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This Is Not Normal

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By Jason Pratt, CC BY 2.0

The following is a guest post by frequent commenter and friend-of-the-blog Keta.

It’s long been understood that Trump and his supporters are fully engaged in smearing the media at every turn.  They understand perfectly that the best defence against truthful reporting is to loudly and continually claim anything negative as “fake news” and, judging by how common the claim and belief have become on the right, this loathsome tactic has been very effective.

Now, as reported in The New York Times, Trump supporters have moved into even more insidious territory. They’ve weaponized research into the lives and archived social media of members of the press, allegedly compiling a database of past “transgressions” that can be used to damage the reputation of journalists and their families, as well as other political opponents.

The group has already released information about journalists at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times — three outlets that have aggressively investigated Mr. Trump — in response to reporting or commentary that the White House’s allies consider unfair to Mr. Trump and his team or harmful to his re-election prospects.

Operatives have closely examined more than a decade’s worth of public posts and statements by journalists, the people familiar with the operation said. Only a fraction of what the network claims to have uncovered has been made public, the people said, with more to be disclosed as the 2020 election heats up. The research is said to extend to members of journalists’ families who are active in politics, as well as liberal activists and other political opponents of the president.

The White House says it’s unaware of, and has no affiliation with, the operation.  But most evidence points to a good friend of Don Trump Jr., as the point person.

It is clear from the cases to date that among the central players in the operation is Arthur Schwartz, a combative 47-year-old conservative consultant who is a friend and informal adviser to Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son. Mr. Schwartz has worked with some of the right’s most aggressive operatives, including the former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.

This is obviously a coordinated attack group, with the intimidation factor its biggest weapon.  And the potential for lies and exaggeration are enormous. President Trump has repeatedly called the press “the enemy of the people,” but these new, more aggressive tactics go far beyond baseless, authoritarian rhetoric.

“If it’s clearly retaliatory, it’s clearly an attack, it’s clearly not journalism,” said Leonard Downie Jr., who was the executive editor of The Post from 1991 to 2008. Tension between a president and the news media that covers him is nothing new, Mr. Downie added. But an organized, wide-scale political effort to intentionally humiliate journalists and others who work for media outlets is.

“It’s one thing for Spiro Agnew to call everyone in the press ‘nattering nabobs of negativism,’” he said, referring to the former vice president’s famous critique of how journalists covered President Richard M. Nixon. “And another thing to investigate individuals in order to embarrass them publicly and jeopardize their employment.”

It’s yet one more step to further devalue a free and open press, to silence critics and defame opponents.  And it’s inching ever closer to members of legitimate US news organizations accidentally falling out of windows.  

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