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• Tom Warhover is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the former executive editor of the Columbia Missourian. He also helps with research projects at RJI. 

Mike Zweifel was working in the spirit of that most distinct quality of American democracy — compromise — when he built a press pen for the Republican watch party on election night.

Those roped off areas are now ubiquitous in national politics. But it had never been done in Boone County, Missouri, so far as longtime local journalists could remember.

Zweifel, the county Republican central committee chair, was in a spot. Some of his members made clear they didn’t like the press and didn’t want the press at all at the party, an irony given the nature of such political events and the expectation of massive Republican victories.

The members might not call journalists “the enemy of the people,” he said. But, “Well, opposition might be the best term for that.”

A press pen, Zweifel figured, would give television reporters a good spot for victory announcements. It might keep members’ animosity toward reporters to a minimum.

The penning also created a press herd for angry party-goers to attack.

At one point, a small group berated reporters with now familiar phrases, according to Columbia Missourian reporter Dylan Jackson. “Drain the swamp.” “The crooked media.” And: “You all are just evil.”

Evil? Really?

These journalists weren’t some faceless pack of “other.” Everyone at the party was local.

Reporters and political junkies drink coffee at the same spots, buy tools at the same hardware stores, and pass each other on the same streets. Their kids go to the same schools.

And still, President Donald Trump’s playbook has trickled down.

The Trumpian tactic of attacking the messenger is showing up in state and even local politics across the country. Don’t like what you see? Call it fake news or worse. Send video messages on social media calling out news organizations and individual reporters.

What’s less clear is whether politicians are more aggressive or simply have a unified vocabulary. As Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune reporter Rudi Keller noted, he had been called a “zany, yellow journalist” in 1988. The charge didn’t stick.

Would it today?

For Amos Bridges, an editor and former reporter for the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader, politicians are a lot more direct with their criticism these days: “It just seems like they’re not bothering to camouflage it.”

Consider:

Mayoral candidate Kristi Fulnecky accused the News-Leader of “reporting ‘fake news’ to smear my reputation” after the newspaper reported on a complaint that she was delinquent in tax payments. The News-Leader was right that a complaint had been filed. Fulnecky was right, it later was determined, that the Missouri Department of Revenue erroneously placed her on its debtors’ database.

In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin took almost a minute of a five-minute Facebook Live attack on another politician to excoriate the Louisville Courier-Journal. The C-J had reported on a temporary injunction request in U.S. District Court to halt a new abortion law requiring doctors to show ultrasound images of fetuses to patients.

Reporter Deborah Yetter’s sin? Accurately describing the state attorney general’s position. He was defending the state in court while at the same time expressing “doubts about its constitutionality,” according to her article.

Without citing evidence, the governor declared that Yetter “chose to intentionally disregard the truth.” The media, he said, support the state attorney general “in ways that is over the top, it’s dishonest, it’s disingenuous at best.” (Look for “please watch this important message” on the governor’s list of videos.)

“I was just sort of puzzled by it,” Yetter said. “It was a routine story about setting a court date.”

Yetter says she’s been reporting for 30 years, and, yes, there have been times when she’s gotten crossways with a source. The closest thing that she could recall was when Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2004 didn’t like the way he was being covered and tried to limit contact with the press.

It lasted “maybe a month,” she said, “and then things went back to normal.”

That’s not likely to happen now. Not when politicians can speak directly to their audiences.

“We have our fake news in Grand Junction,” Colorado state Sen. Ray Scott proclaimed on Twitter in February.

Then he aired things out on Facebook: “The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill.” Scott was referring to a Feb. 8 editorial, so he was right about the pressure, which is kind of the purpose of an opinion page. “They have no facts, as usual.” There, he was dead wrong.

Scott must have been upset with two paragraphs that called for the legislator to set a hearing date. “They haven’t contacted me to get any information on why the bill has been delayed,” Scott wrote, “but choose to run a fake news story demanding I run the bill.”

In classic man bites dog fashion, Scott’s social media made for national news when Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton threatened to sue him. “To borrow a phrase from another Twitter user, I’ll see you in court,” he wrote in a column.

Suing certain politicians may not make it to the next list of best practices, if only for the expense involved. Publicly responding to vicious attacks, on the other hand, costs nothing.

Neither does walking right past the press pen.

When Columbia Daily Tribune reporter Brittany Ruess walked into the election night party and saw the roped off area, she had a pretty good idea what it was.

She didn’t ask. She just started chatting with people who she had covered through the long campaign season.

Personal relationships helped reporter Dylan Jackson, too. He was in the hallway looking for a state representative when one of the more rabid partiers began a stream of invective. The man was so close and so forceful that Jackson could feel the spittle landing on his face.

The state rep, who Jackson had profiled, intervened. The angry man backed off.

Zweifel, the GOP committee leader, is a big man with a pleasant face and ready smile. He went to journalism school and worked at one of the local papers. He tries to be nice to all groups.

“Everybody,” he says, “needs to take, maybe, a five-minute timeout.”

Tom Warhover  
 
Guest blogger



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