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A person stands in front of trucks blocking Wellington Street as truckers and their supporters continue to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa on Feb. 15.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

It is a fact of life these days, we’re told, that journalists enjoy less public respect and trust than they used to enjoy. Even given that fact, it was a shock to see the abuse aimed at TV journalists doing their jobs during the recent Ottawa protests.

It’s a particularly vile type of bullying. TV reporters working at a protest are very vulnerable. Trying to concentrate on reporting live, and with a camera operator concentrating on the camera, the reporters are exposed, unguarded and easy prey for those who want to terrorize them.

And terrorizing them was the intent, over and over again in Ottawa. We saw CTV’s Glen McGregor attempt to contribute a report to MSNBC and be surrounded by braying, screaming malcontents. As McGregor wrote on Twitter, “One guy actually spit at us, others called us Nazis. MSNBC had to cut it off almost after it began. Then they chased us down the street to our bureau.”

And it wasn’t just happening in Ottawa. The CBC’s Dan Burritt and his camera operator were pushed, shoved, spat upon and screamed at when trying to report from a protest at a Pacific Highway border crossing in British Columbia. It happened over and over again, in different parts of the country, as authorities moved in to end the Ottawa protests this weekend. No TV reporter was safe.

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This is our new national disgrace. We tend to associate bullying with schools and playgrounds, but it looks as if our new national sport is angry adults screaming insults and spitting at TV journalists. If there is to be one iconic image from the febrile demonstrations in Ottawa it should be the harassment of McGregor as he attempted to explain the Ottawa situation to American TV news. Women reporters have for years dealt with harassment while doing live reporting, but this is a new level of menace aimed at journalists.

Our first temptation might be to write off this appalling activity as a pathetic imitation of Trump supporters. And it surely is pathetic – the obnoxious act of screaming “fake news” and “liar” at a TV reporter is about as dismally dumb as you can be. You could say it is learned behaviour from watching too much TV coverage of American politics. In the same way that school bullies are believed to have learned from TV or video games that using violence and verbal abuse are the hallmarks of strength.

It is also tempting to dismiss the bullying as an offshoot of misinformation. The protesters get their news and form opinions based on gibberish spewed on social media, therefore they attack legitimate news when they see the mainstream media in the flesh, talking to a camera on the street. That’s an easy excuse to reach for, since most of us never really encounter the full blast of misinformation.

A Toronto Police officer keeps watch as a person screams at a journalist doing a television report at a rally against COVID-19 restrictions on Parliament Hill on Jan. 30.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

But enough already. We have to get beyond excuses and tut-tutting. The people doing the harassment are not mere jerks and the situation transcends common bullying. The extreme harassment of TV reporters is a form of psychological warfare. The intent is to intimidate the media and undermine a free press. It is intended to create a toxic environment around the press and it is one of the steps taken by those who want authoritarian rule.

This is a very specific strategy: eroding the truth by demonizing the messenger. It’s a strategy that allows an authoritarian leader to spew outright falsehoods, because truth itself is undermined when the media is attacked as “fake news” – or, as so many of the protesters here have been braying on TV, “scumbags.” They used many other terms, which can’t be printed in a newspaper.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen extraordinary events on TV. We have seen reporters from CBC, CTV and Global put up with harassment with an admirable level of grace and composure. Often the livid anger and abuse aimed at them didn’t even become part of their reports. You had to follow their Twitter feeds to get a full sense of the abuse. Or it was other reporters who posted on social media about what their counterparts had endured. That’s because they didn’t want to be part of the story, and they didn’t want to engage with people screaming at them.

But now they are part of the story because the horror of it is so blatantly obvious. It is one thing to send a threatening e-mail to a journalist, or hide behind anonymity on social media. It is quite another to scream at, push and assault TV reporters doing their work. That’s where we’re at now. It’s been normalized and there’s no going back.

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