We need a federal law to protect journalists from violence
As our president demonizes the free press on a daily basis, this pillar of our democracy — with rights strictly protected by the First Amendment — deserves explicit protection from physical violence.
President Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere. It’s not just about labeling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews — it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging his audience to engage in violence.
He seems to take a page from his late adviser Roy Cohn, who previously had advised Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the ugly anti-communist investigations of the 1950s. President Trump seems to long for the days of purges and blacklists as he calls out reporters and organizations by name, much as McCarthy did before his censure and disgrace.
After regularly condemning the press during his campaign throughout 2016, President Trump tweeted in February 2017 that media outlets are “the enemy of the American people.”
In March 2017, OC Weekly journalists said they were assaulted by demonstrators at a Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach.
In April 2017, the international organization Reporters Without Borders lowered the United States’ ranking in its annual World Press Freedom index to 43rd, citing President Trump’s rhetoric. This is cause for concern, as the United States must not emulate nations in which violence against journalists is more common.
In May 2017, Montana candidate Greg Gianforte — now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives — body-slammed a Guardian reporter to the ground.
In July 2017, President Trump tweeted a short video — doctored from an old Wrestlemania cameo — showing him punching a figure whose head has been replaced by CNN’s logo. It ends with an onscreen restyling of that logo as “FNN: Fraud News Network.” The video, also tweeted via the official @POTUS account, has been viewed 37.9 million times.
“Targeting individual journalists or media outlets, on- or offline, creates a chilling effect and fosters an environment where further harassment, or even physical attack, is deemed acceptable,” Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, stated at the time.
In August 2017, a reporter filming anti-racist counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Va., was attacked. Days later, President Trump retweeted — though soon deleted — a cartoon of a “Trump Train” running over a person with a CNN logo as its head. A few days after that, Trump told supporters at a campaign-style rally that journalists are “sick people,” accused the news media of “trying to take away our history and our heritage,” and questioned their patriotism: “I really think they don’t like our country.”
In December 2017, President Trump retweeted a doctored photo of the CNN logo in a splatter of blood on the bottom of his shoe. The caption said, “Winning.”
Last month, a Michigan man was arrested after allegedly calling CNN more than 20 times and repeatedly threatening to shoot and kill its employees. “Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down,” he said, according to court documents.
These are just a few examples of a disturbing trend. Not all attacks on journalists this year have been committed by Trump supporters — several were committed by Trump opponents — but the fact remains that rhetoric emanating from the world’s most powerful office is stoking an environment in which these attacks proliferate.
We must not normalize this. We must send a message that assaults against people engaged in reporting the news is unacceptable and un-American.
On Monday, I introduced the Journalist Protection Act, which will make it a federal crime to intentionally cause or attempt to cause a bodily injury or a serious bodily injury to a journalist in the course of news-gathering or in a manner designed to block his or her ability to conduct journalism. Given Congress’ constitutional mandate, the bill is limited to instances in which the assault can be argued to affect interstate or foreign commerce.
It’s a statement that one of our most sacred federal rights will receive federal protection when it is violently infringed upon. It demonstrates to would-be wrongdoers that we will not tolerate attacks on journalists, and it gives law enforcement and federal prosecutors an option in cases in which state and local law enforcement don’t act.
It is sad that we must make this statement to counteract the violent vitriol spewed by our own president. But we must act.
Most Americans know that our freedoms rely on an informed populace. Yet whether we appreciate the news or not, we must not let violence curb its gathering and dissemination — doing so is a calling card for dictatorship.
Let’s join together to protect media workers and punish perpetrators.
Eric Swalwell represents central and eastern Alameda County in the U.S. House of Representatives.