In the wake of the murder of five people at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, I can't help recalling a tweet by Donald Trump just after he returned from his love fest with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
"Our Country's biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools," the president wrote.
In Trump's mind, the media who reported facts — for example, the slim results of the Singapore summit — were a bigger threat than a nuclear-armed mass murderer in Pyongyang.
Before the Annapolis shootings, we accepted such nonsense as the new normal. Trump's denunciation of fact-full media as "FAKE NEWS" was taken for granted. Ditto for his vilification of the New York Times, CNN, NBC News, and many other outlets as "the enemy of the American people." Trump's incitement of crowds to assault reporters and, his denunciations of specific journalists by name, were decried but expected.
But Trump's vilification of media he dislikes as "enemies" sets a tone that can encourage disturbed individuals to assault journalists. This shooter had a long-running dispute with the paper, although he also tweeted in 2015 that criticism of candidate Trump by the Capital Gazette "could end badly." The president's harangues could spur future attacks.
The president says the shootings "filled our hearts with grief," but his actions say otherwise.
Nothing better illustrates Trump's attitude toward the non-sycophantic press than his embrace of authoritarian leaders who repress their own media – from Vladimir Putin to Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte to Polish President Andrzej Duda. He clearly envies autocrats who can shut journalists up – and wishes he could do the same.
Let's start with Trump's Putin envy.
During Trump's campaign, when asked by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough about Putin's killing of journalists. Trump replied, "Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe." When pressed, he reluctantly condemned such murders, but then quickly added: "I've always felt fine about Putin. He's a strong leader. He's a powerful leader."
Trump has repeatedly defended Putin on the issue of murdered journalists, saying, "It has not been proven that he's killed reporters."
Surely he knows that, in Russia, Putin needn't give the orders for such killings (or for the murder of opponents). Assassinations can be conducted with impunity by those who think they are doing the president's bidding — or by criminals who know that they will not be apprehended.
Last year at a G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Trump sat with Putin, who pointed at reporters and said, "Are these the ones who insulted you?" The two leaders laughed together, but the exchange was telling. Chuckling when Putin trolls the press signals a shared view of how the media should be treated.
Twenty-eight Russian journalists have been murdered since Putin became president in 2000; most cases remain unsolved.
The Kremlin has seized control of all national TV stations, and independent journals have mostly been forced to close by intimidation of journalists, advertisers, or paper suppliers. Many journalists have been threatened or beaten. Russia is number 180 out of 199 countries in Freedom House's ranking for press freedom.
And even small, remaining independent news outlets, mostly online, know it is too dangerous to criticize Putin or his inner circle.
Then there is Trump's uncritical embrace of President Duterte of the Philippines, who openly threatens journalists with murder (and sends vigilantes to kill thousands of drug-dealer suspects). Last year, when reporters brought up the subject of human-rights abuses to Duterte, who was sitting with Trump at the time, the Filipino leader called the journalists "spies." Trump laughed.
Never mind that Duterte has argued that "corrupt" journalists deserved to be killed and threatened: "Just because you're a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch," he famously said.
We also must not forget Trump's stage appearance next to Polish President Duda a year ago. While delivering a speech on "Western values" in Warsaw, Trump pledged to team up with Duda to fight "fake news." Never mind that Duda has been curbing press (and judiciary freedoms) in his own country. Or that the Polish leader used Trump's accolades to denounce the media critics who report on his regime's growing repression.
"I would never kill them [journalists] but I do hate them," candidate Trump told a 2015 rally, as he defended Putin from allegations of murder. But, he continued, Putin "says he didn't [kill journalists]. Other people say he didn't. Tell me, who did he kill?"
In defending Putin, in accepting Putin's denials, in enabling Duterte and Duda, in denouncing critics as "fake news," Trump is joining the club of despots and wannabes that see criticism from the press as an annoyance to be denounced, and, if possible, eliminated.
This is new to America in my lifetime. Richard Nixon hated the press, but he didn't denounce journalists in public, nor did he have social media to amplify his message.