The rules keep changing. In the wake of the general hysteria that broke out in much of the mainstream media over the holiday weekend about President Donald Trump’s tweet of a comic GIF showing him beating up the CNN logo, it might be instructive to go back just a few weeks to a not dissimilar discussion. While it is being taken as a given that Trump’s retweeting of a pro-wrestling scene — which is, by definition, fake rather than realistic fighting — constitutes encouragement of violence against journalists, this flies in the face of what a few moments ago was a solid consensus about linking speech to the acts of extremists.
In the wake of the shocking attack on Republican members of Congress last month, most of the media and the political class were agreed on one important point: There was to be no finger-pointing or connecting of dots between criticism of the GOP and the bloody shooting spree in which House majority whip Steve Scalise (La.) was seriously wounded. The idea that the shooter — an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders — might have been influenced by some of the over-the-top rhetoric from the Vermont senator or other prominent Democrats about Republicans’ killing people with their stance on repealing and replacing Obamacare was strictly off limits.
Most conservatives agreed, since they remembered all too well the unfairness of attempts to connect Republicans to the shooting of Democratic representative Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.). That point was underlined by an outrageously false New York Times editorial on the shooting that revived the libel that Sarah Palin was linked to the actions of an apolitical disturbed person.
Some on the right observed that the press would have played the story very differently had it been, say, a disturbed Trump supporter or NRA member shooting down members of the congressional Democrats’ baseball team, rather than the GOP squad. They were probably right about that, as it is likely that the media would have played the story much bigger and concentrated on the political motives of the shooter rather than burying that angle. It is also likely that the attack would have generated coverage for far longer than it did, since the shooting of Scalise was largely forgotten within a week, while the Giffords assault was the top story for far longer.
But we now know that such speculation was entirely accurate.
Thank heaven, no journalists have been attacked since Trump’s tweet, but CNN’s coverage of it shows that the anticipation for such a calamity is intense. The tone of high dudgeon at Trump’s temerity is matched only by the hyperventilating that anything that happens to any journalist from now on will be deemed the fault of the president.
Let’s concede that, like so much else that Trump does and says, this tweet was inappropriate and ill-advised. Criticism from the media, even intense and unfair criticism from a network where bias against Trump has become a badge of honor, is something that all politicians, let alone presidents, should take as something that goes with the territory. Engaging in comic fantasies about body-slamming Trump’s least favorite network is juvenile.
But it’s also important to point out that, unlike his vulgar and personal attacks on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski and her fiancé Joe Scarborough, the CNN gif was obviously a joke. One would think it didn’t need to be pointed out that WWE wrestling is fake, not real. Had Trump posted a realistic video in which he was shown doing actual harm to someone, that would have been one thing. But a pro-wrestling meme is silly entertainment, not scary video-game violence. It was an attempt to portray Trump as triumphing over the press, and while perhaps a trifle overoptimistic about the outcome, the ongoing dustup was clearly within the realm of fair comment and satire.
Unlike Trump’s vulgar and personal attacks on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski and her fiancé Joe Scarborough, the CNN gif was obviously a joke.
Yet these rather obvious facts have been largely ignored in the rush to portray the Trump tweet as one more final straw in which the president’s well-known distaste for critics has morphed into an authoritarian putsch to stifle First Amendment protections for journalists. You don’t have to like Trump, approve of his unorthodox presidential manner, or think this is the way public discourse should be conducted to understand that there is a difference between even a bad joke and a real threat.
More to the point, if we’re going to blame Trump for attacks against journalists that haven’t actually happened yet, we are also logically obligated to throw Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi, along with the scores of other Democrats who have called Republicans murderers for advocating change in an already highly dysfunctional and collapsing federal intervention in the health-care system, into the dock for what happened to Scalise.
Of course, that would be deeply unfair to them. While extreme and regrettable, the Democrats’ simplistic, hyperpartisan health-care rhetoric is political speech, not incitement to attack Republicans. The fault for the shooting of Scalise belongs to the shooter, not those to who disagreed with the congressman about health care.
But that’s why the attempt to treat Trump’s juvenile taunting of the press as an assault on the First Amendment, if not incitement to murder, is deeply wrong.
In this hyperpartisan era, in which liberals have used late-night comedians to flay conservatives on a host of issues. it might be too much to ask for a cease-fire. But any journalist who is intimidated by the tweeting of a jokey video of fake wrestling needs to seek employment in a less stressful profession. Maybe Trump isn’t entitled to the benefit of the doubt about anything. But if you insist on linking his silly tweet to theoretical violence, then you must also link actual extreme rhetoric to actual violence. Until liberals are prepared to do that, they should pipe down about Trump’s silly Twitter taunts.