 2015, he raved about the impact the former reality star was having on the crowded GOP field: “The more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go Donald! Keep getting out there! . . . And, you know, this is fun, watching this, let them spend money on us, and we love having them in there.”

When the head of one of the most influential news gathering and distribution bodies in the world boasts that what’s “bad for America” is “damn good” for his company, it becomes much easier to parse the confounding coverage Trump has received during the primaries and through the start of the general election season.

Which brings us back to Trump’s sinister insinuation that maybe one of his unstable supporters might solve his Hillary problem by shooting her.

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As I tweeted Tuesday, despite Trump and his surrogates’ claims that he only meant that gun enthusiasts should get out the vote, there is zero room for honest interpretation: Trump was inciting his unhinged supporters to use gun violence to get their way.

Back in April, I told you about a Southern Poverty Law Center report that connected Trump’s campaign rhetoric to a spike in violent hate crimes against Muslims. That piece also detailed how Trump’s ongoing racist commentary had led to a spike in membership in violent white supremacist groups, as well as beatings of, and death threats against, Black and Latino Americans.

Trump is well aware of this violent climate, which he built to rile up the support of white men eager to blame their economic or social hardships on people of color, immigrants, feminists, and liberal politicians. And contrary to claims that Trump is so incoherent that he rarely knows what he’s talking about, the GOP’s nominee is actually a master at crafting narratives that flatter him while ignoring reality, having honed his skills at manipulative story framing over a decade behind the scenes on The Apprentice. This backstory is crucial to understanding why his Second Amendment jab against Clinton poses “a clear and present danger,” the standard by which speech can be legally judged as criminal incitement of violence and thereby not protected under the First Amendment.

At the legal blog Popehat, Ken White argues that Trump’s comments didn’t meet that standard because “it’s directed to something that will happen (at the earliest) more than six months in the future, and it’s not likely to produce action.” That only appears to hold water because White failed to factor in the many documented incidents in which Trump’s audiences have listened to what he’s said and taken violent action in response. Up until now those assaults have been leveled at people of color and religious minorities, but hatred of Hillary at Trump rallies has been loud, vicious, and seething with calls to physically harm her, starkly illustrated by raw footage captured by the New York Times. Among the more typical “TRUMP THAT BITCH!” slurs on anti-Clinton T-shirts were other, more chilling signs that read, “KILL HER.”

This dark demand hasn’t only been issued by off-kilter, anonymous fans; at the RNC, New Hampshire Republican state rep and Trump delegate and advisor Al Baldasaro declared that Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason” due to her handling of Benghazi. And just a week ago, The New Republic reported that numerous Trump supporters called for Clinton’s murder at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina: Reporter Jared Yates Sexton heard at least three members of the crowd scream “Hang that bitch!” while others yelled “Hang Hillary!” to some applause.

This is the misogynistic powder keg into which Trump threw his lit match. He knew full well what he was doing: retaining a shred of plausible deniability while sending a message to aggrieved, well-armed followers that their candidate might condone the use of fatal force against “that bitch” (the opponent some of his supporters have already said should be killed). And this is how stupid Trump thinks the American people are: Instead of apologizing, he released a two-sentence “Trump Campaign Statement On Dishonest Media,” claiming the press is out to get him and he was only talking about voting, obvi.

Yet even if we assume for the sake of argument that Trump didn’t “really mean it,” even if he was “just joking” (a premise masterfully deconstructed by lawyer and former English professor Jason P. Steed’s tweetstorm about the socio-political function of humor), “It doesn’t matter what Trump meant — it matters what he said,” a Business Insider headline rightly stated Wednesday. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, told CNN, “If someone had said that outside the hall, he’d be in the back of a police wagon now with the secret service questioning him.” And although Trump has denied it, an unnamed U.S. Secret Service official confirmed to CNN that the agency did indeed have “more than one conversation” with the Trump campaign about his statement.

The Secret Service has sobering reasons to be concerned. Americans have a woefully short political memory, but we’d do well to consider our bloody history, lest we repeat it. In 2010, former Nevada Assemblywoman and Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle repeatedly and explicitly advocated that if Republicans didn’t get what they wanted by casting ballots, then bullets might fix the problem. On conservative radio host Lars Larson’s show, Angle opined that the Founding Fathers enshrined the Second Amendment “for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government,” and that “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Rather than renouncing violence or walking back this incitement to armed “revolution,” she doubled down on another right wing radio show, telling host Bill Manders: “I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies . . . I hope that the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.”

Happily, no one took Angle up on her hardly-veiled threats to shoot Harry Reid. But Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was not so lucky.

In 2010, the same year Angle was raving about “Second Amendment remedies,” Sarah Palin included Giffords on a “target list” she said would “take aim” at legislators who supported Obamacare; she also lined Giffords up in her infamous “crosshairs map” and targeted her district and 19 others with images of gun sights. “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” Palin tweeted when she introduced the map. Months later, Giffords was shot in the head during a constituent meeting in a Tucson supermarket parking lot. Giffords, who was identified as the target, survived. Eighteen other people were also shot during the massacre; six died, including a 9-year-old girl.

Political speech matters. As former Rep. @GabbyGiffords tweeted, “.@realDonaldTrump might astound Americans on a routine basis, but we must draw a line between political speech & suggestions of violence,” and “When candidates descend into insult, our politics follow suit. When they affirm violence, we should fear that violence will follow.

pozner tweet

When a candidate is this reckless with the country’s safety, every news outlet in America has a responsibility to contextualize that danger and call for accountability to the public. Which is why, on Tuesday, I urged journalists to cover Trump’s comments as a legitimate threat, “not . . . simply as his latest outrageous offense,” tweeting that “Media must report the danger implicit here.”

I’ll admit that based on their Election 2016 track record, I worried that corporate media would cover this “gaffe” as just another piece of outlandish Trumpbluster. To my great relief, it didn’t quite work out that way.

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In the wake of Trump’s actively dangerous rhetoric, some outlets predictably failed to do their jobs responsibly, as when a Los Angeles Times piece headlined, “Analysis: Trump’s call for ‘2nd Amendment people’ to stop Clinton isn’t helping his dropping poll numbers” treated his comments as newsworthy only insofar as they might affect his campaign. Or when ABC’s Good Morning America gave resident Trump apologist Rudy Giuliani four and a half minutes to pretend no one anywhere would have possibly thought Trump meant anything other than voting if it wasn’t for “the Clinton spin machine” — and anyway, since he is “not particularly indirect,” if he really wanted Hillary dead “he would say something like that” and “with a crowd like that, if that’s what they thought he meant, they’d have gone wild.” (Careful, Rudy, you just unwittingly underscored why it was so irresponsible for Trump to make that threat/joke to an already bloodthirsty audience.)

Fortunately, though, many other journalists did respond with the gravity and context the public needed, starting with old guard broadcaster Dan Rather, who issued a strong call to reportorial action to his colleagues via his Facebook page on Tuesday:

“No trying-to-be objective and fair journalist, no citizen who cares about the country and its future can ignore what Donald Trump said today . . . he crossed a line with dangerous potential. By any objective analysis, this is a new low and unprecedented in the history of American presidential politics. This is no longer about policy, civility, decency or even temperament. This is a direct threat of violence against a political rival. It is not just against the norms of American politics, it raises a serious question of whether it is against the law . . . This cannot be treated as just another outrageous moment in the campaign. We will see whether major newscasts explain how grave and unprecedented this is and whether the headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers do it justice.”

Within hours, Rolling Stone published a damning, lengthy piece suggesting that Trump’s incitement of violence against Clinton echoes the Religious Right’s systematic dehumanization of Planned Parenthood that preceded November’s mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The magazine characterized Trump’s comments as “stochastic terrorism,” or “using language and other forms of communication ‘to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.’

Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen drew connections between Trump’s “dangerous, even terrifying rhetoric” and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, noting that Trump made his statement “knowing full well it feeds the paranoia and anxiety of pro-gun voters, many of whom are already paranoid and anxious.” Worse, Cohen wrote, “when political leaders look the other way at calls for political violence — or in the case of Trump, tacitly embrace it — they are in a very real sense giving validation to those who might turn such rhetoric into action. Trump’s words are giving permission, even planting a seed in the heads of unstable individuals who are predisposed to violence.”

daily news

The cover of Wednesday’s Daily News warned “This Isn’t A Joke Any More,” with a subhead that couldn’t be clearer: “When Trump hinted gun-rights supporters shoot Hillary, he went from offensive to reckless. He must end his campaign.” Taking him to task for “toying with political bloodshed,” the editorial asserted that because he “hurtled past offensiveness into dangerous recklessness . . . Trump can offer no apology sufficient to make up for insidiously making light of murder. Nor can he explain away or justify planting a notion that could spur a demented follower to kill a political rival, a President or Supreme Court justices.”

Numerous Washington Post pieces gave the incident the kind of clear-eyed attention it deserved, including an editorial headlined “Trump’s reckless call to ‘Second Amendment people.’” One analysis, “From Trump’s controversial words, a pattern: Outrage, headlines and then denial,” noted how often the candidate has built campaign rhetoric on blatant lies, and how often he has gotten away with it.

If there’s a shred of a silver lining to be found in the cloudy aftermath of an assassination threat against the first woman to gain a major U.S. party’s presidential nomination, it’s that corporate media finally decided not to let him get away with it . . . this time.

Going forward, let’s hope journalists shocked by Trump’s assassination “joke” take a hard look at how their reportage helped pave the way for this moment.

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Lead image: Pixabay

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