Susan J. Demas: Trump is an existential threat to journalism

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I’ve never had any delusions that many people — including most in politics — hate the media.

We are incredibly annoying, what with asking all those pesky questions about why they voted for a bill heavily backed by their campaign donors, why they retweeted a white supremacist, and if they believe that asking a foreign government to dig up dirt on your political opponent in exchange for aid is an impeachable offense.

Because I wasn’t popular in high school (or ever), this doesn’t particularly bother me.

But we’ve reached a point where some on the right openly revel in actual violence against the media. The latest example is a video played at a conference last week for the pro-Trump group American Priority attended by Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The footage from a far-right ally, first reported by the New York Times, shows the president going on a murder spree in the “Church of Fake News” against the media and his political enemies.

It’s nothing short of a snuff propaganda film, with Trump stabbing, shooting, beating and setting ablaze his foes in a sanctuary. On his hit list are former President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a Black Lives Matter activist and a CNN reporter. At the end, Trump admires the carnage from the altar.

In essence, it’s the twisted fantasy of how some on the far right would like Trump’s war on progressivism and independent journalism to end.

If you’d like to accept the weak excuse of Trump’s current press secretary that he condemns the video, then perhaps you’ve been asleep for his dozens of vicious attacks on the “fake news” media in general for years — not to mention his dangerous practice of torching reporters by name at his events.

At his frenzied rallies, Trump has called reporters “absolute scum,” “disgusting,” “very dishonest” and more. Consider his 2015 event in Grand Rapids before he was even elected, when he declared of the media, “I hate some of these people, I hate ’em. I would never kill them. I would never do that.”

I guess it’s cool if you find that somehow reassuring, but he did then reconsider with, “Uh, let’s see, uh?” before deciding, “No, I would never do that.”

Of course, the president did celebrate U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) who violently attacked a Guardian reporter, declaring, “Any guy that can do a body slam … he’s my guy.”

Given Trump’s rhetoric, it’s not surprising that his supporters have spat on and assaulted reporters at rallies and several don the “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” shirt that debuted during his 2016 candidacy. Let’s not forget that Trump’s former campaign manager and frequent cable news guest Corey Lewandowski even shoved a female reporter at an event (and now he’s flirting with a U.S. Senate run).

President Donald J. Trump welcomes President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin as he arrives to attend their bilateral meeting during the G20 Japan Summit Friday, June 28, 2019, in Osaka, Japan. | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, Flickr

It gets worse. A Trump supporter from Florida sent pipe bombs to CNN, Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros and others. On the anniversary of the Capital Gazette shooting that left five dead, Trump was yukking it up with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying of reporters, “Get rid of them. … Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”

Putin responded, “We also have. It’s the same.” In Russia, 58 journalists have been murdered since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Trump also has repeatedly threatened to go after the First Amendment and change libel laws, in addition to targeting specific media (raising the specter of a federal investigation over a lame “Saturday Night Live” sketch is some real tinpot dictator stuff).

The president attacks the media because we’re the ones who report his myriad scandals, from Russian election interference to allegedly bilking taxpayers with events on his properties to enlisting foreign governments to help him in the 2020 election. We also report on his lies, which have reached an unheard-of 13,435 in under 1,000 days in office, per Monday’s count in the Washington Post. It’s one reason why the White House chucked the daily press briefing.

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Republicans — who have been ginning up attacks on “liberal media bias” for decades — have embraced his attacks, with 92% agreeing outlets intentionally report “fake news.”

Trump represents an existential threat to journalism. And yet, bizarrely, some journalists bend over backwards to praise Trump for screaming lies at reporters on the White House Lawn as an example of transparency. They’re also very quick to tell you that Democrats complain about the media, too (and God, they’re so annoying). Both sides, you know.

As a longtime reporter and political columnist, I’ve had people across the spectrum take shots at me. I’ve lost track of how many people have tried to get me fired just for a column that gave them sad face.

Trump rallies in Grand Rapids today. Research shows counties with 2016 events had spikes in hate crimes.

But before Trump, I’ve never feared for my safety while covering a political rally. And yet, some fusty media types lecture us to just keep our heads down and do our jobs, as if that’s valued by Trump’s party or will somehow protect us from those determined to do us grave physical harm.

Attorney General Dana Nessel| Andrew Roth

Last weekend, the Society of Professional Journalists Detroit Chapter held an open records event known as FOIA Festival. Attorney General Dana Nessel, a progressive who some centrists seem weirdly obsessed with comparing to Trump, declared, “The media is not the enemy of the people.”

It’s sad that this even needs to be said today. But you can’t honestly blame both sides for why it’s necessary.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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