By Joe Sheller / Media Column
For 50 years, American journalists have been a favorite punching bag of Republicans. And that is fair – being critical of the news media is like being critical of politicians. Both are powerful entities that should represent the public interest, and therefore be open to public comment and criticism.
But, in the age of Trump, many lines have been crossed. The current president has labeled mainstream journalists as “enemies of the American people,” and decried clearly accurate reports on his own activities as “fake news.”
That extreme tone has now been taken up by at least one politician here in the Corridor.
At a recent campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, according to a March 10 story in the Gazette, U.S. Rep. Rod Blum claimed he is “under assault” because of news stories he does not care for. In particular, he disliked a story reporting that he was listed as a key figure in a marketing consulting company that touted its ability to bury unfavorable corporate publicity generated by government regulatory agencies.
“What a beautiful assassination attempt,” Mr. Blum was reported as saying.
I know that word assassination doesn’t necessarily refer to violent death – there is such a thing as character assassination – but if Mr. Blum intended that meaning, omitting the word “character” seems unfortunate. Combined with his description of being under “assault,” the symbolic language he is using is too suggestive of an armed struggle.
In my journalism career, I was subjected to plenty of public criticism, much of it fair. However, I was never physically attacked or harassed. Today, reporters are routinely threatened with violence, booed at political rallies and singled out by public officials aiming to intimidate them.
The British newspaper The Guardian reported on Jan. 19 that U.S. journalists, and foreign journalists working in this country, are increasingly subjected to almost systematic official intimidation as the political climate has become more polarized. In that story, a Canadian photojournalist noted that hostility by American border agents reminded him of what it’s like to enter Iran.
One of the Guardian’s own reporters, Ben Jacobs, was assaulted by then-candidate Greg Gianforte of Montana last May. He said that Mr. Jacobs had been asking him “obnoxious questions,” and later misled the police by saying that Mr. Jacobs had initiated physical contact with him. Mr. Gianforte was nevertheless elected as a U.S. Representative the day after the assault.
In his own hyperbolic choice of words, Mr. Blum may be reacting to recent harrowing events and experiences. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a leading member of his party was wounded at a baseball game after being shot by a left-wing activist toting an assault rifle. More recently, Republicans have been booed and treated badly by crowds unwilling to listen to points of view they don’t share. Intolerance of opposition rhetoric is certainly not the exclusive province of one political point of view.
Still, for a public official, some tolerance for jeers comes with the territory. While I don’t think our representative in Congress intended a direct threat against the journalists covering him, using terms like “assassination” as metaphors in today’s polarized political climate, where journalists routinely face actual threats, is irresponsible.
Mr. Blum, if you think the news media are unfair, you’re certainly free to point that out. But we, whether we are conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, are not under assault when there are news media stories that we don’t like.
American support for a free press has been badly frayed recently, partly because of the unending drumbeat of attacks by politicians, but also because the media are becoming more polarized politically. However, The Gazette is neither Fox News nor MSNBC. It’s a local Iowa newspaper that in the past has endorsed Mr. Blum’s election.
An individual reporter may pass along news that damages you politically. Arguing back is quintessentially American. But making direct or veiled threats of violence is more akin to politics in an authoritarian country than a democratic republic. It is not behavior we should tolerate from the left or the right.
Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.