Meredith Wheeler, a former ABC News producer in the 1970s and ’80s, organized the dozens of journalists, who are mostly former ABC staffers, to sign the letter. She said more have continued to sign since the release.
Wheeler said she was inspired to write the letter after Trump recently appeared to condone the May 2017 assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.). Trump’s comments, made at a Montana political rally on Oct. 18, came amid continued worldwide outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
“Any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump said at the rally to cheers, referring to Gianforte’s assault.
“To hear him praise the Montana congressman in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing was just too much, too awful, too soon, and I thought we have to, as a group of journalists, stand up and protest this,” Wheeler told The Washington Post. “Of course, the trouble is working journalists can’t sign a document like this. That’s why it’s mainly people who are retired or teaching in journalism.”
In the letter, she and the former journalists charge that Trump’s behavior and rhetoric has amounted to a violation of the First Amendment. The journalists voiced support for a lawsuit recently filed against the president by PEN America, which describes “official acts” Trump has taken against news outlets that the suit claims amount to an attempt to stifle criticism, in violation of the First Amendment.
PEN America alleges that Trump has threatened to interfere in the planned merger between AT&T and Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, “because he objects to [CNN’s] coverage of him.” PEN also points to actions Trump has taken targeting Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos, specifically his personal plea to the U.S. postmaster to raise postal rates for Amazon.
“One of the pillars of a free and open democracy is a vibrant free press,” the letter said. “At his inauguration the President of the United States swears to protect the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment. This President is utterly failing to do so and actively working not simply to undermine the press, but to incite violence against it as well."
It continued: “We denounce Donald Trump’s behavior as unconstitutional, un-American and utterly unlawful and unseemly for the President of the United States and leader of the free world.”
Lynn Sherr, a retired ABC News correspondent who signed the letter, told The Post she “wasn’t surprised” by Trump’s comments in Montana, “which is what’s even more horrifying.”
“I think it’s important for those of us who care deeply about our profession and even more deeply about our country to speak out,” Sherr said. “This is a man who has absolutely no respect for any institution that I care about, and a free press and a free democracy are at the height of that.”
Judy Muller, also a former ABC News correspondent and professor emerita at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, said she would “draw a straight line” from Trump’s rhetoric describing journalists as “enemies of the people” to physical attacks or threats targeting journalists more broadly.
Muller, who also signed the letter, said that when she read the headlines about Trump’s support for Gianforte’s assault, she had just given a talk about the consequences of calling journalists “enemies” or “fake news” in Colorado — “and that was before today’s attempted bombings,” she said.
On Wednesday, a slew of suspicious packages containing pipe bombs were sent to Hillary Clinton’s New York home, Barack Obama’s Washington home, CNN’s New York headquarters and to other prominent Democrats, leaving the country on edge. All of the packages were either intercepted or thwarted by law enforcement.
All of the intended recipients had been political targets of Trump, who has repeatedly called CNN “fake news” and entertained chants of “Lock her up!” at his rallies.
Trump condemned the attempted attacks Wednesday, urging everyone to “come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.” And while he reiterated his message of unity again at his rally Wednesday night, he placed the responsibility in part on the media.
“The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” he said. “Have to do it. They’ve got to stop. Bring people together.”
Muller said she found Trump’s calls for unity “appalling” in light of his constant bullying and incendiary rhetoric against his rivals and the news media.
Anne Garrels, a retired ABC News and NPR correspondent who is now on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the committee has grown deeply concerned about attacks on journalists by the president in recent years, “which is a dramatic change for us.” The committee tracks press freedom worldwide, and while Garrels stressed that journalists in other countries may not even have the opportunity to condemn the president’s actions, it was all the more reason she said she was compelled to sign the letter.
“We can’t stand silently while this goes on,” she said. “I feel very strongly about Trump’s attitude toward the press. It’s dangerous, it’s destructive, and it’s not what presidents do. The more we speak out, I think, the better.”