Deep Dive

The Alarming Rise in Verbal and Physical Threats to the Press

Many presidents have had contentious relationships with the press. President John Adams’ 1798 Sedition Act made publishing anything critical of the government illegal, and President Theodore Roosevelt tried to sue the press for unfavorable coverage, while other leaders have tried to control the flow of information. However, the animosity towards the press fostered by former president Donald Trump is considered unprecedented. In recent years, journalists in the U.S. have faced increased physical and verbal attacks by public officials and agencies.

For news, analysis, history & legal background read on.

News & Updates

March 18, 2021: Journalist Faces Charges for Lingering After Dispersal Order

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is charging a freelance journalist with failing to follow an order to disperse issued during the city’s World Series celebrations in October 2020.

Lexis-Olivier Ray, a freelance journalist, covered the chaotic celebrations for the news website L.A. Taco. Ray was not one of the 18 people arrested that night. Only months later, in February 2021, did he receive a letter in the mail notifying him that he was facing criminal charges. 

According to The Los Angeles Times, Ray believes the department is retaliating against him for posting a video showing LAPD officers using violent tactics against him and others. One video showed an LAPD officer tackling Ray to the ground while he screamed “press.” The video has been viewed more than 400,000times and led the LAPD to open an internal investigation into police tactics. 

“I find it difficult to believe that there isn’t a connection between my recent investigative reporting and the notice that I received from the City Attorney’s office,” Ray wrote in an email to The Times. “It’s disheartening to learn that I was the only person charged with failure to disperse that night as I am just working in good faith to keep our communities informed and hold our local officials accountable.”

The Los Angeles Times

December 14, 2020: In a Year of Nationwide Protests, Journalists Face Unprecedented Arrests

A new report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) examines the impact of President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press and concludes that the president’s actions not only threaten democracy in the U.S., but also endanger press freedom across the globe.

“The Trump administration has stepped up prosecutions of news sources, interfered in the business of media owners, harassed journalists crossing U.S. borders, and empowered foreign leaders to restrict their own media,” the report says. 

The CPJ report cites numerous attempts by Trump undermine the press including his recent defamation lawsuits against The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN; his unsuccessful attempts to take away White House press credentials from two reporters; and his efforts to retaliate against Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post and Amazon, by attempting to interfere with regulations that affect his businesses.  

Written by Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor for The Washington Post, the report draws from more than forty interviews with journalists, press freedom advocates, journalism school deans, media lawyers, journalism professors, and Trump administration officials, as well as data from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that has data on the number of arrests, physical attacks, and investigations of journalists.

Downie, who worked for the Post in the 1970s when the paper broke the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency, told the Post that he hoped the report helped people see “what’s going on.”

“People can see Trump’s attacks on the press, but not really know their impact” or scope, he told the Post. “You can be aware of the drip, drip, drip of this every day, but not see the whole picture, which is shocking.” 

In the U.S., Trump’s repeated attacks on the credibility of the press have left many Americans doubting whether even fact-checked news sources can be trusted. This is particularly true among Republicans, who consistently express distrust for media outlets more often than Democrats, according to a 2019 Pew Research study on U.S. Media Polarization cited in the CPJ report.

CPJ    U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

April 1, 2020: Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press Report that Physical Attacks on Journalists Have Increased

While President Donald Trump continued to disparage the media, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP) reported that journalists have also faced an increased number of attacks by public officials and agencies.

According to the RCFP’s 2019 U.S. Press Freedom Tracker report, protests continue to be the most dangerous place for journalists. In 2019, 34 reporter were attacked, with two of these assaults occurring during Trump rallies.

Additionally, while there were fewer arrests of journalists for the year—nine compared to 11 in 2018 and 38 in 2017—however, the number of subpoenas rose from 27 in 2019, compared to 25 in 2018 and eight in 2017. 

The border between Mexico and the U.S. was a trouble spot for journalists, many of whom complained that they were detained and questioned by Customs and Border Protection officials. 

RCFP

January 28, 2020: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Punishes NPR Reporter After Heated Exchange with Colleague

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially barred a veteran reporter for National Public Radio (NPR) from flying with him during an upcoming trip to Europe and Central Asia on Monday, January 27th.

Pompeo removed Michele Kelemen from a list of reporters allowed to travel with him in an apparent act of retaliation against the news organization after Kelemen’s colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, got into a heated exchange with Pompeo. The argument with Kelly took place on Saturday January 25th and was about Pompeo’s treatment of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and the circumstances surrounding her removal.

Following Kelemen’s removal, the State Department Correspondent’s Association (SDCA) issued a statement urging the State Department to reconsider its decision.

“Michele is a consummate professional who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades,” the statement said. “The State Department press corps has a long tradition of accompanying secretaries of state on their travels and we find it unacceptable to punish an individual member of our association.”

The State Department has not responded to requests for comment from PoliticoBBC, and Vox.

Politico

December 16, 2019: County Commissioner’s Wife Attacked a Reporter, Poured Soda Over Her Head

Abbey Winters, the wife the Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters, assaulted a reporter during a county budget meeting on Friday, December 13th. According to a police report and The Summerville News, the wife poured a drink on AllOnGeorgia reporter Casie Bryant’s head and then told her that she “deserved” it.

 After the episode, Bryant remained quiet while others confronted Winters for her behavior. 

According to The Washington Post, Bryant had not ever written a critical story about the county commissioner. Instead, the commissioner’s wife might have been motivated by a Facebook post where Bryant appeared to criticize a trip the official took to France.

“Fresh off his trip to Paris, he’s ready to talk about the budget to the PUBLIC,” the post read.

The commissioner and his wife told the police that the incident was not intentional, and that Winters “ accidentally” poured the drink on Bryant.

Delvis Dutton, the owner of AllOnGeorgia criticized Winter’s behavior and subsequent excuse in a statement published on the site.

“The media plays an integral role in ensuring transparency, and these types of antics are dangerous to open government and a disservice to the people it serves,” Dutton said.

After the meeting, Winters turned herself into the Chattooga County Jail, and was released on a $1,520 property bond. She has been charged with simple battery and disorderly conduct.

Washington Post   AllonGerogia.com

November 21, 2018: Knight First Amendment Institute Suing U.S. Intelligence Agencies Over Khashoggi’s Murder 

The Knight First Amendment Institute is suing U.S. intelligence agencies to learn if they complied with a “duty to warn” journalist Jamal Khashoggi about threats to his life.

When an intelligence agency becomes aware of a threat of kidnapping or murder, it is obligated to inform the intended victim, and document and maintain records of its actions. The Knight Institute filed a FOIA request last month seeking records related to the murder, but none of the intelligence agencies have provided it with those documents.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, says that before Khashoggi’s murder on October 2, 2018, U.S. intelligence agencies had apparently intercepted communications in which Saudi officials discussed a plan to kidnap Khashoggi. It is not clear, however, what the agencies learned from these conversations, or what steps they took to warn Khashoggi of the threats.

The Committee to Protect Journalists joined Knight in calling for the release of the records.

“The government must explain what it knew of the threat to Khashoggi before his killing, and what, if anything, it did to warn him of that threat,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in a statement.

Complaint  Just Security

May 18, 2018: President Trump: ‘Fake News’ Country’s Biggest Enemy

NBC and CNN, familiar targets for President Trump’s condemnation, were called out on his Twitter account for their coverage of the North Korea summit. Trump tweeted a similar statement last year, calling the press “the enemy of the American people.”

A Trump 2020 campaign official tweeted that Jim Acosta, CNN‘s White House Correspondent, should have his press credentials suspended for asking Trump and Kim a question during the summit’s signing ceremony.

The Hill CNN
March 13th, 2018: Politicians and Other Officials Increasingly Taking Up the Fake News Mantra

The Associated Press reports that the governor of Maine, a New Mexico congressional candidate, the Georgia secretary of state and the vice chairman of Trump’s now-disbanded voter fraud commission all leaned on “fake news” in deriding opponents. Others have also brandished the term as a weapon against journalists doing investigative reporting. As “fake news” become more ubiquitous, press freedom is diminished say experts.

Associated Press
February 15th, 2018: Fake Tweets Shake Journalists Reporting on Florida School Shooting

Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris was one of the first to reach out to students about what was going on at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School as a shooter rained chaos on campus. Soon after, doctored tweets attributed to her gained steam and the twitter universe exploded with accusations Harris was racist. “I had literally thousands of messages and they just filled up my mentions and DMs with terrible, racist, sexist, horrific, graphic death threats,” Harris told Buzzfeed. A report last year by the news service indicated Twitter was failing to crackdown on online harassment.

Buzzfeed Buzzfeed

Winter 2018: What It Means To Be A Journalist In The Era of Trump

CJR reviews what has happened to journalists over the past year – and what may be in store.

CJR
February 7, 2018: Journalists Need Legislated Protection Says House Rep

With attacks both verbal and physical against journalists on the rise, California Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell has introduced the Journalist Protection Act. “I seek to protect the CNN journalist as much as I seek to protect the Fox News journalist,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

Hollywood Reporter

January 19, 2018: CJR Looks at Trump’s Press Freedom Record

Joel Simon reviews 2017 and finds it alarming that, “The confrontations between Trump and reporters covering the White House make great television and define perceptions in the US and around the world. And it’s no small matter that several members of the White House press corps, including Jim Acosta and April Ryan, have received death threats.”

CJR
January 2, 2018: Trump Ally Threats Press, Temporarily Blocked on Twitter

A Trump ally, former Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr., was blocked temporarily from Twitter after a now deleted tweet called for violence against the media.

CNN
November 14, 2017: Journalists Aaron Cantú and Alexei Wood Await Trail Results In Rioting Case

Two of the nine journalists arrested during the inauguration day protests (of the 234 arrested in total) – Aaron Cantú, a staff reporter at The Santa Fe Reporter in New Mexico who worked as a freelancer in January, and Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist and videographer based in San Antonio – were charged with various felony charges related to rioting. Both men await trial results in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and if convicted, may face decades long sentences. Wood posted a Facebook Live video that showed him running with protestors which may be used against him. Freedom of press supporters says journalists cannot be charged for covering events. Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists, told the New York Times, “Criminal laws should require criminal intent, and so if a journalist is covering the story, that does not constitute criminal intent.”

New York Times The Hill US News & World Report

April 27, 2017 Felony Rioting – Superseding Indictment

November 13, 2017: How A Two Year Crusade Against the Media Has Helped Roy Moore Deflect Abuse Allegations

Politico posits that the relentless tirade of “fake news” allegation against the media has enabled Roy Moore to defend himself against allegations of sextual abuse.

Politico
October 31, 2017: Aggressive Police Takedown of Reporter Leaves Many Wondering Why

Video capturing the arrest of Shareblue Media’s Mike Stark show police officers aggressively confronting Stark. Fairfax County police are investigating. Did Stark break the law or was he being targeted and silenced?

Washington Post
October 2, 2017: CJR Discusses What News Outlets Do When Journalists Get Arrested

When St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk was arrested for covering the September 17th protest after the decision to acquit Jason Stockley, the white ex-police officer who fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, in 2011, editors responded aggressively.

CJR
September 4, 2017: Trump Government Agency Calls Erroneous Hurricane Coverage “Yellow Journalism”

Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker was singled out for erroneously reporting on fragility of the toxic sites in Houston affected by Hurricane Harvey. According to the AP piece, “Houston metro area has more than a dozen Superfund sites, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as being among America’s most intensely contaminated places. Many are now flooded, with the risk that waters were stirring dangerous sediment.” The EPA Associate Administrator, Liz Bowman, responded, “Once again, in an attempt to mislead Americans, the Associated Press is cherry-picking facts, as EPA is monitoring Superfund sites around Houston and we have a team of experts on the ground working with our state and local counterparts responding to Hurricane Harvey. Anything to the contrary is yellow journalism.” –

Politico

August 2, 2017: U.S. Press Freedom Tracker Launches

Nearly two dozen press freedom organizations joined to track abuses against the press.

Freedom of the Press Foundation
July 7, 2017: CNN Bearing the Brunt of Trump’s Ire

Some analysts speculate the Trump could hold up the AT&T / Time Warner deal because of a long-simmering rift with CNN. Trump took to Twitter several times in early July calling out CNN as “Fake News” and “Fraud News” and including a meme of him bashing a CNN reporter.

Hollywood Reporter


May 16, 2017: Did Trump Encourage Comey to Jail Journalists?

Allegations that Trump asked Comey to jail journalists who published classified information continue to build. In a statement, Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said “no president gets to jail journalists…Reporters are protected by judges and juries, by a congress that relies on them to stay informed, and by a Justice Department that for decades has honored the role of a free press by spurning prosecutions of journalists for publishing leaks of classified information.”
Poynter
February 24, 2017: Trump—Press is “A Great Danger to Our Country”

President Trump, after criticizing the press in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, took to Twitter to call out the press as a “great danger.”

New York Times

February 24, 2017: President Trump Disparaged the Press

In an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the President continued his attacks against the media.

CNN

February 17, 2017: Trump—Press is “the Enemy of the American People”

Taking to Twitter, President Trump called the news media “the enemy of the American people. SICK” He quickly deleted the tweet and then replaced it with something similar.

New York Times
February 27, 2017: President Bush Defends the Press

On the Today Show, Matt Lauer asked Bush: “Did you ever consider the media to be the enemy of the American people?” The President replied: “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” Go to 2:15 of the interview.

February 13, 2017: A Reporter Claims Threat of “Dossier” Used Against Her

A reporter for American Urban Radio Networks claimed that Omarosa Manigault, a communications official in the White House, “physically intimidated” her and asserted that officials had collected negative information about her.

Washington Post
February 6, 2017: President Trump Blames Judge and Media for Any Future Terrorist Attack

The President attacked U.S. District Judge James L. Robart after he temporarily blocked the White House immigration order that denied entry to persons from seven countries with majority Muslim populations. In a speech, Trump also blamed the media.

Washington Post
January 25, 2017: Stephen Bannon Calls News Media the “Opposition Party”

Chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” He called the news media “the opposition party.”

New York Times
October 11, 2016: Guide to Attacks Against the Press

Media Matters provided a thorough list of attacks against news organizations and individual journalists as of October 11, 2016

Media Matters

History & Legal Cases

January 24, 2017: Trump Not the First President to Threaten Press

The Federalist points out that journalists have been hounded in different historical periods. Times were tough under President Adams whose 1798 Sedition Act made publishing anything critical of the government illegal. Theodore Roosevelt tried to sue newspapers for their coverage of the Panama Canal. Other presidents have restricted press access and played favorites with different outlets. So today’s press then seems to be and states “hyperventilating” according to the Federalist and needs some perspective.

The Federalist
July 10, 2006: Those “Nattering Nabobs”

David Remnick of The New Yorker described attacks on the press highlighted by Vice President Spiro Agnew. Remnick wrote: President Nixon “dispatched Agnew to map out a cultural description of another enemy, the op-ed unfriendlies and the network mandarins of what was beginning to be called the media. The views of “this little group of men” who “live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City,” Agnew noted darkly, “do not represent the views of America.” He inscribed himself in history, and in famous-quotation anthologies, forever, when he said, “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club—the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

New Yorker

December 14, 1972: President Richard Nixon Calls Press “the Enemy”

President Nixon, in a taped conversation with national security adviser Henry Kissinger, said: “Never forget. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.”

New York Times

Analysis & Opinion

June 2, 2020: Journalists Targeted by Police While Covering Protest

As protests have broken out accross the country in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, journalist covering the protests are being targeted by the police, writes the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times.

The Neiman Lab, which covers trends in journalism, reported that journalists had been attacked more than 110 since May 2020, the Board asserts.

LA Times 

March 19, 2020: Trump’s Latest Attack on the Media is More Heinous Than Usual

Trump’s complaints about how unfair the press has been about his coronavirus response is “self-pitying,” opines Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent. Furthermore, Sargent writes, Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus” is a thinly disguised xenophobic attempt to “whip up a nationalistic panic” to divert attention the media’s aggressive reporting on his failure to address the pandemic.

Washington Post

September 23, 2019: The Growing Threat to Journalism Around the World

A.G. Sulzeberger, publisher of The New York Times, writes that increased attacks on journalists around the world are because of the “fundamental role they play in ensuring a free and informed society.” Sulzberger calls out President Donald Trump for undermining American’s trust in the news media, and encouraging foreign leaders to do the same to their citizens.

NY Times 

August 4, 2018: Simon Tisdall: “Dangerous International Ramifications”

Simon Tisdall writes in The Guardian that President Trump’s war against the media not only threatens the integrity of truth, but gives license to creating an environment of actual danger for journalists all around the world.

The Guardian
February 26, 2017: “A Phrase with a Fraught History”

Andrew Higgins of The New York Times analysis the history of the phrase “enemy of the people.” Higgins wrote: “It is difficult to know if President Trump is aware of the historic resonance of the term, a label generally associated with despotic communist governments rather than democracies.”

New York Times
February 18, 2017: David Remnick on “Enemy of the People”

Remnick wrote: “When the leaders of the Bolshevik movement—Lenin, Stalin, and the rest—used the term vrag naroda, an ‘enemy of the people,’ it was an ominous epithet that encompassed a range of “wreckers” and “socially dangerous elements.”

New Yorker
November 13, 2016: Floyd Abrams on Threats to the Press

The prominent First Amendment lawyer said that President Trump “could lead the public to be so anti-press” that such an attitude could “limit its ability to do its constitutionally protected role.”

Mediate