Is Trump’s war against the media worse than Nixon’s?

Trump should either curb his anti-press campaign or take responsibility for his role in shootings

Another mass shooting — this time close to home at an Annapolis, Md., newspaper — occurred. It didn’t take long for Fox News propagandist Sean Hannity to take the offensive and at least partly blame Rep. Maxine Waters [D.-Calif.] for the situation, saying she was making “extraordinarily dangerous” comments.

As if Hannity, Trump and other Republicans were not making incendiary comments that were worse.

Waters may or may not have gone too far in calling for people to harass Trump officials they see at restaurants, stores and similar places. Her idea was to make it uncomfortable for such people to be in public while they were pushing for highly questionable policies such as separating families at the borders. Waters noted that she stopped short of advocating violence, though reportedly received death threats in return. Even some Democratic leaders, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joined Republicans in criticizing Waters.

Trump, of course, had to enter the fray, insulting Waters by calling her “an extraordinarily low IQ person,” which he often does, making many question Trump’s IQ. He claimed that Waters “called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement” and issued a threat: “Be careful what you wish for [sic] Max!”

Waters responded by saying she did not call for harm to Trump supporters, but the damage was done.

Trump’s rhetorical Twitter bombs were par for the course during the 2016 campaign. His public statements on the campaign varied from insulting — calling Mexicans criminals and rapists, making fun of a disabled person, etc. etc. — to downright irresponsible. Remember him claiming he wanted to punch a protester? Remember him applauding when supporters did punch protesters? How about Trump saying he could stand on Fifth Avenue in New York, shoot someone and not lose support, which remains one of the most truthful statements he has ever made?

Many supporters claimed he would tone down the rhetoric once in the White House and even stay off Twitter. If anything, he has escalated the fires, pouring gasoline on conflicts, rather than working to mediate differences and be a president for all people.

Sam Wheeler/Unsplash

In Trump’s first press conference a few days into his term, he singled out a CNN reporter for ridicule, refusing to take his question and calling him “fake news.” His administration has barred certain media outlets from press conferences and even discussed putting a halt to such conferences entirely, while continuing to hold campaign-style rallies that are little different from cult meetings. His administration also announced bans on federal employees talking with the media, including through social media.

When right-wing propagandist and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos called for murdering journalists, Trump didn’t issue a peep. But when an appearance by Yiannopoulos was canceled at Cal-Berkeley in early 2017 following protests, Trump wasted little time in supporting Yiannopoulos. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Trump tweeted.

After meeting with North Korea’s dictator, Trump doubled down on his anti-media campaign, proclaiming that “our country’s biggest enemy is the fake news.” In earlier tweets, he singled out certain news media as “enemies of the American people.” Of course, we know that he is only referring to media outlets that don’t report his every action in positive, glowing terms, such as what Fox News mostly does.

Most presidential administrations have had adversarial relationships with the media. That is expected with the nature of the system in which the press serves as a watchdog for the public.

Graphic by Shay

Barack Obama’s administration implemented a host of media crackdowns, mostly related to the rights of whistleblowers, which I also opposed. But Obama didn’t enact bans on employees talking with the media, Congress and through using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. Obama didn’t shut down agency websites.

George W. Bush rarely read press clippings and went so far to call a reporter he didn’t like a “major league asshole.” Dick Cheney, who some say was the real president, kicked certain reporters off his plane. Chief of Staff Andrew Card said that the media “don’t represent the public any more than other people do.” The administration took steps like deliberately releasing deceptive information and appointing conservative political activists to masquerade as journalists.

Reagan went to extremes to stop leaks and censor reports. But he enjoyed a relationship with the press unlike most. Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, admitted that the media in general were “kinder” to Reagan than any previous president.

With Nixon, the gloves were off, though it was more of an undercover, sneaky war than Trump’s largely public, Twitter-based battle. Nixon’s tactics included using the IRS, CIA, and FBI against journalists, wrote Stanford communications professor James T. Hamilton. Relations became so bad under Nixon that he ordered aides to “pick the twenty most vicious Washington reporters” and leak false reports to make them look bad. “Just kill the sons of bitches,” he reportedly said. That sentiment was taken to the literal extreme.

The journalists were targeted with tax audits, lawsuits, and criminal prosecution, author and University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein wrote. Some experienced suspicious home burglaries in which nothing was stolen, but their notes were reviewed.

Columnist Jack Anderson was at the top of Nixon’s list of media enemies, which also included the likes of Walter Cronkite. A few months before the Watergate burglary, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy met with CIA assassination expert Edward Gund to discuss how to kill Anderson, according to statements made under oath by the plumbers. The ideas included shooting him with Liddy’s pistol that was believed to be untraceable, poisoning him, putting LSD on his car’s steering wheel, and running him off the road. They finally discarded those and settled on stabbing Anderson outside his home, with Liddy volunteering to make the crime look like a robbery gone wrong.

Liddy even wrote that he paid Gunn $100 at that meeting “from Committee to Re-elect the President [CREEP] intelligence funds, as a fee for his services.” Liddy added that he further discussed with Hunt a suggestion that the murder of Anderson be blamed on “Cubans already recruited for the intelligence arm” of CREEP. The plot fizzled after Liddy and Hunt were indicted for their roles in the Watergate burglary.

Trump’s Twitter attacks and speeches against the media and how that apparently fills his base with joy cause other candidates to imitate him. In May 2017, Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, was assaulted by U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte [R-Mont.] after asking a question about health care reform. Gianforte claimed Jacobs initiated contact, while witnesses sided with Jacobs’ account. The incident occurred before the election, and Montana voters still elected the Republican.

The American Society for Newspaper Editors called the attack “a uniquely disturbing moment in the treatment of journalists.” ASNE President Mizell Stewart III, vice president of news operations for Gannett and USA Today, said in a statement, “An assault on a journalist asking a simple question is inexcusable, but not surprising, given the continued attacks on the press from those in power.”

Most media professionals admit there are excesses in their profession. The “media circus” trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted and put to death in 1936 for allegedly killing Charles Lindbergh’s baby and was believed to be innocent by several authors, was one of many examples. The coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 was another. Some journalists have been caught going to extreme methods, including breaking the law and making up material.

But the idea advanced by some that there is a conspiracy by the media to deliberately advance a political or social agenda is ludicrous, and is usually made by those who have little understanding of the media. An overwhelming majority of journalists take seriously their roles of being a public watchdog. For most, their main ideology is suspicion of anyone in positions of power.

The bottom line is the media are no more the American people’s enemy than the family dog. As president, Trump is in the position of being able to influence the public more than most. When he supports the sentiments by some to attack the press and does not tell supporters not to, for instance, wear shirts calling for lynching journalists, he is adding fuel to the rhetorical fire that make greater violence more likely. He is certainly adding lighter fluid with his “enemy of the people” rhetoric.

So far, Trump’s war on the media has not seemingly advanced to the stage of Nixon’s in using agencies like the IRS, lists, and assassination squads to retaliate against journalists. Hopefully, he is not making plans to do so. Hopefully, some of his supporters are not engaged in a violent, underground, anti-press movement. Hopefully, the horrific attack on the Capital Gazette in Annapolis is not somehow linked to anti-media Trump supporters like Yiannopoulos.

Reports say the shootings may have stemmed from a personal grudge against a Gazette columnist, who merely reported on the public records aspect of a harassment case against the killer. This person supposedly became so enraged over the six-year-old case that he took out his shotgun and killed five people, injuring several others. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what does these days?

In such an environment, Americans usually look to leaders like the president to be adults and guide the nation through stormy waters. But when that leader is only making things worse, riling up people who are even more mentally unbalanced than he is by calling the media enemies, among other irresponsible comments, where do you turn? When few leaders of the Republican Party, who control all three branches of government, criticize Trump’s anti-press campaign and other damaging aspects, where do you turn?

Maybe you turn to local leaders. In a statement on the tragedy, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican, said in part, “Journalism is a noble profession upon which our democracy depends, and we will fight to defend it.” Like many, but still not enough, Hogan is trying to distance himself from Trump. But the stench still remains.

The Capital Gazette thanked people for supporting the newspaper in the wake of the tragedy. But its editorial unveiled a darker trend: “Here’s what else we won’t forget: Death threats and emails from people we don’t know celebrating our loss, or the people who called for one of our reporters to get fired because she got angry and cursed on national television after witnessing her friends getting shot. We won’t forget being called an enemy of the people.”

So while Trump publicly says that “journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job,” at least some of his supporters are celebrating the murders of journalists. Pardon me if I don’t buy Trump’s hollow comments, given Trump’s actions to inflame the rhetoric against the press and his record of lying when making public statements.

Trump’s latest media-as-enemy-of-the-people public comments were only THREE DAYS before this tragedy during another rally in South Carolina. As sadly more bodies are buried, Trump’s latest comments trying to downplay his years of hatred against journalists come too little, too late, too insincere.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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