Condoned by Trump, press attacks hit local reporters hard

President Trump at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs on October 9, 2018. Photo via Annie Mehl/Carroll Daily Times Herald

Douglas Burns, a fourth-generation journalist, is co-owner of the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, a newspaper that has been in his family since 1929. He writes a regular column, “Taking Note,” for the Times Herald editorial page, and he has covered politics in the Midwest since the late ’80s, with a focus on rural issues. He’s a fixture in his community.

None of that seemed to matter last October, when Burns arrived at a Trump rally in Council Bluffs, about two hours southwest of Carroll. Burns was there to report on an ethanol-use announcement of particular concern to farmers, and yet he was treated as if he had ulterior motives. Along with other reporters, he was locked in a media pen at the back of the arena and forbidden to speak to members of the crowd, many of whom he knew. Burns couldn’t use the bathroom without an invigilator from Trump’s team following along to make sure he didn’t interact with anyone. “It was like visiting hours in a prison,” Burns, 49, tells me.

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His demoralizing experience was just one of a number of instances during the midterms and beyond in which local reporters with longstanding community ties were shunned, spurned, harassed, and otherwise treated with disdain by elected officials. As President Trump’s press bashing continues unabated, such incidents seem to suggest his example is being taken up at the local level.

“Local journalists seem to be vilified now,” Kevin Goldberg, an attorney who serves as legal counsel to the American Society of News Editors, says. “Whether it’s federal officials outside of DC or it’s actually state or local officials, I feel like people are more emboldened to act against journalists.”

Iowa, it turns out, has been a particularly inhospitable state for local reporters. In the fall, Governor Kim Reynolds snubbed the Gazette, a daily paper in Cedar Rapids, when it requested a meeting, as did a number of Iowa House incumbents. Likewise, Representative Steve King, along with his fellow Republican incumbents, refused to meet with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register during the midterms. King also barred the Register from his election night event on the grounds that, as King’s son put it, the paper was a “leftist propaganda media outlet with no concern for reporting the truth.”

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These instances, however, have by no means been limited to the Corn Belt. Last June, two Long Island journalists, Pat Biancaniello and David Ambro, were ejected, without apparent cause, from Republican Representative Lee Zeldin’s kick-off campaign rally. “It was the first time in my 40-year career as a journalist that I have ever been thrown out of anything,” Ambro, the managing editor of Smithtown News, wrote in a follow-up article after the event. “I didn’t like it.”

Everyone should be worried about the tactic of saying, ‘There’s no objective truth and we reject the role of the press.’ Everyone should be afraid of that filtering down to the local level, and I think you’re starting to see signs of it.

Around four months later, in Connecticut, the campaign staff of failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski tried to ban a Hearst reporter and a photographer from covering a GOP election-night event. Stefanowski’s team relented when the incident went viral, but it was still a chilling experience, according to Matt DeRienzo, the vice president of news and digital content at Hearst Connecticut, which publishes eight daily and 20 weekly newspapers.

“Everyone should be worried about the tactic of saying There’s no objective truth and we reject the role of the press,” says DeRienzo. “Everyone should be afraid of that filtering down to the local level, and I think you’re starting to see signs of it.”

Such incidents occurred before Trump, of course. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was well-known for his belligerent attitude toward the press; in 2012, he asked whether a reporter was “stupid” for going off topic at a press conference. And Paul LePage, the two-term Republican governor of Maine recently succeeded by Democrat Janet Mills, was in many ways a local antecedent to Trump, according to Michael Socolow, a professor of journalism at the University of Maine. In 2013, LePage expressed a desire to blow up the Portland Press Herald building, though he later said he was joking.

Still, in the past year, such acts of aggression appear to be both more common and more calculated. California Republican Devin Nunes, a vociferous Trump supporter and the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has refused to speak with the Fresno Bee, which sits in his district, since February 2018. In late September, Nunes’ campaign mailed to constituents a 38-page glossy magazine called The Fresno Bees, attacking the McClatchy-owned newspaper and alleging to have uncovered “the dirty little secrets of the Valley’s propaganda machine.”

The magazine failed to deliver on its promise, of course, but it was still jarring to reporters and editors at the Bee, despite the fact that Nunes had every right to publish such a pamphlet. “It’s just unusual in that the Bee has never been attacked like this by a politician,” Joe Kieta, the paper’s editor in chief, tells me.

It’s an example of how politicians from both parties feel emboldened to avoid talking to journalists, in part because attacks by Trump and others have continued to undermine public opinion of journalists.

It’s worth noting that animosity and suspicion toward local journalists hasn’t just come from Republicans. Last summer, for example, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected Democratic wunderkind, banned the media from covering two town hall events in Queens and the Bronx, causing a minor stir among the New York press horde.

Beto O’Rourke, the upstart Democratic congressman, gave the Dallas Observer no interviews while he was campaigning for Ted Cruz’s senate seat, according to Observer editor Patrick Williams. In addition, Hillary Borrud, a reporter for the Oregonian who covers state politics and government, said she struggled to get access to Governor Kate Brown’s campaign, which made it difficult to hold her positions and policies to account.

“It’s an example of how politicians from both parties feel emboldened to avoid talking to journalists,” Borrud explains in an email, “in part because attacks by Trump and others have continued to undermine public opinion of journalists.”

Perhaps the most startling instance of Democratic aggression during the midterms came from Daphne Campbell, a former member of the Florida Senate who, in August, called the police on Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey for questioning her at a candidates’ forum that had taken place in a local restaurant. “Can you please send a police for me, please, right now?” Campbell—who three months prior had called the cops on another local reporter, Rich Robinson of Rise News—told the dispatcher. “My life is threatened.”

No arrests were made, but the episode made an impression on Blaskey. “Nothing quite like that had ever happened before,” she says.

Burns worries about his younger colleagues, who, he says, have never experienced the sense of collegiality that once existed, in one way or another, between journalists and elected officials. “For a lot of younger people,” he says, “this is all they’ve known.”

Kieta, of the Bee, says that the paper’s staff has pushed to elucidate its reporting processes for its readers, to build trust and to counteract any anti-media bias. But while such efforts may convince some readers to have faith in local media, politicians such as Devin Nunes will likely be unswayed.

“The upshot is, we didn’t change,” Kieta concludes. “We’re still doing the kind of journalism that we’ve always done.”

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate.