On the day of the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, supporters of Donald Trump flew a U.S. flag with a symbol from the conspiracy theory QAnon in Washington, DC. Many QAnon supporters hold anti-press views, extremism researchers told CPJ. (Getty Images/AFP/Win McNamee)

Trump lit the fuse, but anti-media sentiment among his supporters may outlast him

Joe Biden’s subdued — if heavily guarded — inauguration at the U.S. Capitol was a marked contrast to the events there two weeks prior, when journalists were assaulted, harassed, and had their equipment destroyed by protesters who sought to overturn the election in favor of Donald Trump. Yet with Trump now out of the White House — and banned from Twitter – animosity toward the press among some Trump supporters and far-right extremist groups is unlikely to diminish, reporters and researchers of extremism told CPJ. Here’s why:  

Anti-media sentiments go beyond Trump

Trump’s labeling of journalists as “enemies of the people” played on anti-press sentiments deeply held by far-right extremists, including adherents of QAnon, the conspiracy theory that a cabal of global elites is undermining Trump. 

“In QAnon and far right conspiracy mythos, the media is in league with the forces of evil and is actively trying to enshrine the power of the corrupt elite,” Alex Newhouse, research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told CPJ. “These groups view the media and the supposedly corrupt government as sides of the same coin. If revolutionary rhetoric and violence has been normalized… [these groups are] going to target the press as well.” 

After Biden’s inauguration — which many QAnon believers thought would be the day of Trump’s triumph – some adherents have given up on the conspiracy, Buzzfeed reported. But that doesn’t mean QAnon itself is likely to fully fade – more like shape shift, said Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter and spokesperson with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which litigates against and documents hate groups. 

“After Pizzagate went under, it came back as QAnon,” Hayden said referencing the conspiracy theory that a child sex trafficking ring was being run out of a pizza parlor in Washington D.C., which led to a 2016 shooting at the restaurant. “Once QAnon kind of dies, I would certainly expect a new conspiracy theory to come in its path and it’s going to have the same targets—including journalists.” 

The way extremists relate to the press is evolving

In the past, some extremist groups saw media coverage as a way to burnish their image with the public and recruit new members. For example, the Ku Klux Klan would sometimes grant reporters “privileged access,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

Today, the dynamic has shifted. Extremists have the internet as a recruitment tool, even as social media platforms claim to be clamping down on their messaging. Taking a more openly adversarial position against the press is no longer seen as counterproductive to efforts at publicity, said Donovan. 

A similar shift has occurred in other parts of the world, as CPJ has documented. Prior to 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Al-Qaeda gave interviews and held press conferences. Fast forward more than a decade and the Islamic State in Syria, which has adopted some strategies of Al-Qaeda, bypassed traditional media to get its grisly message out. 

Still, it’s not a rule that today’s extremists shun the press. Some groups, such as the Proud Boys, seem to invite media coverage even as they spew anti-media rhetoric, said Donovan. One of the group’s leaders, Enrique Tarrio, was recently arrested in relation to the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner — while he was giving a phone interview to a USA Today reporter. Yet one of the Proud Boys’ online groups is called “Murder the Media,” the same phrase that was scrawled in the Capitol Building on the day of the riot.  

Local papers are disappearing and media trust is low, boosting disinformation 

A 2019 Pew survey documented a strikingly polarized media climate in the country: Republicans displayed a mistrust of most major media outlets, Fox News exempted, while Democrats tended to show greater trust in the traditional press. One source of common trust, local news, has been severely diminished as revenue sources have dried up for local newspapers, forcing them to close and lay off journalists. 

The cratering of the local news industry has created a vacuum sometimes filled by disinformation. In today’s media climate “national news dominates, eroding trust in the kind of information folks can verify with their own eyes and ears—all of this paving the way to wider tolerance for disinformation and ‘fake news,’” wrote then-PEN America trustee (now president) Ayad Akhtar in the group’s 2019 report on the decimation of local news. 

While tech companies have been promising to reduce disinformation, especially since the January 6 Capitol riot, some pro-Trump media has continued to peddle it even after the Biden inauguration, repeating the election lie that led to the incursion in the first place.   

There are no easy fixes, even in a new administration 

In Biden’s first days in office, Jen Psaki, his spokesperson, has taken a strikingly different tone from her multiple predecessors under Trump, respectfully answering questions without criticizing the media. But experts say there’s a limit to the new tone’s impact. 

“Although there is a change in messaging from the White House that will undoubtedly mitigate some of the broader culture-wide hate for reporters that was fomented by Donald Trump, it’s hard for me to imagine violent white supremacists having an abrupt change of heart,” said Hayden. Furthermore, he added that a more amicable relationship between the White House and journalists will reinforce some conspiracy theories that the mainstream media and Democrats are colluding with one another. 

When it comes to fighting disinformation that fuels anti-press sentiment, experts had different ideas. Kelly McBride, Senior Vice President and Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, said journalists need to work harder to build trust with audiences that may have strayed into the disinformation realm. She encouraged news outlets to deepen their coverage of people who feel that they are not represented in the media. 

“What you can do is ensure that their own realities are represented in the news media, so when they see a story that might have direct relevance to them, be it in the industry they work in or the region they live in, that story accurate reflects their reality.” That, she said, “gradually starts to build trust.” 

But Donovan said reporters need to double down on reporting that holds all people in power – whether Democrats or Republicans – to account, and to let go of the model of showing “both sides” of the story when one side is perpetuating untruths.

“I don’t know if we get away from depoliticizing truth,” Donovan said. “I think we just need to repeat it often and not relent to this notion of ‘both sides’ or that one point of view is simply the alternative.”