By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
You think the campaign leading up to the Alabama U.S. Senate special election December 12 is nuts? Just wait until next year, when candidates for all 435 U.S. House of Representatives seats and one-third of the Senate are running.
Ever since the Washington Post first published a story early this month alleging Alabama Republican nominee Roy Moore engaged in sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl in 1979, a key component of his and his supporters’ responses has been to attack the Post and other legitimate news outlets.
Moore denies the allegations, and the at least eight others that have emerged since the first story. As the Post reported:
“’These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post on this campaign,’ Moore, now 70, said. The campaign said in a subsequent statement that if the allegations were true they would have surfaced during his previous campaigns, adding ‘this garbage is the very definition of fake news.’” (Emphasis added.)
They just couldn’t wait to inject a “fake news” accusation into the conversation.
As if that weren’t enough, last week a robocall went out to some Alabama voters in which a man purporting to be a Post reporter – named, curiously, Bernie Bernstein – said he would pay women to come forward with additional sexual misconduct allegations against Moore. Post Executive Editor Marty Baron quickly and unforgivingly pushed back: “The call’s description of our reporting methods bears no relationship to reality. We are shocked and appalled that anyone would stoop to this level to discredit real journalism.”
Post opinion writer Dana Millbank treated the incident tongue-in-cheek. The New York Times’ Washington editor Jonathan Weisman wrote an analysis piece suggesting the robocall was as anti-Semitic as it was anti-responsible journalism. But the intent, and effect, was clear. The fake call reinforced the misguided view held by too many people in this country that journalists have nefarious motives and, as a result, what they report cannot be trusted.
Also last week, following a campaign event hosted by a group of self-identifying Christians, things got heated when former presidential candidate Alan Keyes and others confronted reporters. Keyes called them a “mob.” Another Moore supporter called them “disgraceful.” Local TV reporter Lauren Walsh posted a video of the brouhaha on Twitter.
Then, over the weekend, CNN correspondent Nick Valencia posted on Instagram Story that a Moore supporter physically assaulted him.
Valencia later followed up on both Instagram and Twitter by reassuring concerned followers he was OK, and that the man wasn’t representative of most of the people he has encountered while covering the Moore campaign, who he said have treated him “with class and respect.”
Still, what happened following last week’s campaign event, and what happened to Valencia, are the direct result of the enhanced anti-news media vitriol that began during the 2016 election cycle and has intensified since Inauguration Day. Our current president has called journalists the “enemy of the American people,” which has emboldened those who either don’t like, or don’t understand, journalism to act out in ways more profound than ever before.
In a recent speech and follow-up column, “Fox News Sunday” host and 2013 RTDNA Paul White Award recipient Chris Wallace quoted University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, a journalism graduate and former Navy SEAL, as calling the president’s attacks on the news media “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”
That’s why RTDNA formed its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, and why RTDNA is proud to be a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which has become the archive of record for obstruction, harassment, threats, arrests and assaults targeting reporters and photojournalists.
In the meantime, too few of those who believe the establishment news media are enemies of the people seem concerned about real “fake news,” the purveyors of which have weaponized their broadcasts, publications and social media accounts in an effort to influence elections and general public perceptions about candidates and issues they support.
I won’t legitimize the real “fake news industrial complex,” to use a phrase coined by a former White House official, by mentioning any names here, with one exception, only because I believe it is endemic of the problem. The website MEDIAITE recently outed Voice of America journalist Josh Fatzick, who was allegedly hiding behind the anonymity of the internet to post “racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ screeds” on Reddit. The disclosure has prompted a VOA internal investigation.
More than 30 journalists have been physically assaulted so far in 2017. And what journalists are now experiencing in Alabama – and have experienced earlier this year in places as different as Berkeley, Bozeman, Charlottesville and St. Louis – will continue unabated throughout the 2018 midterm election cycle and, likely, beyond.
It may get worse, even in races that haven’t become supercharged by sexual misconduct allegations. Some campaign consultants have already advised their candidates to attack the news media at every opportunity because it worked so well for the president last year.
The best antidote to today’s harmful anti-journalism climate is rebuilding trust with the public. RTDNA is partnering with the Trusting News project, which is currently testing strategies and tactics it has developed through extensive empirical research. Your newsroom can apply to participate in the testing here.
The only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism.
Watch your backs, but don’t be intimidated. Don’t back down. Keep committing more and better journalism – more and better flagrant acts of responsible journalism – every single day.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to bridge the divide between responsible journalists and those who don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. People wishing to support RTDNA’s efforts may reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.