On Sunday morning, someone took aim at the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader, a major newspaper in Kentucky, and apparently shot the place up. Several windows were shattered and what appear to be bullet holes were found in other spots on the building, including in some windows on the press room. This was accompanied by a bomb threat at a newspaper processing plant down the road owned by another newspaper.
It may have been a random act of violent vandalism, but I’m not so sure.
A friend of mind works there. For obvious reasons I won’t name him. He’s shaken. He should be. He’s gotten threatening phone calls before — as a former small town journalist, I can say from experience that irrationally angry readers are a part of the job — but in recent months things have escalated to a frightening degree, up to and including overt death threats.
“I can’t stress enough the level of vitriol directed at us in a daily basis,” he told me. “We’re traitors, we’re enemies of the American people, we’re lying scum. I really do fear some good Americans are going to take matters into their own hands and kill some of us.”
Editor Peter Baniak said not to assume just yet that this was a targeted attack, cautioning people against speculation — “let’s get the facts before we overreact,” he said — but it’s difficult not to come to that conclusion. Not only had my friend there recently received a call from someone telling him they’d come down to the offices and “fuck him up,” today’s climate is not one of mere skepticism of the press, it’s one of open hostility.
Greg Gianforte, a Congressional candidate from Montana, physically attacked a reporter who asked him questions he didn’t want to answer. This isn’t a he-said, she-said. There is an audio recording of the attack, and Fox News reporters at the scene confirmed the account. He was charged with assault. Despite this, not only did tens of thousands of Internet commenters cheer the attack, Gianforte actually won his election. Think about that: we are electing people who act like the so-called “thugs” (dog whistle) they’re supposedly going to crack down on.
A few weeks back, a reporter in Alaska was slapped by a lawmaker there. There is an audio recording of that attack, too.
Another reporter was arrested for asking Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price questions. Yet another reporter was manhandled at the FCC, again for doing their job: asking questions and attempting to hold public officials accountable. And one report suggests that the president wanted to jail journalists (which echoes statements made during his campaign).
All of this in just the last few weeks.
A shooting is a new wrinkle in the escalating attacks on the free press, but it’s hardly a surprising one. It’s been all but encouraged in some circles, including by the man who holds the highest office in the land.
“Since last year’s presidential election, the level of hatred directed at the news media has exploded. There have been arrests of journalists doing their jobs and assaults on journalists doing their jobs,” my friend told me. “And in Kentucky, we have a … governor who has attacked journalists by name and who has urged people to hope for the newspapers to go out of business. So when someone shoots our building, in broad daylight, I can’t help but wonder.”
Wonder he should. The president has called reporters “enemies of the people” and “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” suggesting in January that “they’re going to pay a big price” for reporting things he doesn’t like (in this case, the size of his inauguration crowd). One of his top aides has repeatedly called the media “the opposition party” and said they should “keep its mouth shut.” The president agreed. We’re encouraged to not believe anything that is critical of the current administration, and if we read something critical, we’re to understand that it is coming from the enemy.
Perhaps craziest of all, his senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, said in February, “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see … the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
That’s a real (and frightening) quote.
Comments like these aren’t simple hyperbole that fades away on the wind. They’ve rallied people. When you declare an entire group “enemies of the American people,” there are more than a few who will take that as a call to arms. Read the comments section of any newspaper and you won’t simply see combative discussion, which is par for the course when it comes to political discourse in America. You’ll see naked hostility towards the message bearers that include violent overtones both subtle and overt. These comments are a call to arms, and one some are bound to take literally.
It may have happened in 2011, in fact, when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in an assassination attempt. Not too long prior to the shooting, the political action committee of Sarah Palin circulated a map plastered with crosshairs on the homebases of several democratic representatives, including Giffords.
Whether or not Palin bears any responsibility is an open debate — we’ll also disregard the differences in the way this guy’s violent actions were treated when compared to other politically motivated violent acts, though I suspect you know what I’m alluding to — but at the very least the correlation between the two, coincidental or otherwise, should be troubling. The potent symbolism of crosshairs should be lost on no one (as any Public Enemy fan will tell you).
One shouldn’t have to outline why the press is so important to a free society. It feels ridiculous to have to explain it. It should be self-evident. And yet here we are, in a supposedly free nation where a large portion of the population does not grasp how essential a free and open press is, to the point where they applaud violence against that press. (That many of these people are the same people who gnash their teeth at cartoonists being killed without understanding the disconnect between those two conflicting views is an irony for another piece, along with all that those conflicting views suggest.)
Their primary issue is, of course, that they don’t like reading negative things about someone they support. The possibility that simply reporting the things he says and does may reflect negatively on him doesn’t seem to cross their minds. If he looks bad, it must be the messenger’s fault.
But that’s neither here nor there. In a free society, an open and LOUD press is essential. It’s the very first entry in the Bill of Rights for a reason. Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine helped forge the attitudes that have come to define the notion of being “American” in large part because of their willingness to write and speak loudly, boldly, and against the grain. Tremendous changes for good in this country have come in part through the participation of the media. Your working conditions are civilized and safe in part thanks to muckraking journalism like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which, despite the protestations of industrial interests and even President Theodore Roosevelt (who called Sinclair a “crackpot”), has helped make your life safer and healthier.
A free press isn’t always comfortable. It’s not always pleasant. Sometimes, it delivers a message you don’t want to hear. Sometimes, it asks public officials to answer questions they’d rather avoid.
That’s good and healthy. That’s inherently American.
And yes, sometimes they’re going to get it wrong. That happens, and when it does they should be taken to task for it with equal loudness. A responsible press retracts and/or corrects inaccurate information quickly and without qualification. Most do exactly that. If they don’t call them out on it (assuming you actually have the facts and aren’t just skimming headlines on yet another slanted Facebook forward or meme).
As far as I’m concerned, anyone in public office can and should be questioned with tough, probing questions. Their views, statements, and policies should be reported, even if that reporting makes them look bad. Our duty as Americans is to question authority, not to prop it up, and the press plays an essential role in that. In an era when we’re saturated with sensory input from social media, streaming services, 24-hour television, the Internet, and more, we need the media now more than ever.
None of this is about political party. When former president Barak Obama publicly went after Fox News, he was rightly rebuked by the media for it. “All the networks said, that’s it, you’ve crossed the line,” said CBS News White House correspondent Chip Reid. They were right to say that. Obama was unequivocally wrong. He knew it, too. He backed off.
Today’s president is taking a different tack. Instead, he’s waving the battle flag. Some are responding as expected.
Just two days prior to the shooting at the Lexington Herald-Leader, my friend had brought some loved ones to his office. Small children were among them. It was a pleasant day, near 80 degrees in the middle of spring, in one of the region’s nicest cities, a city known for its thriving arts scene, rich equestrian culture, and thoroughly American bluegrass music. They saw where he worked to help ensure the public, us, know what our elected officials are up to and how it will impact our lives.
Had they come at a different time, perhaps they would have been shot and killed.
This is America in 2017.