Accepting death threats IS NOT part of the job!

I was watching Judy Woodruff and Martin Baron, former editor of the Washington Post, in a talk when they were asked about criticism of their work. Woodruff gave what I recognize as the standard line that mainstream journalists give that they are doing a good job when they are getting “pushback from both ends of the political spectrum.” She said that criticism “comes with the turf.”

The host then asked about her support of the International Women’s Media Foundation and how the focus is on protecting women journalists who are subject to threats and harassment. He asked both whether “this anger at the press is manifesting itself in a kind of behavior that’s not just an angry tweet or letter, but it’s something else.”

Judy Woodruff and Martin Baron with Geoffrey Cowan Apr 13, 2022 | America at a Crossroads

Baron talked about “the aggrieved individual’ that killed journalists at the Annapolis paper the Capital Gazette. (Link ) He mentioned incidents that were directed toward Washington Post staff that “indicated that people knew where we lived and that damage could be done and that physical harm could take place.” He explained that staff at the Washington Post were subject to threats on email, by phone, Twitter and from people showing up at people’s homes.

He said it’s now become a “common occurrence” and he thinks that all media outlets have “just increased the amount of security that’s available. A lot of background checks on the people who are threatening us.” He wanted viewers to know that there is security at headquarters and now at journalist’s homes.

Woodruff talked about the danger to journalists around the world because “the government doesn’t protect them” She mentioned Mexico, the Philippines and Turkey and said that in the United States “people feel freer to target the press than at any time in her career.”

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Judy Woodruff and Martin Baron with Geoffrey Cowan Apr 13, 2022 | America at a Crossroads. A joint undertaking of Community Advocates, Inc. and Jews United for Democracy and Justice.

When she talked about ” political rallies” she didn’t mention Trump’s name or Republicans. Why not name him and what he encourages? So PBS wouldn’t be accused of being biased against the right. This “playing it down the middle” when it is clear 99% of the threats are coming from the right covers up the source of the problem.

I understand the mindset, they strive to be accurate. Let’s say out of the 2000 death threats they get in a month, one appears to be from the left. It’s accurate to say, “We get death threats from both sides of the political spectrum.” But what’s the ratio? All death threats are bad, no matter who sends them, but to pretend this is equally coming from the left is to misrepresent the story.

This “both sides do it” on everything comes after decades of the right working the media refs. Like when we see the media cover a 200,000 member anti-war protest and half of a 60 second story is talking to the 10 pro-war protesters.

This is not “both sides” writing letters to complain about media bias. This is people from the right sending emails, making calls & tweeting saying, “We know where you and your family live, if you don’t stop what you are saying we are going to kill them and you.”

For the right harassment and threats have become a TFG approved method to target EVERYONE who doesn’t do what the extremists want. Including Republican politicians.

What that clip shows is just how normalized death threats have become. As Ambrosius said at Crooks & Liars about this. “Pfft. Death threats are free speech now.”

When Upton didn’t condemn the armed hoards in Michigan protesting at the state capitol with guns, he encouraged threats of political violence as acceptable. Now that it’s directed at him and other moderate Republicans, he’s resigning.

What he should be doing is demanding this stop, finding the people making the threats & prosecuting them. (Now when I say that, does your mind instantly think, ‘Uh, oh, that could be a problem! That could be a slippery slope and threaten free speech. That could be used by the government against me!” Well congratulations, the messaging process of lumping death threats into “free speech” has succeeded. )

Remember when the school board association asked the FBI to look into the threats to school board members? The right flipped out and used that request as a victimization talking point. “Censorship! Government witch hunt! They are trying to cancel us just for speaking our opinions!”

It became a talking point for the right and the media covered it. The FBI had to issue a statement that the FBI is not using threat tags on parents who protest at school board meetings.

The FBI statement said the agency has “never been in the business of investigating parents who speak out or policing speech at school board meetings.”

“We are fully committed to preserving and protecting First Amendment rights, including freedom of speech,” the statement said. “The FBI’s focus is on violence and threats of violence that potentially violate federal law.”

The right WANTs to merge in the public’s minds that threats of violence toward school boards members is exactly the same as people speaking at a school board meeting. They know to invoke the phrase “First Amendment Rights” when talking about any government agency action. They know to use the phrase “free speech” to get platitude free speech supporters to defend them in the abstract.

They right applies this same strategy toward media organizations who want to focus on threats of violence toward journalists. “I thought you said you see yourself as promoters of free speech? Then how can you object to me sending you an email saying I’m going to come to your house and hang you? That’s my free speech!”

What is to be done?

I was talking to people at Eschaton about my frustration around a proactive response from the media about these threats. (Twenty years of pity brilliance today!) I have several reasons why I think there is a weak response from the media. In part two I’ll have some suggestions about what PBS and Washington Post should do, which will be ignored, so I’ll talk about some specific things that we can do to help independent journalists, bloggers and activists deal with threats.

Why isn’t anything done?

1) The media are often in the position of defending people’s words. They don’t want to look like a censor, or look like they can’t take some criticism. After all, they criticize people all the time! Of course they try to be careful to not libel or slander people. They usually aren’t calling for people’s death.

2) Law enforcement wants to charge someone with breaking a law. Law enforcement has to decide if the threat is serious enough to investigate. DAs have to decide if they catch the person will they pursue the case. Also, this is usually a local case first, when it becomes a an outside threat, things change. The idea that local physical violence is the priority makes sense from the point of view of safety and resources, but what’s the best way to respond to threats of unknown origins?

As we have learned from the great reporting from Reuters about threats to campaign workers, law enforcement doesn’t follow up on threats. U.S. election workers get little help from law enforcement as terror threats mount By Linda So and Jason Szep

3) The right has learned to use Trump’s Mob Speak. They know what words to use when harassing, threatening and intimidating the media. They also know how to claim victimhood, even when they are the perpetrator. The ones who aren’t smart, who double down and state their intent to do harm, still get defended by smart lawyers who coach them on how to avoid serious legal consequences.

Reporters, campaign workers, public health officials and stand-up comedians should NOT ACCEPT death threats as part of their job!

I realize I’m making generalizations about how “the media” responds, so while I’d like to look at the threats Baron mentions, he has clearly been told not to discuss the incidents. Law enforcement, the media organization security staff, their lawyers and their PR people all tell executives not to discuss it. There are several possible reasons behind not bringing up the stories.

  1. The police might still be investigating. “We can’t comment on on-going investigations.”
  2. They don’t want to invite copy cats.
  3. The media company’s security wants everyone to know that there is now physical security at media headquarters and at reporters homes so someone shows up to cause harm they will be caught. (However, in reality, they can’t protect all the staffers all the time.)
  4. The PR people don’t want to let the attackers know that they were successful in frightening the journalists. That’s why they put out the story that, “They will continue to bravely report on the news.”

5. The law enforcement and private investigators working for the company are preparing criminal and civil cases. They don’t want the attackers to know they are tracking the people making threats and gathering evidence.

Now I’d LOVE to think that law enforcement and private investigators are preparing criminal and civil cases to prosecute the attackers, but i don’t think that’s happening. Besides the reasons above, I think that there are self imposed limitations journalism organizations have when it comes to dealing with harassment, intimidation and threats. It’s an idea that as defenders of valid free speech that can’t actively follow up and call for the prosecution of those who harass and threaten them.

One of the things I’ve learned is that sometimes actions aren’t taken because of an “attitude” problem, but because it’s a resource problem. The organization Judy mentioned, International Women’s Media Fund, has a page on safety. On that page they link to a group, called Troll Busters that helps journalists who are being harassed online. Here are some of the things that they do:

  • Help you figure out what you should do next.
    • Monitor the tainted stream.
    • Help report trolls to the appropriate platforms and authorities.
    • Provide free lessons on digital hygiene to help you protect yourself.
    • Conduct training on digital security and response.

Like Crash Overide, the group I wrote about earlier when comedian Blair Erskin was threatened, all this is important work. The media organizations can help fund these organizations and provide the services. But there needs to be more.

Does PBS and The Washington Post support organizations that file civil suits against the organizers of people who are harassing and threatening others? Or would they be afraid to be seen as funding that?
There can be successful individual civil cases about people harassing and threatening others online, but we know from the January 6th findings that there are specific groups behind people engaging in online attacks. Also, there are big money backers linked to these attacks.

Another big problem for many individuals and groups dealing with threats is that law enforcement doesn’t want to investigate. Carol Leonnig has written about how they dismiss threats as “1st Amendment issues.” Also, local DAs don’t want to prosecute. Someone over at Crook and Liars pointed out that casting everything as a “legal” issue can be limiting, especially when the laws on harassments that are needed, don’t exist in many states.

The right understands all this and uses journalism entities fear of aggressive follow up and prosecution of the people sending threats. They have learned that they can avoid consequences for their harassment.

The right will use a twisted definition of what is “free speech” to get some on the left to defend them. They will also use the current Supreme Court case, Elonis vs. US about threats via Facebook, to cast online threats as minor and not a “true threat.”

Why are there no demands for changes in laws? Because politicians on the left are afraid of being called censors or haters of free speech. Media organizations don’t want to be get involved for similar reasons. They could support laws protecting people, like the ones created for public health officers about doxxing and harassment, but will that? (See this report from my friends at the Network for Public Health Law on how states are protecting public health officials from harassment. )

So if media organizations aren’t going to go after the perpetrators or push for new laws, what can they do? Start with rejecting the premise that this “comes with the territory.” This is NOT “just the price we pay for living in America during the social media age.” This is a conscious decision by one political party and a specific person to intimidate, dominate and weak the media.

The big media entities also need to acknowledging that harassment and threats to their people happen on social media. The threats are primarily from the right. The social media companies COULD do more, but they don’t.

Social media companies have attempted to rein in the perpetrators by updating and then enforcing their community guidelines. They use AI and ask for users to report violations. That helped somewhat, and then the right figured out how to use those community guidelines and the limitations in Facebook’s AI to harass and threaten people!

I’m going to give some specific examples on how a media company could work with a social media company to go after the people and organizers of threat and harassment campaigns in part two and three.

If you can’t change people’s behavior, make harassing and threatening others unprofitable

I’m a blogger and activist. I’m been working on ways to make ensure negative consequences for people engaging in violent rhetoric since 2005 when I developed a method to cut into the right-wing media’s advertiser revenue stream. (Link) It’s had a major impact on right wing media’s revenue stream from advertisers.

I’m now looking to ensure negative consequences for people engaging in threats of violence. Back in 2005 I knew I needed leverage and compelling reasons to get right wing media hosts to rein in their violent rhetoric. I used financial leverage, the internal values and rules of their own organization and sponsors’ concerns of brand damage to pressure them to change their behavior.

When applying the concept today to those threatening violence I realized that the social media companies have a major part to play. One insight I had then was that I needed people on the left to understand that ensuring that there were negative consequences to the people using violent rhetoric on right wing media didn’t mean they were against free speech.

They didn’t have to “defend to the death” some radio host’s call to blow people’s brains out. When a sponsor took away ad money, they weren’t censoring them. They just were not financially supporting them. This worked, especially for the people who believed that “the marketplace,” can solve all problems.

I looked to financial methods as a route to negative consequence for radio hosts engaging in violent rhetoric because in America today, the most powerful lever is money. I had seen how other paths to change behavior had been gamed. But I also knew to use what people SAY they value matters. I asked advertisers to listen to what was being said and asked, ” Do you want to associated your brand with that violent rhetoric?” Companies didn’t want to taint their brand.

Then, when advertisers left, i went to the radio & TV management and pointed out that hosts spewing violent rhetoric was not PROFITABLE. “What you thought was an asset is actually a liability.”

The hosts that made less money with violent rhetoric didn’t get their contracts renewed. (Of course Fox News has adapted, but they still respond to the fear of losing big money, notice how none of the hosts talk about voting machines anymore!)

Right now threats of violence and harassment is successful for the right. It is also profitable for the social media companies that carry it. There are minor consequences for the individuals who get caught engaging in it and none for those who organize, fund and profit from it. This needs to change.

In parts two and three I’ll give examples of how we can create serious consequences for the perpetrators and organizers of harassment and threat campaigns.

Cross Posted at Hullabaloo Accepting death threats IS NOT part of the job!

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