President Donald Trump can be infuriating. Whether you love or hate him, few would disagree he’s brilliant at getting under people’s skin. He’s like the sibling who knows exactly how to push your buttons and makes you do something you instantly regret.
The latest casualty of Trump-baiting is two journalists who couldn’t help themselves — even though they know better — from lashing out at the president after five staffers at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis were killed in their newsroom last month.
Trump is a master at baiting any one person or group he thinks gets in his way by using dismissive name calling that invariably sticks. And he has a particular fondness for attacking the media.
The president’s knack for nasty nicknames got national attention during the 2016 primary when he came up with derogatory, memorable names for Republican opponents. There was “Low energy Jeb” and “Little Marco.” Sen. Ted Cruz was dismissed as “Lyin’ Ted.” Then he moved on to the Democrats. “Crazy Bernie.” “Cryin’ Chuck (Schumer).” “Pocahontas” for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
His anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric reached millions during the endless hours of free air time during the campaign. Who can forget “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Hillary” — nicknames Trump repeated so often they are permanently drummed into our brains.
The constant denigration may have figured into why Clinton foolishly said something she instantly regretted and may even have hurt her chances of winning. In September 2016, she told donors that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables,” because they are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.”
No one is immune from Trump’s taunting. The media get it in spades. There’s nary a news consumer who can’t repeat without a second’s thought the president’s media descriptors. We are: “lying,” “failing,” “dishonest,” “fake news,” “crooked,” “corrupt,” “bad people” and the most untrue, “enemy of the people.”
The taunting fires up supporters. But it also gets to hard-working, committed journalists — even though it should not. It got to Reuters breaking news editor Rob Cox on June 28 after he heard that five staffers had been murdered inside their Annapolis newsroom. Cox concluded Trump-fueled hatred of the media had motivated the mass shooter. He reacted like a school yard kid who snapped after months of being tormented.
“This is what happens when @real DonaldTrump calls journalists the enemy of the people,” Cox tweeted. “Blood is on your hands, Mr. President. Save your thoughts and prayers for your empty soul.”
While reporters routinely cover shootings at schools and public venues, the murder of colleagues at a community paper — the kind many started on — was deeply personal. Cox did what he should not have done. He showed his hand. He shared his anger at a president who relentlessly spews anti-media rhetoric. He violated the tenet that journalists should maintain freedom from bias.
Reuters rebuked him publicly, apologizing for Cox’s tweet, saying it was inconsistent with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
“Journalists are people too, with all the rights of citizens,” according to Reuter’s basic principles. “If we want to tweet or post about a school play, a film or a favorite recipe, we are free to do so. When dealing with matters of public importance and actual or potential subjects of coverage, however, Reuters journalists should be mindful of the impact their publicly expressed opinions can have on their work and on Reuters.”
Cox deleted the tweet and apologized ina series of four tweets.
“When I saw the news today that a mass shooter had targeted the employees of a news in Maryland I responded emotionally and inappropriately,” Cox tweeted. “Though my comments were entirely personal, they were not in keeping with the Reuters Trust Principles and my own standard for letting facts, not snap judgments, guide my understanding. My experience as a member of the community of Newtown, Connecticut in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, combined with the possibility that my colleagues in the press were being targeted, pushed me into a state of emotional distress.”
Cynicism fueled Connor Berry, a reporter at the Republican in Springfield, Mass. He tweeted a picture of Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hat, suggesting the shooter had dropped one on the newsroom floor.
He hadn’t. As it turned out, the gunman shot up the newsroom to avenge a long-standing grudge against the paper, and it had nothing to do with Trump’s relentless media bashing.
Berry’s tweet cost him his job.
“Folks, my 21-year career as a ‘journalist,’ a fancy term that makes my skin crawl, frankly, came to a screeching halt yesterday with one stupid, regrettable tweet,” Berry tweeted after resigning. “Can’t take it back; wish I could. My sincere apologies to all good, hardworking reporters and POTUS supporters.”
Other journalists, too, have lost their job or been reassigned after impetuously hitting send on a tweet that revealed their biases. Newsrooms continually warn reporters to keep their personal opinions to themselves, but it’s hard to not miss journalists’ snarky comments about the president on Twitter.
CNN host Reza Aslan lashed out at the president, calling him a “piece of shit” on Twitter for Trump’s remarks following the June 2017 London terror attacks. “I lost my cool and responded to him in a derogatory fashion,” apologized Aslan. CNN canceled his show.
In September 2017, former ESPN host Jemele Hill tweeted the president is a white supremacist, which earned her a hand slap from her employer. After a second controversial tweet, Hill was suspended for two weeks and was reassigned to ESPN’s The Undefeated. In December 2016, Politico reporter Julia Ioffe was fired due to an obscene tweet about Ivanka Trump.
Journalists used to get a lot more second chances. But they’ve lost that cushion with the Trump White House, because the relationship is far more adversarial than with other administrations. Each time a journalist makes a mistake, lashes out, loses control or shows their animosity, it further erodes public trust.
And public trust is something journalists and news organizations simply cannot afford to risk or lose.
Alicia Shepard, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a longtime media analyst and a former ombudsman for NPR. Follow her on Twitter: @ombudsman