WASHINGTON – It was probably only a matter of time before some unbalanced person decided that he needed to take out a few members of the “fake news” media.
And it was inevitable that his actions – in this case, his threats – would be placed at the feet of Donald Trump, who has spent a considerable amount of time and energy demonizing the media. If you’re a disturbed 19-year-old, then maybe you hear a call to arms from the commander in chief.
Fortunately, Brandon Griesemer didn’t hurt anyone, nor did he travel to CNN’s Atlanta headquarters as he allegedly threatened to several times over the course of two days and 22 phone calls to the cable network earlier this month. FBI agents tracked Griesemer down in Novi, Michigan – a Detroit suburb – and charged him with interstate communications with intent to extort, threaten or injure. He made an initial appearance in court on Jan. 19 and is currently free on a $10,000 unsecured bond until his next hearing in February.
This arrangement would seem to suggest that Griesemer’s alleged threats have been deemed unserious enough to warrant his release, but this is cold comfort to the many journalists who recently have felt that they have a target on their backs. I’m not alone in having received death threats and other unpleasant suggestions when I’ve written critically of Trump. Whether this is at least partially Trump’s fault is an interesting question without a convenient answer.
One can reasonably argue that Trump isn’t to blame for what others do or say. On the other hand, one could also posit that when the president targets journalists or media institutions by name in his frequent “fake news” rants, he bears some responsibility for what happens as a result, assuming a direct connection can be made.
Trump has said, after all, that he prefers Twitter to reporters because he can talk directly to people. Tweeting for him is like whispering in someone’s ear – a few million at a time. This false intimacy can be almost like having a conversation, as I’ve heard many of his supporters say. Given this perception and the relative novelty of social media, is it time to expand the definition of conspiracy or to tweak laws against yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater? When a pattern of incitement can be demonstrated, should the inciter be held accountable?
Excerpts from the calls, which were also laced with anti-Semitic and racist language, suggest a familiarity with the president’s messaging:
“Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down,” the caller said. “F–- you, f–-ing n––-s.”
“I am on my way right now to gun the f–-in' CNN cast down. F–- you.”
“I’m coming for you CNN. I’m smarter than you. More powerful than you. I have more guns than you. More manpower. Your cast is about to get gunned down in a matter of hours.”
Not really so smart, it would appear – or armed. Griesemer’s father told The Washington Post that neither he nor his son owns any guns.
As much as I’d like to impugn the president, a temptation he seems to enjoy nurturing, it’s premature and probably dangerous to link his idiotic “fake news” diatribes with this man whose apparent unhinging could be attributable to any number of factors.
Who knows what thoughts the caller harbored or what rage simmered within? Is he a tortured soul, a bullied child, a friendless dreamer? Was he hoping to act on his rants, or was he exploring his capacity for vileness? Without a statement – or a manifesto, as these things tend to go – it would be impossible to discern whether Trump’s was the voice in his head.
There is surely no paucity of people who harbor an irrational hatred for the media. All journalists have heard from them, which is why our workplaces are fortresses and why we glance a third time over our shoulders before turning the corner toward home. Trump didn’t create those people – or their distemper – but he did make a conscious decision to mine and legitimize their darkest inclinations in exchange for power.
This alone doesn’t make him culpable if someone goes off the deep end, but it does make him a despicable human being, which is bad enough. In a president, it’s unpardonable.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.