On Monday’s episode of the podcast The Daily, The New York Times’ Beirut bureau chief, Ben Hubbard, discussed the current situation in Syria. He gave a quick lesson on the bloody history between Turkey and the Kurdish people, then explained that he was hoping to cross into Syria himself. A local journalist, Saad Ahmed, has already been killed in an air strike, and tens of thousands are fleeing. Mr. Hubbard is heading into a war zone, an act of bravery aimed at helping Americans understand the latest tragedy in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the man many see as responsible for the current wave of death in Syria has long made vitriolic attacks on Mr. Hubbard’s employer part of his routine. Just this week, Donald Trump tweeted about “The Corrupt New York Times,” part of regular assaults on journalism that are aimed at both individual reporters and entire news organizations.
In this era of purposeful disinformation, Mr. Trump has relentlessly repeated the term “fake news” as a way to stoke public mistrust in the institutions exposing his many lies. So while he wasn’t involved in making a disturbing video shown to his supporters last week, he certainly inspired its creation.
The notorious video was shown over the weekend during the American Priority Conference at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. As reported by the Times, the President didn’t attend, but his namesake son did, along with former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She said she didn’t see the video, which appeared to be a reworked scene from the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service in which Mr. Trump’s face is superimposed over that of a man opening fire inside of a so-called “Church of Fake News.”
Bearing the President’s smug grin, the man shoots dozens of people, whose own doctored faces represent Mr. Trump’s regular targets. Some have faces, like Hillary Clinton, while logos represent activist groups such as Black Lives Matter. Many gunshots, occasionally to the head, are delivered to characters representing news organizations, including the Washington Post, NPR, Vice News and NBC. One specific journalist, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, is targeted personally.
By Tuesday morning, the President hadn’t mentioned the doctored Kingsman video himself, letting a spokesperson say only that he “strongly condemns” it. He had, however, launched new Twitter insults at the Times, CNN and even Fox News, where some reporters have been pushing back at the idea that the network is in the President’s pocket.
The meme is childish. It’s also chilling, because of the environment Mr. Trump has helped to create. His demonizing of other groups, such as immigrants and refugees, has already resulted in real violence. In 2015, a Boston man who allegedly beat and urinated on a homeless Mexican immigrant told police that “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” Then still only a candidate, Mr. Trump’s response was that his supporters were “very passionate.”
Since becoming President, he’s been equally cavalier about the murder of journalists. After five were killed during a 2018 attack on Maryland’s Capital Gazette, he initially denied the mayor’s request to fly federal flags at half-mast. And since the Post’s Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by operatives from Saudi Arabia last year, Mr. Trump has stood steadfastly by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even publicly contradicting the CIA’s “high confidence” finding that the prince ordered the assassination himself.
“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he wrote in an official White House briefing, exclamation marks included. Again, casting doubt on the truth and dismissing real-world harm.
The video is just one example of how such rhetoric has been chipping away at public respect for journalism, engendering active hostility. In Mr. Trump’s America, multiple journalists have reported harassment by U.S. customs agents – most recently Ben Watson, news editor of the security site Defense One. In early October, an agent at Washington-Dulles airport refused to return Mr. Watson’s passport until he admitted that his work was writing “propaganda.”
Late last week, Jessica Sidman, an editor at Washingtonian magazine, tweeted a photo taken by her brother of a man in front of him in a line to board a flight from Los Angeles to Boston. The back of the man’s shirt read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”
Mr. Trump will shrug off the blame if such sentiments cross the line between suggestion and action. Even so, it will still be on him. For now, those who have spent the past three years documenting the devastation his presidency has wrought, at home and abroad, will continue their work.
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