It’s tough out there for a journalist. Just as Time’s Chris Morris, who, if video and first-hand reports are to be believed, was choked and slammed to the ground by a Secret Service agent at a Trump rally on Monday, can attest.
Morris’ sin, apparently, was to attempt to leave the “pen", where the press was forced to stay during Trump events, in order to photograph a Black Lives Matter protest.
According to Time, “Trump has a strict policy requiring reporters and cameramen to stay inside a gated area, which the candidate often singles out for ridicule during his speeches. The entrance to the penned area is generally monitored by the Secret Service detail, which also screens attendees at his events and personally protects the candidate.”
Granted, after being physically restrained from doing his job, there’s no doubt that Morris did his part in helping to escalate the situation by swearing at the officer and, later, by putting his hands on him. But I’m interested in the fact that Donald Trump is essentially using our taxpayer dollars to curtail the press. One can certainly appreciate that the Secret Service has a difficult job, in terms of protecting the lives of political candidates and leaders. But should they become what appears to be a taxpayer-funded private police that helps Trump manage his image? Because that’s what this current incident feels like to me.
Putting things in context, the Secret Service seems more passionate about beating up a reporter than they do about protecting the White House when someone jumps the fence and enters the president’s house. Or how about the time they allowed an armed man into an elevator with the president?
Of course, this incident with Morris is merely the latest example of Trump’s war on the press. A couple of days ago, he threatened to “open up” libel laws, a threat which could have a chilling effect — to intimidate journalists and make them think twice before writing a “hit piece” on Trump.
Those who worry about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies needn’t cite fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany. Instead, they can merely look to the “civilized” nation of Turkey, where libel laws create a huge disincentive to expressing dissenting opinions about the government. In such a system, the concept of “free speech” becomes a moot point. (In fact, it isn’t “free" at all. It is very costly).
But it’s not just the macro level where this war with the press is a problem. It’s true at the micro level, too. Not long ago, Trump defended Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's been accused of creating a climate that tolerates killing journalists. But never fear, Trump promises the press he won’t do the same here. “I would never kill them,” he declared in December. “But I do hate them, and some of them are such lying, disgusting people.”
By using this irresponsible rhetoric, Trump risks inciting a mob of supporters against reporters, and I worry that someday there could be consequences to his demonizing the press. While covering his campaign, NBC News’ Trump embed, Ali Vitali, has endured her share of verbal assaults on the trail. I just checked her Twitter feed for the latest example. After she tweeted about Black Lives Matter protesters being escorted out of a Trump rally, she received a tweet declaring: “Journalist lives don’t matter.”
The problem is that it’s hard for the press to complain about any of this. We’ve come a long way since the days of Walter Cronkite. The public holds us in disdain. Some of this is deserved. There is no doubt that the press is liberally biased. Spiro Agnew’s line about the “nattering nabobs of negativism” wasn’t entirely false. But for everyone who reinforces the stereotype about the effete liberal media, there is a brave journalist risking his or her life to bring us stories from the front lines — and some of whom end up jailed in places like Iran.
The truth is that a free press serves an important function that every conservative should hold in high regard. We must all remain vigilant against censorship, intimidation, and attacks on the First Amendment. Sadly, not even the media are always willing to circle the wagons and defend their own.
When my colleague, reporter Neil Munro, came under attack for “heckling” President Barack Obama a few years ago, the mainstream media mostly criticized him for daring to break protocol. I went on TV and defended him. This wasn’t just an example of me being dutiful; journalists get paid to be rude and pushy. That’s because politicians don’t want to answer hard questions. Whether it’s President Obama using the media as window dressing while refusing to answer any questions or Chris Christie refusing to answer questions about the man he just endorsed “because I don’t want to,” politicians don’t like to be held accountable.
Journalists might not be the most highly regarded professionals these days, but we do need them to keep politicians in check. We need a robust media that isn’t afraid to be rude — and that isn’t afraid to leave the “pen.”
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor at The Daily Caller and the author of "Too Dumb to Fail." Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis
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