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Rather than denounce attacks on press, Trump doubles down on negative tweets

October 1, 2020

Far from condemning the unprecedented surge of attacks against the press this year, President Donald Trump has instead increased his barrage of insults against journalists both online and during in-person campaign events as Election Day nears.

At multiple campaign rallies in September, Trump made fun of an injury sustained by MSNBC host Ali Velshi while reporting from a Minneapolis protest. “Wasn’t it really a beautiful sight,” he asked one crowd in Minnesota. In North Carolina, he called the assault “a beautiful thing.”

In response, MSNBC called the president’s rhetoric dangerous: “When the president mocks a journalist for the injury he sustained while putting himself in harm’s way to inform the public, he endangers thousands of other journalists and undermines our freedoms.”

Velshi is just one of hundreds of journalists who have been assaulted, arrested or otherwise aggressed upon while covering national Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests since the end of May, as reported to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. By comparison, the Tracker documented 39 journalists assaulted and 9 arrested last year.

In addition to glorifying the violence at campaign rallies, the president has now tweeted negatively about the press more than 2,300 times since declaring his candidacy in 2015.

6-15 "The Far Left Fake News Media"

From The Protests

While his posts come in bursts and streams, the president has tweeted against the media on average nearly twice per day this year. More than half the time, he uses the word “fake.”

As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the U.S., Trump’s anti-press tweeting reached a frenetic pace. In January, denigrating the media was 5.6% of his overall tweets. By April, that reached 22.3%. On Easter Sunday, he surpassed 2,000 negative tweets against the press.

Following April’s high-water mark, the focus of the president’s anti-press tweets expanded to include the media’s coverage of the national demonstrations against police brutality and the presidential race.

On May 30, nearly 200 incidents of aggressions against the press from national protests were reported to the Tracker. That same day, Trump accused CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post of spreading “disinformation” and labeled them “the enemy of the people.” On May 31, Trump blamed the media for the protests and accused it of pursuing its own “sick agenda.”

5-31 "The Lamestream Media.. foment hatred and anarchy"

Reporters Without Borders, a Tracker partner, asserted that Trump’s rhetoric — demeaning and delegitimizing the press — had laid the groundwork for the exceptional amount of aggressions.

“President Trump's demonization of the media for years has now come to fruition, with both the police and protesters targeting clearly identified journalists with violence and arrests,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general. “It has long been obvious that this demonization would lead to physical violence.”

To The Polls

A return to the campaign trial has also meant a return to campaign tactics on Twitter for the president: He dismisses unfavorable polls as “fake,” paints the media as a whole as biased and heaps insults and doubt on reporters covering him and his administration critically. Already this year, Trump has exceeded the number of tweets targeting specific newsrooms and individuals that he posted in his third year.

9-9 "Fake stories and investigations"

During his first candidacy, nearly 40% of Trump’s anti-press tweets criticized individual journalists. That number dipped following his election — fewer than 10% of tweets his first year in office referenced specific journalists — but has returned as the 2020 election looms.

In September, nearly 30% of his anti-press tweets again named specific journalists, with The Atlantic magazine editor Jeffrey Goldberg and investigative journalist Bob Woodward targeted the most often. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace also became a focus following his moderation of the first presidential debate on Sept. 29.

9-29 "Trump vs. Wallace"

Since the beginning of the year, Trump has routinely — around 15% of his anti-press tweets — described the media as the “opposition” party or as a “partner” of the Democratic Party. That’s twice as often as he used that language last year, and more than seven times as often as in 2018.

Many of these have referred specifically to the broadcaster MSNBC as “MSDNC.”

7-26 "The Opposition Party"

Trump also delegitimizes the polls conducted by various news organizations, including ABC, Fox, and the Times, asserting that the polls are deliberately falsified or improperly taken in order to hurt his campaign. Nearly one in eight of his anti-press tweets in August — and one in 10 in September — include claims that polls not taken by his campaign are “fake” or “phony.”

6-19 "Fox News" and "their phony polls"

A Tumultuous 2020

Trump’s most effective assault on the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists asserted in an April report on his administration, has been the erosion of its credibility with the public.

The president has posted 2,347 negative tweets against the press — more than 460 of those coming this year alone — encouraging his supporters to distrust anything that isn’t said by him. He refutes the validity of reporting, claims that the press is the “opposition party” or “enemy” and insults individual reporters even as assaults, arrests and other aggressions against journalists reach an all-time high.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker maintains a searchable database tracking Twitter posts in which Trump mentions media, individual journalists or news outlets in a negative tone since he declared his candidacy in June 2015.