Two years ago on Jan. 31, the publisher of The New York Times was escorted into the Oval Office of the White House with two of his Times correspondents to interview the president of the United States.
Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman went through their questions, and then A.G. Sulzberger followed up on a previous concern he had raised with President Donald Trump.
Here is an excerpt from the Times interview, published the following day on Feb. 1, 2019.
A.G. Sulzberger: Mr. President, before we wind down, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity just to raise a concern that we discussed last time I was here. ... So the concern I raised then was about your anti-press rhetoric: fake news, enemy of the people. And at the time I said I was concerned that it wasn’t just divisive, it was potentially dangerous —
President Trump: Right.
Sulzberger: — and warned that I thought it could have consequences. I feel like in the time since we’ve started to see some of those consequences play out. We’ve seen around the world an unprecedented rise in attacks on journalists, threats to journalists, censorship of journalists, jailing of journalists and murders of journalists.
Trump: Where in particular?
Sulzberger: Globally, on every continent. I’m happy to send you some of the literature.
Sulzberger: It’s very closely tracked. But one of the things that’s been very striking to me is that as I’ve talked to my colleagues around the globe, you know, working in different countries, particularly working in countries where a free press is already a tenuous thing, they say that they are increasingly of the belief that your rhetoric is creating a climate in which dictators and tyrants are able to employ your words in suppressing a free press. And I wanted to circle back to this, you know, first, I guess to ask you, you know, if you are aware of these broad consequences that we’re seeing.”
The conversation continued, and the president said: “I do notice that people are declaring more and more fake news, where they go ‘fake news.’ I even see it in other countries. I don’t necessarily attribute that to me. I think I can attribute the term to me.”
Fast forward two years to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. There, scratched into a door at the Capitol, are the words “murder the media” — put in place by one of the rioters who stormed the capitol in failed attempt to overturn the presidential election for President Trump.
Words matter, and Trump is facing accountability for the words he used to incite the anger against politicians who don’t agree with him (even those who formally did) and against the media, who he has had a running battle with throughout his presidency.
As for Sulzberger’s warning, the dangers are real, and not just in countries without a history of press freedom. Newsrooms this week, including ours, are evaluating — again — how to cover protests safely. Broadcasters are determining how to conduct their live shots without become targets for agitators. With more protests planned around the country, some have referred to media as “soft targets.”
Threats bring violence and violence must stop.
“For the past four years, the Trump administration has lobbed attacks against individual and institutional news media. As the world has now witnessed, this rhetoric is not just a political diversion — it can embolden mobs to attack reporters who are simply trying to do their job of keeping the public informed,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks attacks on journalists, including those that result in deaths.
There were many accounts of journalists threatened or attacked trying to cover the Capitol; Associated Press photographer John Minchillo was pulled down a series of steps and repeatedly hit and threatened. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, a freelance photojournalist, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that three people threatened to shoot her.
Regardless of what one believes about the media or news coverage, can we agree on the need to eliminate violence? The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 329 journalists were assaulted in America in 2020.
Much has been written about the political divide in America. But there is actually much more that Americans agree on.
The Deseret News each year, together with BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, conducts the American Family Survey. Among the findings is this: “In spite of such differences, people across the ideological spectrum tend to engage with their families in similar ways, including the frequency with which they eat dinner together, do chores, go out together and even argue, the poll found.”
Words matter. Accountability matters. When we can put violence behind and return to civil debate, America can move forward.