Time was when editors told reporters “don’t get beat,” it meant they’d better break a story before any rival newspapers. Nowadays, the old dictum takes on a new cautionary meaning with a national database tracking physical assaults on journalists in an increasingly polarized political climate. But Bay Area congressman Eric Swalwell has seen enough of literal attacks on the free press and is doing something about it. He introduced the Journalist Protection Act on Monday that’d make assaulting a reporter on the job a federal crime.
Congressman Swalwell puts much of the blame on President Donald Trump for the rising hostility against media makers. “President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere,” Swalwell said in a press release. “It’s not just about labeling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews – it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence.”
Among other incidents, the statement from Swalwell’s office cited the infamous assault on Weekly reporter Frank John Tristan as well as photographers Brian Feinzimer and Julie Leopo at a pro-Trump Make America Great Again rally last March in Huntington Beach. Back then, a Trump supporter shoved Feinzimer and punched Tristan, who tried to create space between the two. Tyler Laube, a member of the white nationalist Rise Above Movement (then DIY Division), took advantage of the chaos and got some cheap shots in against Tristan afterward.
And it’s good Swalwell wants to strengthen protections for journalists who are just doing their job. When it came to the MAGA Melee in HB, Orange Coast District of California State Parks police shrugged instead of investigating the attacks on Weekly crew members. But the OC inspiration for the proposed legislation doesn’t stop in HB. Swalwell also points out terrible tweets by Trump that depict attacks on the press, including a Corona del Mar woman’s meme showing the “Trump train” smashing into a reporter with a CNN logo on their head that the president retweeted and deleted just days after a white nationalist’s car attack killed protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.
The bill enjoys early support from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and News Media for Open Government. “This is a dangerous time to be a journalist,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The NewsGuild, a division of the CWA, in a press statement. “At least 44 reporters were physically attacked in the U.S. last year and angry rhetoric that demonizes reporters persists. The threatening atmosphere is palpable. The Journalist Protection Act deserves the support of everyone who believes our democracy depends on a free and vibrant press.”
Among the bill’s early co-sponsors include congress members Maxine Waters, Andre Carson, Bobby Rush and Grace Napolitano. None of OC’s congressional representatives have lent their support in the form of sponsorship.
“Not all attacks on journalists this year have been committed by Trump supporters, but the fact remains that rhetoric emanating from the world’s most powerful office is stoking an environment in which these attacks proliferate,” Swalwell said. “We must send a loud, clear message that such violence won’t be tolerated.”