Deep questions: Did Trump commit “incitement” for ripping the media in Phoenix?
Deep answer: No, but perhaps it just depends on what one means by “incitement.” Curiously, ABC’s Cecilia Vega made this allegation just a few hours after Donald Trump’s opponents began attacking police in the streets of Phoenix, which should have given a clue as to the definition of incitement, and which side seems to be inclined toward responding to it.
At issue in Vega’s report was Trump’s attack on the media, a staple at his rallies, which he accused of being “sick people … fomenting divisions” in America. Trump liked it so much that he posted a portion of it on Twitter after the rally:
“These are sick people,” Trump told a riled up crowd in Phoenix on Tuesday. “If you wanted to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media.
“It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions and yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage,” he added. …
“They don’t report the facts. Just like they don’t want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry and violence and strongly condemned the neo-nazis, the white supremacists and the KKK,” Trump said. “I openly called for unity, healing and love and they know it because they were all there.” …
“I don’t want to bore you with this, but it shows you how dishonest they are,” he said before he read a version of his initial statement on Charlottesville that omitted the part of the statement that faulted “many sides” for the violence that occurred.
Vega calls this “incitement, pure and simple,” when Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos asks her to describe how it felt to be in the room during those criticisms:
VEGA: Well, George, this was incitement, pure and simple. I turned my cell phone camera on the crowd just so you can see the reaction there while we were on the stage. That’s what it looks like when the president turns the crowd on you. The president said that journalists hate this country. That’s what he told this crowd. This was an assault that went on and on and on. And George, I’ve got to tell you that this one felt different. It really feels like a matter of time, frankly, before someone gets hurt.
On that, Vega turned out to be prescient. Two Phoenix police officers got injured while responding to the violence in the crowd … the crowd outside the rally protesting Trump. As for the cell-phone video — a strange choice, given that ABC had a full crew on hand for the rally — it hardly shows any reaction at all. A few people turned around to look at them, but most people kept their eyes on the stage. Except for a couple of catcalls from those that turned around and one woman enthusiastically giving two thumbs down in Vega’s shot, there’s nothing much to see. It’s almost as if Vega was more concerned about her narrative than reporting.
That doesn’t make Trump’s remarks correct, of course. No serious person believes that all or most journalists hate America, but … did Trump actually say that? Nothing in ABC’s report shows him saying that, and it doesn’t appear in Chris Cillizza’s “57 most outrageous quotes” at CNN after the speech. One assumes that Cillizza would have made room for #58 had Trump actually said what Vega alleges. He may have implied it, and his remarks are open to criticism as demagoguery and irresponsibility as they are, but first Vega has to report them honestly. That’s precisely Trump’s criticism of the media — that they twist and misreport what he says.
Trump’s remarks are just that: criticism, of the same kind and even the same tenor as the media applies to him. Even silly or stupid criticism doesn’t amount to “incitement,” at least not in a legal sense, nor in a “pure and simple” sense either. Vega explicitly accuses Trump of inciting the crowd to violence, but nothing in this speech even comes close to suggesting a violent response. There is a very good reason that the Supreme Court limited incitement in Brandenburg to explicit calls for imminent violence — any other definition would erode free speech and political debate.
To summarize: Both sides of this debate should reread Harry Truman’s advice about politics, heat, and kitchens rather than wax hysterical about their reciprocal treatment.
If Vega wanted to see real incitement, she could have stepped outside, pure and simple:
Police used tear gas and pepper spray to “disperse the crowd” after protesters threw objects at police officers following President Donald Trump’s campaign-style rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, authorities said.
Authorities arrested three people in connection with the protest after protesters in the crowd began to throw rocks, bottles and tear gas at officers, the Phoenix Police Department said Tuesday.
Masked police officers responded with pepper balls and tear gas in an attempt to “disperse the crowd and stop the assaults,” police said. Two people were arrested on charges of aggravated assault and the other for criminal damage, police said.