You could practically hear the wails of umbrage and despair if you logged onto Twitter Sunday night. The New York Times had just broken the story of another and-you-thought-you-could-no-longer-be-outraged-in-2019-America outrages .
This time, it was a kind of a snuff video depicting a deep-faked Donald Trump violently gunning down his “enemies,” which were mostly memes of news orgs like NPR or ABC (with the occasional Hollywood star and the already-dead John McCain tossed in for good measure) amid church pews, crudely mimicking the kind of all-American mass shooting that the real world Donald Trump has done nothing to stop. It was made by a Trump supporter and shown at a Trump hotel to a conference of right-wing supporters, including Donald Trump Jr.
If you’d been in a coma these last four or five years, the video would have been a stroke-inducing shock. For the rest of us, this just seemed like the inevitable rock bottom of an American president who understood that ginning up hatred of the elite news media out in the Heartland was the only path for a failed-real-estate-developer-turned-reality-TV star to improbably reach the White House. Since 2015, the nation has grown uncomfortably numb to a president borrowing from Joseph Stalin to brand journalists as “enemies of the people,” making a kind of Two Minutes Hate against the press pool a focal point of his Nuremberg-style rallies, and ending press briefings through his anonymous press secretary, in its affirmation of the public’s right not to know.
Yeah, this was rock bottom … until the next one, probably in the next day or two. Many — myself included — believe the existence of the video was actually leaked by Team Trump. Why? It took the twin nightmares of impeachment and the Syria debacle off the top of the TV news hour, and, more importantly, the video surely titillated the “CNN Sucks!” rally mob he’ll need to win the swing states again in 2020.
One of the stories that barely got covered while the outrage factory was humming at full tilt was the murder of an actual journalist who’d be alive today were it not for Trump’s egomaniacally driven bad policies. Hours before the Times broke the Trump video story, the Turkish air force — whose blood-soaked invasion of northern Syria was green-lighted by the American president — bombed a civilian convoy and murdered Saad Ahmed, a Syrian Kurdish reporter for the local news agency Hawar News. The Turkish war crime also injured four other journalists.
Tragically, Ahmed’s killing wasn’t as rare as it should be. The Committee to Protect Journalists found that 53 media members were killed on the job in 2018, but the most stunning part of its report was that the number of journalists targeted and murdered as reprisal for their work — some 34 — had nearly doubled. Also noteworthy: Six of those murdered journalists worked for U.S. newspapers: The five who were gunned down by a disgruntled article subject in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., and Washington Post op-ed columnist Jamal Khashoggi, strangled and dismembered by Saudi Arabian agents.
You probably won’t be shocked to learn that a president who calls journalists “enemies of the people” nearly every day doesn’t seem too bent out of shape by Khashoggi’s horrific murder, shrugging at the CIA’s finding of his pal Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement and sending him as many U.S. troops as he wants. Earlier this year, Reporters Without Borders downgraded Trump’s United States as now “problematic” for press freedom, which ought to shock the conscience (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t) of a nation that used to market our First Amendment rights globally as our brand, “American exceptionalism.”
Here’s what really worries me, though: The idea that Trump’s unfit and out-of-control presidency is an aberration of history and that things will be hunky dory the day he leaves office, maybe as early as January 20, 2021 and maybe even sooner as the fires of impeachment burn hotter. That fantasy isn’t true, though, for a lot of our problems — and nowhere is it less true than the realm of American faith and respect for a free press.
Trump may be a dangerous demagogue, but he wasn’t Harold Hill suddenly showing up in River City to trick the contented masses. To the contrary, Trump was just more cynical about riding a tsunami of antielite resentment that’s basically wanted to kill the media messenger ever since the Chicago riots of 1968 — whipped up for years by Spiro Agnew’s talk of “nattering nabobs” and the right-wing backlash of the Powell Memo and then billions of dollars of denial against climate-change science and finally science in general, brought to you by Exxon-Mobil.
I went to Trump’s eastern Pennsylvania rallies in 2016 and talked to a lot of folks. They weren’t there to hear about jobs and health care, even though many needed those things. Most wanted to tell me about how much they hated CNN, and to roar when a future president turned their attention to the “animals” in the press pit. When the inevitable day finally comes and Donald Trump is no longer in the Oval Office, those folks will still be out there. And the next demagogue may be less of a conceited clown show and even more diabolical about milking their pent-up rage.
But here’s the other thing: The consequences of hatred for a free and functioning press have already warped American discourse in ways that are far less dramatic than, say, the beheading of a journalist yet are harming democracy nonetheless. Yes, the Trump White House is the epicenter — killing daily briefings for journalists, hired an unqualified press secretary who literally does nothing, ending White House visitor logs so no one knows who’s coming or going, and then unleashing a blizzard of lies on the American people.
But there’s a good chance the media is also a little less free in your hometown. I’m thinking of a place like Malheur County in rural, isolated eastern Oregon, where county officials launched an official investigation of the local newspaper because it said reporters were sending too many emails and making too many calls to government officials. But also San Francisco, where police were so determined to learn how a journalist had obtained a confidential police report that they raided his home.
Right here in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief of staff sent out an email instructing staffers they’d need a special clearance to speak with journalists from Philadelphia Magazine after the mag published a story that was apparently not to the mayor’s liking. The magazine threatened to sue, the city backed off, and at the end of the day it wasn’t the crime of the century — and yet it felt very much of this moment when American press freedom is honored in the breach. By the way, Kenney and also the mayor of San Francisco are liberal Democrats.
In other words, the rot is bipartisan.
So, yeah, Trump’s defeat — or impeachment and removal — will help matters, but it’s just one step along the long road back. At the top, whoever wants to be the 46th (or 47th) president needs to lay out a plan to make the First Amendment a priority. That could start with the basics of access, an unrestricted flow of information and a pledge to always tell the truth — but also to use the bully pulpit of the White House to start a national conversation about how good journalism and its tough questions are actually good for the American people.
But ultimately, trust between the media and the public can only be restored at the fundamental level where it broke down: The community level. Perhaps the current crises for American journalism — not just moral but economic — are an opportunity to jump-start that discussion. News orgs need local support — subscribers, yes, but more fundamentally people who simply believe in what they do. And maybe I’m naive but I think there’s a lot of everyday people who want to again believe institutions — including the media — can work for them.
The killing of journalists — both in some dumb photoshopped video but also in the all-too-real world — is horrible and needs to end. But we should also take a step back and see how press freedom in America is slowly dying a death of a thousand cuts. And democracy can’t afford to wait even 14 more months to begin healing these wounds.