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2017-08-23 23:46:02
Mediator: Trump Takes Aim at the Press, With a Flamethrower

Every time you think President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric can’t get worse, he finds a way of surprising you and not surprising you all at the same time.

That he will attack journalists on a regular basis should be expected at this point, and it is. The surprising part comes when he manages to outdo himself. After all, he couldn’t possibly top “enemy of the people,” could he?

Yet there he was in Phoenix on Tuesday, telling a crowd of thousands of ardent supporters that journalists were “sick people” who he believes “don’t like our country,” and are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

The moment matters. Mr. Trump’s latest attack on the media came at a time of heightened racial tension stoked by a white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., and continuing now in the national debate over removing statues that commemorate Confederate figures from the Civil War. Mr. Trump’s speech in Phoenix reprised a question spawned by his raucous rallies during the presidential campaign: How long before someone is seriously hurt, or worse?

“Coming off the violence in Charlottesville, with tensions so high and the kindling so dry, it felt like President Trump was playing recklessly with fire, singling out a specific group of people — the media — for disliking America and trying to erase our country’s heritage,” Jim VandeHei, chief executive of the Axios news website, told me. “He’s just wrong to paint so wildly with such a broad brush, and, worse, putting reporters at real risk of retribution or violence.”

(In a passionate appeal on Twitter on Wednesday, Mr. VandeHei posted the following message: “To family/friends who support Trump: What he said last night was despicable, extremely deceptive, dangerous.”)

The president’s remarks on Tuesday were diciest for the news organizations that he identified by name.

“When you see 15,000 people turn on your colleagues behind a rope, yeah, you worry about it,” George Stephanopoulos, the chief anchor for ABC News, told me on Wednesday. Mr. Trump insulted Mr. Stephanopoulos personally in Phoenix while singling out his news organization.

As usual, CNN got the worst of it, facing chants that included “CNN Sucks,” although ABC and CNN both reported that none of their personnel had been threatened physically.

I have to admit that I had started to wonder in the past few weeks what all the presidential inveighing against the news media was actually amounting to. For all of Mr. Trump’s attacks, American journalists have continued their investigative digging, aggressive fact-checking and relentless reporting inside the administration, to impressive effect (See: Flynn, Michael; Trump, Donald Jr.; and, most recently, Icahn, Carl, among many other examples).

The anti-media rhetoric would become more ominous, I thought with a sense of dread, if, say, the Justice Department decided to issue subpoenas more freely in federal leak prosecutions to compel reporters to divulge their sources, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has suggested it might.

But to dismiss Mr. Trump’s rhetoric would be to disregard the risk of violence that comes with the kind of presidential incitement we saw Tuesday night.

It would also mean disregarding an element of presidential leadership that we are all taught in grammar school: its broad influence — how it can set a tone for others to follow.

Yes, mistrust of the media was growing even before Mr. Trump emerged on the political scene. But this much is unmistakable: The president is significantly adding to what is, without question, the worst anti-press atmosphere I’ve seen in 25 years in journalism, and real, chilling consequences have surfaced, not just in the United States, but around the world.

Look at how The People’s Daily of China disputed reports about the torture that the human rights lawyer Xie Yang said he had endured at the hands of government interrogators, calling it “Fake News,” and how Cambodia threatened to expel foreign news organizations, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, because of Mr. Trump’s assertions that reporters were dishonest.

“It’s providing cover for repression around the world,” said Courtney Radsch, the director for advocacy at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The committee has generally focused on reporters abroad, but last month it started a new website, “U.S. Press Freedom Tracker,” to monitor episodes involving journalists in this country. Its lead items on Wednesday were about attacks on journalists in Charlottesville from both white nationalists and counterprotesters aligned with the so-called antifa movement.

Financing for the site came partly from $50,000 that Representative Greg Gianforte, Republican of Montana, donated to the committee as part of his settlement with Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian whom Mr. Gianforte body-slammed this year when Mr. Jacobs approached him with questions. (Mr. Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in June.)

Some of the most disturbing moves against the press this year stem from a new brand of anti-media vigilantism. And this has been a particularly bad week for that, too.

Allow me to direct you to Martin Shkreli, whom a Brooklyn jury convicted this month of security fraud related to a stock scheme involving a pharmaceutical company he co-founded, Retrophin. But you probably know Mr. Shkreli from his company Turing Pharmaceuticals’s outrageous increasing of prices on a drug that helps people with compromised immune systems fight parasitic infections.

On Wednesday, Business Insider reported that Mr. Shkreli was developing websites devoted to reporters at CNBC, Vice, Vanity Fair and several other organizations, filling them with politically tinged attacks. He said it was justified because, in his view, the subjects of his animosity didn’t qualify as journalists.

Further cementing this week as a dark one for American journalism, a reporter at ProPublica, Julia Angwin, said on Twitter that an attack on her email account had rendered it inoperable. Similar attacks hit the reporters who worked with her on an article published over the weekend that detailed how major technology companies were facilitating the financing of groups identified as extremists by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The attacks on ProPublica were so intense that they caused the entire staff to lose access to incoming email for five or six hours on Tuesday, the journalism organization’s president, Richard Tofel, told me.

“I assume something like this is designed to prevent these people from doing their jobs,” he said. “And we have every intention to continue to do our jobs.”

And that was the answer, of course; it has been all year, the year before that and so on.

“At some level,” as Mr. Stephanopoulos told me, “that’s all we can do.”

He added: “You have to trust that if we do our job and do it well and do it with integrity and don’t make mistakes, that in the end, the sort of fundamental idea behind the First Amendment — that the truth will out — will actually take place.”

What seemed to particularly sting on Wednesday was the way that Mr. Trump had impugned journalists’ patriotism.

“Claim bias. Fine. Claim elitism. Fine,” Mr. VandeHei of Axios wrote on Twitter. “But to say reporters erase America’s heritage, don’t love America, turn off cameras to hide truth, are to blame for racial tension, is just plain wrong.”

Anyone with a passing interest in history knows that the founders viewed an independent press as essential to democracy. Talk about heritage.