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Thursday, October 25, 2018


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How The War Against The Press Went From Bias To Enemy of The People


On Wednesday morning, a pipe bomb was delivered to CNN’s New York headquarters, triggering an evacuation of the building. The package was addressed to former CIA director John Brennan via CNN and was one of six devices sent to prominent democratic figures including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder and George Soros.

The first moments of CNN’s evacuation — where employees could be scene scuttling hurriedly out of frame — were caught on tape during the network’s live broadcast. For many journalists watching, it seemed a real world manifestation of a dark strain of anti-press rhetoric.

As of this writing, authorities have not identified a suspect or motive for the foiled attacks. And while its entirely plausible that investigations undermine any or all of the myriad theories floating around the internet, some version of this scenario — of attempted mass violence against members of the media — has felt increasingly plausible over the last two years, as aggression toward the press has become more sinister and widespread.

It should be said that very few outside of the extreme echelons (Neo Nazi organizations, etc.) of the pro-Trump media have openly advocated for direct violence against the press. It should also be said that, in the span of just a few years, critiques of mainstream media have shifted dramatically from 'out of touch coastal elites' to 'enemy of the people.' Likewise, rhetoric has shifted from frustration with perceived media bias to pervasive distrust to outright contempt. Across the fringes, individual journalists have gone from from 'biased' to 'liars' to malicious and dangerous soldiers in an information war; criminal elements to be silenced. This newsletter is just one attempt to map a portion of that rhetoric.

The conversation around this shift tends to center around its loudest voice: a president whose most unwavering ideology is to destroy what he says is a deceitful mainstream media. The examples are well-trod by now: Trump berating reporters on the campaign trail;  his gesturing to the media pen to goad his supporters to heckle the press; his outbursts during infrequent live press conferences; his criticism of anonymous sources as strictly made up; and the myriad “fake news” tweets.

During the campaign, Trump’s anti-media rants were a helpful strategy: a way to deflect an onslaught of bad press, first by claiming media bias and then by challenging the validity of the stories and the institutions that ran them. But if “fake news” began as news cycle dodging tactic, it quickly shifted into something closer to a campaign promise, largely since it delighted his supporters. To back Trump, the then-candidate suggested, was also to reject a mainstream media, which wasn’t just out of touch with real, Trump-loving Americans, but actively disdainful of them.

It worked. Fringe elements of the far right grew emboldened by the rhetoric. Memes of Jewish journalists being Photoshopped into gas chambers became standard fare for online harassment; at a campaign event in late 2016, a reporter filmed Trump supporters using the term “Lügenpresse,” which means “lying press” a phrase popular in Nazi Germany. Trump himself never used such extreme language in his media rants, but he did amplify those who did through his Twitter account (throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump retweeted three separate users with the words "alt-right" in their bios; He retweeted "WhiteGenocideTM," and four with "nationalist" in their bios. One account that he retweeted — a bot, it turns out — had the phrase "#GoebbelsMindset" in the bio — a reference to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister in Hitler's Germany).



Trump went back to the well and the language grew darker. Specifically, the president’s February 2017 CPAC speech marked a turning point in his categorization of the media, describing the press as "the enemy of the people." Trump followed this up with a tweet calling CNN and the New York Times “a great danger to our country.”

This reframing is notable in that it casts the press as not only an oppositional force to the pro-Trumpers of the world, but as a fundamental threat to their existence and, more broadly, a threat to the existence of the American people. In a rally in Phoenix in 2017, Trump told an adoring crowd of supporters that  "I really think [the media] don't like our country. I really believe that.” He suggested that the press "give[s] a platform to hate groups" and "turns a blind eye to the gang violence on our streets, the failures of our public schools, the destruction of our wealth." The language was hardly veiled. "They're bad people," he told the crowd, adding, "if you want to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media."

At that same Phoenix speech, Trump suggested the press weren’t just after him, but Trump voters. “The media can attack me,” he said. “But where I draw the line is when they attack you, which is what they do. When they attack the decency of our supporters.”

The result is a cycle that feeds itself simply by virtue of the media reporting on the president. Here’s how it works: Trump lies (at a rally or via a tweet or press conference), the press reports that he lies, Trump tells his supporters the media is unjustly attacking him, his supporters believe it. News organizations then are perpetuating and fueling Trump’s claims simply by amplifying and checking his statements.

But while Trump and his advisors may be the most powerful megaphone, the animosity toward the media is equally fueled and fomented by a loud and relentless pro-Trump media ecosystem.

When it comes to Trump and the pro-Trump media, it's a bit hard to tell who's programming whom. Trump frequently serves as an assignment editor for the pro-Trump media and the online apparatus downloads and spits back his talking points. The same is true in reverse — Trump seizes on the rhetoric and well-worn narratives developed over time by the pro-Trump media ecosystem.

Though it may not have been intentional in his Phoenix speech, turning press coverage of a candidate into a personal attack on individual voters is a tried and true pro-Trump media tactic. Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the pro-Trump website Town Hall — whose pieces have headlines like “The Mainstream Media Doesn’t Deserve Our Respect or Our Trust” and “Liberal Americans Hate America First Because They Hate Normal Americans” — has achieved great acclaim in the pro-Trump media sphere for his catchphrase “Liberals hate you.” Some variation of this line has become a rallying cry. When comedian and then-CNN host Kathy Griffin posed for a photograph holding a fake decapitated Trump head, the pro-Trump media decried the tasteless spectacle as a threat of physical harm. “If you’re a Trump supporter, Hollywood wants to murder you,” pro-Trump media personality Mike Cernovich tweeted last July. “Media will not decry this. They want us dead,” he tweeted.

Similarly, last December in Alabama, at a campaign event for Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, speakers including Steve Bannon and the alt-right fringe candidate Paul Nehlen, lambasted the press for reporting on Moore’s sexual abuse allegations. “They're trying to give Judge Moore a high-tech lynching!" one speaker told the crowd. Another speaker argued that the media "hate you and hold everything in contempt that you hold dear, including your way of life and your precious Christian faith." The message was clear: the press is not just an enemy, but an existential threat.


After Griffin, the pro-Trump media equated the fake photoshoot beheading to the grisly, murderous tactics of the Islamic State and started the hashtag #CNNIsISIS. The conspiracy site Infowars started a contest offering $1,000 to “anyone who is seen on TV with a ‘œCNN is ISIS’ t-shirt or sign.” The campaign took off, with homemade #CNNisISIS shirts appearing at Trump rallies across the country.

Around the same time that the #CNNIsISIS campaign was in full-swing, I had a conversation with a CNN employee who was genuinely concerned about escalating violent rhetoric and the safety of their newsroom. "How long before somebody busts in here with a rifle after seeing that hashtag everywhere and starts shooting thinking we're really a terrorist organization?" they said. "I'm thinking about that every time I walk through our lobby now."

In far flung corners of the internet last summer, young pro-Trump teens plotted meme wars against CNN. It didn’t take long for them to grow more sinister. In a Discord chat room called "The Great Meme War," roughly 100 users spent hours trading racist and anti-semitic anti-CNN memes, and plotting ways to "destroy CNN." At one point, a troll posted a link to an alleged floorplan of CNN's Atlanta headquarters. “We can get into the north tower,” the anonymous posted (according to the chat logs, the trolls eventually decided against any real world actions).


In the event of actual political violence, the pro-Trump media often seizes upon the opportunity to lay blame on the mainstream media as a radicalizing agent or, conversely, for failing to adequately cover violence against Trump supporters. When a politically-motivated shooter opened fire on congressional Republicans at a baseball field in Virginia, the pro-Trump media, placed the blame on its favorite target. Roughly 90 minutes after the attack, Infowars' Paul Joseph Watson published an article alleging the shooting was a "media-inspired terror attack."

Trump uses a similar tactic during his frequent rallies where he veers off script adding winking endorsements and piling on the press just sentences after calling for unity. Yesterday, despite condemning the foiled attacks (by retweeting Vice President Pence’s condemnation), Trump suggested at a rally that the media “stop the endless hostility." Of course these remarks and deflections of blame frequently whip up and further escalate hostility toward the media.

If you’re looking for it, the anti-media rhetoric continues to pop up with alarming frequency and in unexpected ways. In August 2017, the NRA released a video of spokeswoman Dana Loesch lambasting the New York Times calling it a “untrustworthy, dishonest rag.” Speaking directly to camera, the rifle association spokeswoman ominously suggested that the organization was “coming for” the Times. It was far from her only incendiary comment — earlier this year hen Loesch suggested that the media be “curb stomped” on NRA TV. Last November, after facing pressure from the Radio Television Digital News Association, Walmart pulled a t-shirt advocating violence against journalists from its online store. The association warned that the shirt, which read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” would "inflame the passions of those who either don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media”.


Perhaps most alarming though are the cumulative effects of the continuing escalation against the media. Aside from increased anger and fear among many, the repeated rhetoric has dramatically changed the acceptable level of public disdain for the press. At recent Trump rallies reporters have spotted attendees wearing “Fuck The Media” t-shirts hurling insults at mainstream journalists in the press pen. Trump, meanwhile, continues to endorse anti-media sentiment; last week in Montana, the president winkingly endorsed congressman Greg Gianforte’s 2017 assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.  “Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my kind of...He was my guy,” Trump told the audience.

This comfort with anti-media rhetoric has led to an uptick in harassment of journalists both on and offline and even brazen threats. Earlier this summer, just before an unrelated newsroom shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, professional troll and fired Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos replied to multiple requests for comment from journalists with the statement, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight." After the Annapolis shooting, Yiannopoulos told reporters the comment was just “a troll.” For others, the language is decidedly less ironic. This August, a California man was arrested after making 14 menacing calls to the Boston Globe and threatening a mass shooting and echoing the Trump statement that journalists were “the enemy of the people.” Outside the courthouse during his hearing, he elected to make a statement, telling reporters that “America was saved when Donald J. Trump was elected president.” Milo, for his part, repeated the behavior this week. “Just catching up with news of all these pipe bombs,” Yiannopoulos wrote in a Thursday Instagram post. “Disgusting and sad (that they didn’t go off, and the daily beast didn’t get one).”

Again, aside of the far fringes,  the pro-Trump media has not advocated for direct violence against the press. At a June 2017 event, pro-Trump media personalities went so far as to hold a Rally For Peace near the White House to demonstrate their message was, quite literally, harmless. The group decried alleged far left violence from groups like Antifa and asked mainstream media journalists (not in attendance) to sign a “no violence pledge.” Among the signs on display in the crowd, two read “CNN Is ISIS.”

The idea shift from a biased media to a dangerous media doesn’t come from one source or even from direct calls to action. Instead, it comes from a political ethos that equates criticism fact checking and debunking as hostility. It is also the product of repetition — a message that, once repeated over and over again, begins to take on new meaning and urgency. Gradually, it shifts perception and changes norms, lowering the social cost of shouting “Lugenpresse” or ironically calling for journalists to be shot. And while its loudest voices might not have deeply sinister motives, that doesn’t stop the language from emboldening those with the worst intentions.

Okay, that's it for today! Tell me what you thought (email me at charlie.warzel@buzzfeed.com) and send suggestions, questions, or things you'd like me to look into/discuss in these emails. This is an experiment/work in progress and your input is so appreciated!


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