It’s been a rough few months for the “enemy of the American people.”
Journalists have been arrested for asking questions, pinned against a wall, arrested while covering protests, body-slammed, and even had government officials joke about shooting them.
For a long time, this kind of blatant disregard for the freedom of the press—a profession explicitly protected by the United States Constitution—would have been abhorrent to most Americans. But as President Donald Trump has ramped up his rhetoric against the press on a near-daily basis, press freedom experts are openly wondering whether this hostility is becoming normalized and, with it, one of the Constitution’s greatest protections swept under the rug in favor of anti-First Amendment resentment.
“I do think that we worry that this could escalate,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, a Senior America’s and U.S. Researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), tells the Daily Dot. “You worry also that this anti-press rhetoric has an effect on the way courts judge cases. It has an effect on how people see it when a reporter is attacked. This is something that should be completely out of the norm and unacceptable. You don’t want to see these cases normalized in any way.”
Trump is openly hostile to the news media, an attitude that has trickled down to his supporters. According to Pew Research Center, only 42 percent of Republicans support the media’s role as a watchdog for politicians, and only 18 percent of Republicans say the national news media does a good job of keeping them informed. Democrats, by contrast, largely believe in the media’s watchdog roll—but even progressives are skeptical of the media’s value, with just 34 percent calling the national press “trustworthy.”
Trump has repeatedly assailed reporters on Twitter—oftentimes about coverage he didn’t like, aka “fake news”—sending a jolt into his supporters not to trust the news.
While experts say they do not have hard data that shows a statistical trend of press freedom abuses since Trump’s rhetoric became mainstream, as of the beginning of June, 13 journalists are currently facing charges from law enforcement, according to the CPJ, mostly related to trespassing or rioting. Ellerbeck says several press freedom groups are working together to create a database that will track press freedom in the United States.
Usually when people say "the press is under assault" they are speaking metaphorically.— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) May 25, 2017
When Trump continues to call the media the “enemy of the American people,” “scum,” “sleazebags,” “very dishonest,” “out of touch,” “terrible” “lying, disgusting people,” and more—names meant to charge his supporters into distrusting the institution as a whole—it can become a slippery slope.
“The sheer amount of threats to the media, the anti-press rhetoric—much of which comes from Trump, but we’ve seen reflected by online trolls, by governors by other public officials,” Ellerbeck says. “That environment has an impact.”
In the past few weeks alone, newly elected Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) allegedly “body-slammed” a journalist from the Guardian who was asking a question about the GOP’s healthcare bill the day before his election. Gianforte was charged with assault following the incident.
A reporter was arrested in May for asking questions at a healthcare event in West Virginia and another reporter was pinned against a wall when trying to ask the FCC Chairman a question a week later.
Shortly after the Gianforte incident, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joked about shooting journalists.
Reports also revealed that Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to consider jailing journalists who publish classified information—a function of the press previously lauded as a public service.
Many people have pointed to Trump’s vehement anti-press knocks as something politicians have done for decades. But the idea that openly criticizing the press is merely a talking point loses its cache when things become violent, Ellerbeck says.
“When you get to that level—direct orders from the president to jail journalists, when you get to physical attacks … it becomes much harder to dismiss the anti-press environment that is something that is merely rhetoric,” Ellerbeck says. “I think that argument no longer holds.”
I'm giving money to Greg Gianforte, he made mistake, but by body slamming a liberal reporter, he showed that his heart is in the right place— Bill Powers (@BillPowers9) May 26, 2017
Brian Hauss, a staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agrees. While government officials can dislike the press, he says, they took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution—which guarantees the press the right to report.
“Threats against the press are assaults against one of our democracy’s core institutions—one of the heroes of the American story,” Hauss says. “We understand it’s not uncommon for politicians to feel hostile towards reporters, but as public officials, they swore to uphold the Constitution. That includes a duty to make sure the press can do its job without fear of prosecution or violence.”
That theory holds true when Trump discusses individual reporters, Ellerbeck says. When Trump mentions or attacks one journalist in particular—something he has done on unnumbered occasions—hateful anti-press speech and threats tend to follow.
Ellerbeck mentions NBC News host Megyn Kelly (formerly of Fox News) needing to get a security detail after Trump targeted her on Twitter, and reporter Michelle Fields, who was grabbed by Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski during the campaign, needing to briefly leave her home as a result of being singled-out by Trump.
“It’s incredibly dangerous. One thing that we’ve said consistently … is that when Trump tweets about the press … those targets, that reporter, will receive massive amounts of online abuse,” Ellerbeck says. “This rhetoric has a real impact in people’s lives.”
Hauss says the notion of the Trump administration trying to prosecute journalists for publishing information, as Trump allegedly suggested, is a direct threat from the executive branch.
But despite threats from government officials and even supporters of a particular candidate, he says he believes the press will continue to do its constitutionally protected work.
“Even the suggestion that reporters might be prosecuted for publishing information is clearly intended to chill them from doing so,” Hauss says. “Thankfully, I think members of our press are bold people who will continue to deliver the truth to the American public regardless of who tries to threaten them.”