Katy Tur felt the crowd turn. As Donald Trump scolded the NBC reporter from the stage, calling her “little Katy” because he didn’t like her coverage, the Trump supporters around her began to feel “like a large animal, angry and unchained.” The Secret Service felt the tension too: Agents took the unusual step of escorting her to her car.
The December 2015 speech in Mount Pleasant, N.Y. was just a preview of things to come. Since Trump’s election, the attacks on reporters have gotten physical. On Thursday, Republican Greg Gianforte won a Montana congressional election despite being charged with misdemeanor assault the night before for an audiotaped assault on a reporter who had asked about Republicans’ healthcare plan.
“That audio made me cheer,” one Montana voter told a CNN reporter.
Donald Trump has never roughed up a reporter. But free-speech advocates say his attacks on the media have encouraged others to physically lash out.
“Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, coupled with his constant complaints about so-called fake news stories and entire news outlets, creates a toxic atmosphere that emboldens others to attack — even physically attack — journalists,” said University of Florida professor Clay Calvert and director of the school’s First Amendment Project.
“Basically, Trump has declared it open season on any journalist who dares to disagree with him or his policies,” Calvert told TheWrap. “Other politicians are following suit.”
Trump’s defenders say to blame him for someone else’s actions is absurd.
“If Gianforte loses Thursday’s special election in Montana, he will deserve to lose it,” Breitbart’s Joel B. Pollak said before the voting. “At the same time, nothing justifies the mainstream media’s effort to blame President Donald Trump for what happened. And the media’s hypocrisy is evident in their failure to blame President Barack Obama when Democrats used violence in similar cases.”
But Obama never attacked reporters the way Trump has.
Trump also reportedly instructed then-FBI director James Comey to investigate and jail reporters for publishing leaked information. Of his seven speech-related lawsuits targeting his critics over the past 30 years, four have been against news outlets.
Politicians have always had a love-hate relationship with the press. (“I’m not a critic of the media,” Republican Sen. John McCain joked to Seth Meyers this week. “I hate ‘em, but I’m not a critic of them.”) But Trump’s critics say he incites violence against the press in a way more reminiscent of a fascist despot than an elected leader in a democracy.
“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the demonizing rhetoric that we’ve seen since the presidential campaign began is starting to have an effect on others, whether they’re candidates, security guards or other officials,” said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Leslie told TheWrap that the attacks on reporters “do not prove that things have fundamentally changed,” but added, “the recent incidents are certainly alarming.”
Last week, John M. Donnelly, a 56-year-old reporter for CQ Roll Call said that as he “strolled in an unthreatening way toward FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to pose a question, two guards pinned Donnelly against the wall with the backs of their bodies until O’Rielly had passed.” Donnelly said he was escorted out of the building after he tried to question O’Reilly, who occupies one of the Republican seats on the FCC.
The FCC apologized to Donnelly, as did O’Rielly on Twitter.
Just over two weeks ago, Dan Heyman, a 54-year-old West Virginia newspaper reporter, was arrested for persistently questioning Tom Price, Trump’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, as Price walked through the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston.
In March, an OC Weekly reporter and two photographers said they were assaulted by Trump supporters at a rally in Huntington Beach.
An article by the Columbia Journalism Review condemned Gianforte’s alleged assault of the Guardian reporter, saying, “Trump’s rhetoric from the White House–the largest bully pulpit in the world — has implicitly condoned such behavior.”
“Gianforte’s words in the moment, coupled with his campaign’s response to the allegations afterward, paint an alarming picture of a venomous media climate in which the most mundane acts of journalism have been politicized,” CJR wrote.
After his win Thursday, Gianforte apologized to Jacobs.
“When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it,” he said at a victory party. “That’s the Montana way. Last night I made a mistake and I took an action that I can’t take back and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I am sorry.”
But he still won.