Medium: Trump Rhetoric Puts Journalists at Risk

This is an excerpt from a guest post by Helio Fred Garcia on Medium, originally published on July 9, 2020.

Should reporters be executed?

Donald Trump apparently thinks so. As reported by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, in his book The Room Where It Happened, Trump said, “reporters should be executed. They are scumbags.” A former advisor to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis confirms that he witnessed a similar exchange between the president and Secretary Mattis.

This is the most recent example of Trump’s incendiary language escalating, and it is putting journalists’ lives at risk.

The Pattern

What began as Trump calling news stories and organizations Fake News escalated to calling journalists Enemies of the People, which in turn escalated to saying that The New York Times had committed “a virtual act of treason.” Now he calls for journalists to be executed.

I am a communication and leadership professor and have spent the two years studying Trump’s language in preparation for a book that launched last week. I have documented twelve kinds of communication that historically have influenced people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.

One of the forms of communication that leads to violence is discrediting journalists and other sources of objective information. Another is conflating the leader’s identity with the nation. And a third is demonizing those the leader sees as criticizing him or her. Trump uses all three of these, plus the other nine forms.

One of the trends I document is that such language diminishes society’s capacity for empathy, so that acts of violence that previously would have been unacceptable become normalized.

Demonizing Journalists Leads to Violence Against Them

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times warned a year ago in The Wall Street Journal (yes, you read that correctly) that, “the president’s rhetorical attacks continue to foster a climate in which trust in journalists is eroding and violence against them is growing.”

A year after that warning, we have seen unprecedented levels of violence against American journalists by police and citizens. This became most visible during the civil unrest that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd. Data compiled by U.S. Press Freedom Tracker notes that between May 26 and June 3, 45 journalists were arrested; 180 were assaulted, 145 of them by police. Another 40 had their equipment damaged.

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