“If you attack the press,” he told her, “you attack our democracy.”
One of those who never will is the president of the United States, who reacted to the journalistic disaster with a tepid “thoughts and prayers” tweet along with a thumbs-up sign and a dismissive wave to reporters asking for his comments.
On Friday, Trump offered a statement on the killings: “This attack shocked the conscience of our nation and filled our hearts with grief. Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.” It was heartening to hear the president say this, even if it was hard to square it with his calling the press the “enemy of the people” as he did at a rally earlier this week.
I want to be very clear: There is no reason to think that Trump’s unceasing attacks on journalists had anything directly to do with Thursday’s terrible killing of five staffers at the Capital Gazette.
Those who suggested that — including a Reuters editor who later apologized for impulsively saying that “blood is on your hands, Mr. President” — were simply wrong.
But while there is no causality, there is a connection in the attitudes of this unhinged gunman and the president of the United States: a dangerous failure to understand the role of the media in our society. Or to acknowledge how it’s supposed to work.
Jarrod Ramos had been harassing journalists at the Capital Gazette for years — so extremely that the paper’s former editor and publisher, Tom Marquardt, said Thursday that he had long feared that something like this could happen.
The judge who threw out Ramos’s groundless defamation case against the Annapolis paper recited to him the basics of news coverage.
“I think people who are the subject of newspaper articles, whoever they may be, feel that there is a requirement that they be placed in the best light, or they have an opportunity to have the story reported to their satisfaction,” the judge said. Good journalism has no such obligation.
The paper’s 2011 story about his conviction for criminally harassing a woman who had spurned him was accurate. There was no defamation, but an enraged Ramos kept up his abusive attacks on the woman — and the newspaper staff.
Trump seems to have pretty much the same attitude about news coverage that is true, though it may portray him in an unfavorable light.
If he does understand the role that journalists must play in a democracy — as public-spirited watchdogs, not sycophants like his friends at Fox News — he shows no indication of it.
And while the president frequently, and rightly, praises the “first responders” to a disaster, he fails to see that journalists, too, are first responders.
The small Capital Gazette staff bravely played that part on Thursday — tweeting the initial call for help, reporting immediately via social media from the scene, and managing to put out a print newspaper amid the trauma of a real-life nightmare.
The nation’s press was already under siege long before Thursday’s massacre. The number of ways seems almost infinite:
●Resources are shrinking. At Noelle Phillips’s paper in Denver, a once robust staff has been squeezed nearly to extinction by the hedge fund owners. And that is happening, to varying degrees, in nearly every community. It’s hard to be a watchdog when you’re starving to death.
●Legal threats are mounting. The Trump Justice Department, like Obama’s, has come after journalists as part of their crackdown on leaks. Just weeks ago, investigators seized the phone and email records of a New York Times reporter in a case that has alarmed First Amendment champions.
●Verbal abuse is rampant. At rally after rally, Trump has turned his amped-up crowds on journalists, encouraging insults or worse. Nastiness, and death threats, are the result.
●And Trump’s attitude has infected the entire culture, emboldening other public officials to trash press rights. It’s no wonder that America’s press-freedom ranking is sinking among the nations of the world in a recent Reporters Without Borders study.
Granted, journalists are far from perfect. We make mistakes, and often pay dearly for them in harm to our jobs or reputations. We can be unfair or show poor judgment. We certainly can be arrogant.
But we try to get it right, and usually do — as the Capital Gazette did with its accurate reporting on Ramos seven years ago, and as the national media does, day in and day out, in reporting on the Trump administration.
Trump can’t, and shouldn’t, be blamed for the Annapolis massacre.
But that doesn’t make his contempt for the press any less dangerous.