More than a decade ago, a man who identified himself as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told me in a crudely-written email that I should leave the South — my home for nearly my entire life — after I authored a critical column on “Silent Sam,” UNC-Chapel Hill’s Confederate statue and perennial controversy.
That man’s apparently scalding contempt for me, mirrored by dozens of others who shredded me for the same column, was a lesson. If you tell others your opinion, or if you report on a topic so laden with bitter history, expect others to share their opinion too, and it might not always be in a respectful tone.
I learned that lesson time after time in the ensuing years. Once, a man aggressively confronted me at a local board meeting in Union County after I’d reported on a zoning conflict. I could smell his breath while he threatened to sue me for libel.
Another time, a local government official adopted an anonymous online handle to fire personalized potshots at me and my colleagues in the newsroom.
These types of stories are currency in this industry, proof that you’ve been in the thick of it. Oftentimes, such stories warp into long-running jokes. My personal favorite: About three years ago, a reader dubbed me and the publication I worked for “wastepaper purveyors of perversity.” Points for the alliteration, sir.
But not once can I recall a time in which I was threatened with physical harm for my work. I didn’t think this so odd until a recent conversation with some longtime colleagues, in which it became clear that most had over the years received some form of death threat, delivered in either explicit or vague terms.
Once again, I’m learning a lesson. And these days, I have a sinking feeling that the number of journalists like myself, who’ve yet to collect death threats, may be dwindling.
Press freedom organizations called last year the most dangerous year ever for journalists around the world, with 46 journalists killed, and threats growing even in countries like the U.S. It seems obvious, based on data from the long-running Committee to Protect Journalists, that 2018 — a year with all the spit and vitriol of 2017 and then some — will see more deaths. The site reports 36 journalists killed already in 2018.
Such news should be painful not only to journalists and their loved ones, but to President Trump, his administration, the Republican and Democratic parties, and, indeed, anyone who understands the core role the news media plays in a healthy democracy.
Let’s not simply treat the Fourth Estate as something valuable, but something essential, something Trump, perhaps more than any president before him, either fails to appreciate or abhors.
The most visible example in the U.S., of course, came in June when a gunman blasted his way into a Maryland newsroom, killing four reporters and a sales assistant.
But there’s plenty of carnage to go around. Numerous reporters have been murdered or kidnapped for their coverage of ongoing drug wars in Mexico. Meanwhile, reporters have been under siege in countries like Turkey, where dozens have been threatened or jailed for vague charges when their work questioned the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Of course, reporters in other parts of the world have long faced threats and intimidation far greater than most American reporters. But even a myopic bully like President Donald Trump cannot miss the worrying signs at home too, not that you can tell from his rhetoric.
“Fake news, bad people,” Trump told a Montana rally in early July, just weeks after the Maryland shootings, pointing to the news crews that are often the subject of derision at Trump rallies.
Trump continued his broad assault on the nation’s media this week, jeering at the leadership of The New York Times following a meeting in the White House.
“Had a very good and interesting meeting at the White House with A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of the New York Times,” the president said on Twitter Sunday morning. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”
The meeting, according to the paper, was requested by Trump, although the paper’s publisher said he questioned the president about his role in a growing anti-media culture, one where, in certain circles, the idea of decking or even hanging a reporter is fetishized.
“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement Sunday. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
Note that Sulzberger doesn’t say that Trump’s language “may” or “might” lead to violence. He says that it “will,” and coming from a publisher with roots as a reporter, a profession where dispassion is a passion, it means something.
Trump’s fond of referring to Sulzberger’s paper as the “Failing New York Times.” At least as far as the paper’s mission goes, even Trump must know that nothing could be farther from the truth.
The same goes for The Washington Post and countless other major and small media outlets that, for all their faults, have churned out quality journalism in the age of Trump, documenting the tortuous path of the Russia investigation and the deceitful proclamations of the president’s administration, no matter the inconvenience or embarrassment to the powerful. Such successes no doubt fuel the president’s petty broadsides.
And while the president may not be directly culpable for shooting sprees like the tragedy in Maryland — the gunman reportedly harbored a longstanding grudge with the paper — there is no one more responsible for the sort of violent, anti-media hysteria that’s swallowed up some in America, particularly in the far-right badlands where Trump roams.
Perhaps the president has simply disregarded his role in the troubling signs in the U.S. and abroad, although that doesn’t seem likely.
In his mewling affection for despots like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, he might fantasize about a media in which loyalty is, above all, demanded, in which it’s expected that reporters roll, like a doting dog, to expose their jugular.
Yet if Trump expects such luxuries from most reporters, and in particular from the likes of The New York Times, he’ll have to look elsewhere.
If his goal is to deflate journalists, he has done quite the opposite. It’s one of the many, many things Trump and his enablers do not understand about journalism, that deceit, obfuscation, and threats will inspire more journalists than they deter. Look elsewhere for media obituaries. This is no post mortem.
Nearly two decades ago, I was one of the student journalists who wrestled, even then, with the declining role of traditional media in American lives. What purpose was there, it seemed, to enlist with a profession that faced a long, slow decline? To receive scorn from your neighbors for low pay, long hours and virtually nonexistent job security? To document, in granular detail, the triumphs and travails of local communities, states and the nation, even as some in your community scorn you?
More recently, a friend of mine, a longtime North Carolina journalist, wondered if Trump’s election would produce a dark age or a new golden age for journalism.
Trump, in his incalculable bluster and outright contempt for truth, may ultimately give a nation’s journalism schools their answer.
Billy Ball is managing editor of N.C. Policy Watch.