Jared Yates Sexton is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage.
On Thursday, a man brandishing a shotgun charged into the offices of the Capital Gazette, an Annapolis, Md., newspaper, and killed five journalists and injured two others. It was an unthinkable tragedy that, sadly enough, felt predictable, as the last three years in the United States have been fraught with consistent attacks on the press and unheralded threats against their safety, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and danger.
Though investigators are still piecing together the motives for the alleged gunman, the environment in which this took place has been ripe for such violence since Donald Trump began lambasting journalists as part of his campaign strategy in 2015. As a candidate, Trump regularly denounced the press attending his rallies and directed the ire of his supporters at them as they worked in a nearby penned-in area. Trump’s insults were never-ending and have continued well into his presidency. He’s accused reporters of lying, spreading so-called “fake news” and being biased; he’s called them “disgusting,” “slime,” “the scum of the Earth,” and declared them “the enemy of the people.”
These attacks have not only allowed his supporters to dismiss any news stories that might paint him or his administration in a negative light, but have inspired a virulent hatred that’s lead to harassment and death threats. I know because I’ve been the target many times now. I’ve had people show up at my door and try to break into my house, have received phone calls describing gruesome torture and have been sent many messages and pictures detailing how anonymous individuals would like to murder my family and myself. This harassment has come in waves, but regularly emerges whenever I’ve published an article on Donald Trump or the cesspool of white supremacists who worship him as a “God Emperor” and fantasize openly on their online forums about murdering the journalists who oppose their president.
I’m certainly not alone. Most every journalist I’ve talked to in the past few years has been on the receiving end of this persecution and has had to make hard choices about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Many have had to invest in security measures, buy weapons for personal protection and fundamentally alter their lives for fear of violence. Unfortunately, this new reality has become so commonplace that many now consider it part of the vocation. In fact, one of the most common questions I get from students of journalism is whether the vocation is worth all the pain and fear.
Every time, I tell them it is. Even though we live in a country where CNN gets phone calls threatening to murder their cast and crew, journalists get bombarded with anti-Semitic, racially charged and misogynistic materials, the pursuit of journalism is still one of the most vital and honourable professions there is, especially in an era like this one where so many people are working so very hard to silence the truth. The American republic can only stand if the fourth estate continues to root out corruption and speak truth to power, and the intimidation is proof that the work is more important than ever.
In the face of these attacks and threats, it’s important to note the resilience of the journalists most affected. When gunmen attacked the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and killed 12 journalists, the survivors carried on and published their next issue right on schedule. The survivors of Thursday’s tragedy put out an issue on Friday, dutifully covering the shooting that took the lives of five of their colleagues.
Journalists are tough by trade. They work long hours and sort through some of the most harrowing and distressing revelations imaginable. They are dogged and tireless. They make modest livings and are motivated by one thing alone: the pursuit of the truth. Words and bullets will not stop them from fulfilling their duties to the country, but it’s time for Donald Trump and others like him to cease their disgusting attacks. The rhetoric has put lives at risk while threatening the very principles of our democracy. We need, as a people, to rally around our press and appreciate not just the work they do, but the courage they show by tackling that work in the first place.