I could not be more appreciative of the sentiment behind the Journalist Protection Act, just introduced by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin. The threat of violence against journalists is no longer an abstract concept or other countries’ problems in the Trump era. President Trump has been spewing the type of anti-media vitriol by national leaders that has led to physical attacks on reporters in places such as Chechnya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Iran and Egypt.
“For me, it was frankly a piece of legislation I had hoped would never have had to be written,” Swalwell said in a phone interview last week. “But when you look at the rhetoric of the president, which is emboldening or encouraging people to take on violence against journalists ... you just worry that it could lead people to threaten or take up violence against journalists.”
Again, it’s not a hypothetical exercise. Even as Swalwell was working with congressional staff on drafting the legislation last month, a Michigan man was arrested after making repeated threats of a mass shooting against CNN. “Fake news,” he said, according to court documents. “I’m coming to gun you all down.”
Journalists do not need protection from attempts at verbal intimidation. It comes with the territory, as does flattery, feigned and genuine, for that matter. The purpose of the Swalwell bill is not to shield journalists from the bile of haters — it’s all fair game in a democracy — but from the violence that has been employed so effectively in chilling efforts at honest reporting in authoritarian or corrupt regimes.
Americans who are under the illusion that democracy can be taken for granted should know that the U.S. has fallen to 43rd among world nations in the annual ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. Trump’s drumbeat of “enemies of the American people” rhetoric is a major factor in the U.S. downgrade. Let it be noted that Joseph Stalin popularly employed “enemy of the people” to assign a death sentence to Russian dissidents — a phrase that his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, banned due to its ugly history.
Swalwell’s HR4935 would make it a federal offense, subject to six years in prison depending on seriousness of injury, to physically attack a journalist “with the intention of intimidating or impeding” his or her newsgathering. Again, it’s not hypothetical: Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter from the Guardian who was asking questions in May 2017. Gianforte was elected, though he was later convicted of the assault and fined $385 and sentenced to 40 hours of community service and required to take 20 hours of anger management classes.
So why is a federal law needed?
As Swalwell explained, there may be times when local police and prosecutors may not pursue charges because they share the assailant’s disdain for the news media generally or a certain reporter or news organization. The issue may be partisan or ideological, or it could be that a corrupt or incompetent establishment is trying to fend off pursuit of the truth.
“In many ways, it’s a backstop so that journalists know that wherever they go, if someone were to intimidate them or carry out violence against them ... they would be protected,” Swalwell said.
It’s not hard to imagine the scenarios either way. Reporters at Trump rallies, penned into holding areas with the president pointing at them and chastising them, have worried at the buildup of a mob-rule mentality. Many Bay Area videographers and photo journalists, including from The Chronicle, have been physically confronted at demonstrations by leftists who regard the news media as the enemy.
“In fact, a lot of times we’ve had conservative journalists complain that they feel intimidated on college campuses that are more liberal,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, who has joined as a co-sponsor of HR4935.
So what are the barriers to its passage? One is political, the other is practical.
The political element is that Republicans control the House and Senate, and many may regard HR4935 as a slap at their president, even though Swalwell is working to enlist GOP co-sponsors.
As Khanna put it, “I would say this should be bipartisan in any normal Congress, but we’re not living in normal times.”
The other big hitch could come in the definition of who qualifies as a journalist. Swalwell borrowed the definition of 2013 legislation for a proposed federal “shield law” that would have guaranteed the right of journalists to protect the identify of confidential sources in most instances. Let the record show that the bill did not pass, and the definition of a journalist was a major point of contention.
Swalwell acknowledged that the definition was “a challenge.” He said his aim would be to be “broad but not so broad that you’re covering someone who has a Twitter account and is either reposting someone else’s news or just letting opinions fly without the gathering piece.”
In other words, bloggers in pajamas and Donald Trump, you’re not journalists.
The odds are against the passage of Swalwell’s HR4935 anytime soon, though its mere introduction is a reminder to Americans of the very real threats against the pillars of democracy.
“It’s more of a statement of values until we have a Congress that would have the will to pass this,” Swalwell said. “This probably means (Democrats) winning the House in November. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put down markers about our values, and what we would do if given the responsibility of leading.”
Over the line: Incendiary words from the president of the United States
Donald Trump’s comments and tweets about the media sometimes carry a pugilistic edge:
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” (On Twitter)
Trump retweeted a doctored video from Wrestlemania that showed him pummeling a figure with a CNN logo superimposed on the head. The video has attracted nearly 38 million views.
Trump retweeted (though later deleted) a cartoon of a “Trump Train” rolling over a figure with a CNN logo for a head.
At a speech in Phoenix, Trump called journalists sick people who are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” He questioned their patriotism: “I really think they don’t like our country.”
Trump retweeted a meme of a him riding in a limousine with a blood-splattered CNN logo on the bottom of his shoe. Caption: “WINNING.”
Article: San Francisco Chronicle, by John Diaz