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Do We Still Care About a Safe and Free Press in America? 

U.S. journalists under siege

click to enlarge mark_kemp_column_sig_copy.png

On August 13 of last year, a reporter in Asheville was live-streaming a peaceful anti-racist protest when a man approached him.

"Get that camera out of my fucking face!" the man scowled.

The man attempted to grab the camera and aggressively shoved the reporter.

Later in the scuffle, the man told the reporter, "Get out of the fucking crowd, dude! Move it! I will fuck you up!"

Fortunately, the reporter was not injured or killed, and Asheville police later arrested 38-year-old Michael Patrick Faulkner on assault charges in connection with the incident.

But things are getting bad for journalists.

Violence and threats against reporters are sadly not uncommon in the Donald Trump era — and it's not just Trump supporters doing the violence. Faulkner was attending an "anti-racist march," apparently supporting the cause. He just didn't like that a reporter was covering the protest, something reporters have been doing for as long as this country has been a country. That's what we do. We report the news.

There have been many other assaults on working reporters over the past year and a half:

On May 22, 2018, Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer and her fellow journalists attempted to enter Trump's Environmental Protection Agency to report on then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's speech. A security guard grabbed Knickmeyer and physically pushed her out of the building.

On May 1, 2018, police in Puerto Rico shot Associated Press photojournalist Carlos Rivera Giusti with rubber bullets as he covered a demonstration in San Juan. His colleague, reporter Dánica Coto, formerly of The Charlotte Observer, witnessed the incident but was not injured.

On April 10, 2018, WABC reporter Tim Fleischer was conducting an interview in Queens, New York, when a man walked over and punched the reporter in the face.

On February 22, 2018, former White House advisor Sebastian Gorka shoved Mediaite reporter Caleb Ecarma as Ecarma attempted to interview Gorka during the Conservative Political Action Conference.

On May 24, 2017, Greg Gianforte, the Republican nominee in a Montana special congressional race, assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs as Jacobs attempted to interview Gianforte at his campaign headquarters.

On May 2, 2017, Alaska Republican state senator David Wilson slapped Alaska Dispatch News journalist Nathaniel Herz when Herz attempted to interview the senator.

None of this compares to the awful events that happened last week in Maryland, when an angry, unbalanced man stormed The Capital Gazette, shooting and killing five newspaper people because the man was upset over coverage of the man's crimes in 2011.

But all of this points to the heightened sense of hostility journalists live with every day in the Trump era. Obviously, it would be irresponsible for me to relate what happened in Maryland to the president. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that the president's violent rhetoric has made this country an unsafe place for our guardians of the truth.

Just last May, after doing a little target practice at a shooting range in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott held up his target, riddled with bullet holes, and "joked" to onlookers, "I'm gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters."

No surprise there. We are living under a president who, during his first year in office, used the word "fake" to describe journalists and news stories 400 times. By May 9 of this year, the president himself had told more than 3,000 lies in the previous 466 days — that's 6.5 untruths per day coming from the mouth of the President of the United States.

Think about that. The President of the United States lies more than six times a day, and yet calls the news "fake."

This would be bad enough if the president didn't also actively create extremely volatile conditions for the mostly diligent members of the American press who are out there on their beats every day, working hard to collect facts and bring you the news so that you can make informed decisions.

Trump calls the press the "enemy of the people," says we're "sick," accuses us of "trying to take away our history and heritage," tells his base that journalists "don't like our country."

click to enlarge This so-called patriot's T-shirt reads: "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required." Until recently, Walmart sold these shirts, which not-so-subtly allude to lynching journalists. (Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share)
  • This so-called patriot's T-shirt reads: "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required." Until recently, Walmart sold these shirts, which not-so-subtly allude to lynching journalists. (Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share)

Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost every journalist I have had the pleasure of working with in my 34-year career as a reporter and editor got into this business because they dearly love their country. Even when we're criticizing its leaders in opinion pieces, we do it out of love of the country. When those of us who work at alternative newsmedia outlets such as Creative Loafing sometimes mock the country and its leaders in satire because of policies and behavior that we see as clearly un-American, we do it because we love our city, our state and our country; we do it because we care deeply about freedom and justice for everybody.

When I first began working as a cop reporter in Burlington, North Carolina, in 1984, reporters did not have to worry about people attacking us, making vulgar gestures, calling us profane names, or telling us we were spreading "fake news."

Sure, people have always gotten upset when negative stories are written about them. But most have not threatened us, and my colleagues and I rarely felt overly concerned for our safety in those earlier times. Most Americans understood that journalists are on the side of the people. We are here to help keep the powerful from abusing their power.

Fortunately, Charlotte has not yet seen the kind of violence that journalists in other areas have experienced. And yet when we at Creative Loafing ran a humorous but provocative cover image for a story last week on things to do (and not to do) to allow everybody — not just white people — the opportunity to enjoy July 4 celebrations, at least one Charlottean was so angered that he told our news editor that he knew his address.

That was a direct threat. And it must stop. Mr. Trump does not control America's hard-won freedoms. He is merely a public servant. He should start acting like one, and be the kind of responsible president who encourages Americans to treat each other with dignity. And while treating people with dignity may sometimes mean criticizing them for wrongdoing, it never means suggesting or alluding to violence.

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