Demand truth, not junk news: Lessons of ‘PizzaGate,’ ‘IdiotGate’

CNN Atlanta headquarters

CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Photo by Josh Hallett via Flickr.

First we had “PizzaGate,” in which a misguided — but heavily armed — young man chasing a ridiculous conspiracy theory fired shots inside a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor in 2016.

Now, we have what can only be called “IdiotGate,” in which a 19-year old Michigan man has been charged with threatening to gun down CNN staff and on-air journalists after claiming to be upset over “fake news.”

In the pizza parlor incident, the gunman said he was trying to investigate an alleged child sex ring — a preposterous alt-right fabrication widely circulated on right-wing social media networks and websites (many of which, Fox News reports, now claim the shooting incident was a Clinton conspiracy to discredit conservatives). The pizza shooter, expressing remorse, blamed “bad intel.”

Now, we see transcripts from the phone calls the Michigan man made to CNN earlier this month: “Fake News. I’m coming to gun you all down. Fuck you … I am on my way right now to gun the fuckin’ CNN cast down. Fuck you.”

After tossing in a few racial and anti-Semitic slurs, the caller continued, “I’m coming for you CNN. I’m smarter than you. More powerful than you. I have more guns than you. More manpower. … I am coming to Georgia right now to go to the CNN headquarters to fucking gun every single last one of you. I have a team of people. It’s going to be great, man.”

Those excerpts, The Washington Post reported, come from tapes of 22 phone calls by a man named Brandon Griesemer on Jan. 9 and Jan. 10. The FBI said in filing charges that it traced the calls to Griesemer after being contacted by CNN.

Certainly both incidents might lend themselves, as things turned out, more to satire than serious consideration. A man who said he was Griesemer’s father told The Washington Post that “he didn’t know what he was saying, the seriousness of it. We’re not even gun owners or anything like that. We don’t have any, neither does he.”

So, no sex conspiracy, no reliable “intel,” no guns, no “team” hell-bent to get to Atlanta — and no deaths. All in all, nothing but blatant stupidity in both cases.

Except there is more.

Both men appear to be driven by rabid, self-promoting conspiracy traffickers who prey on the gullible by whipping up indignation around media bias and spreading unsupported liberal conspiracy theories. Throw in the daily chatter from President Trump and others about so-called “fake news,” as well as multiple physical attacks on journalists in just the last few years. Add in disparaging remarks by Trump about individual reporters and combine with his “retweet” of the puerile cartoon showing him wrestling a CNN logo, and finally toss in the t-shirts briefly sold on Walmart.com that depicted a noose with the words “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.”

Voilá: Death threats and gunfire from deluded individuals with dreams of alt-right glory.

A coalition of more than 20 organizations — including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Newseum, where I work — has begun tracking threats to journalists in the United States, a once-unthinkable extension of the work that is done in other, less-free nations. In a program last week at the Newseum, CPJ executive director Joel Simon reported 44 physical attacks on U.S. journalists in 2017. At that same Newseum program, April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks and a CNN contributor, said that she and other reporters have the police “on speed dial” because of the number of threats they regularly receive.

It’s not an overreaction to see that figure and conclude that the killings seen all too often abroad are a real possibility here. As a nation we often fail to recall that such attacks have occurred here in the past — check the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial or CPJ’s online database to refresh your memory.

The experience of many years shows that it’s almost impossible to change the minds of the most radical among us, who see the American media as true “enemies of the people.” What’s more, taking notice of those who would answer their perceived enemies with violence risks feeding an aberrant desire for public recognition. But to be silent as such threats are made is to encourage others, some of whom might be not just a voice on the phone or poor marksman — and then people may die. So, a call to action: When we see junk news like the pizza parlor story, don’t treat it as a joke. Demand Truth.

Free speech protection shelters much of the garbage that gets posted online, even as it also protects legitimate complaints about unfair, incomplete, shallow or biased news reporting — as the nation’s founders intended. Demand Truth.

But as even President Trump’s lawyer is arguing, defamation laws don’t protect those who deliberately spread misinformation about others with malicious intent: that is, with knowledge or reckless disregard. Demand Truth.

Even as we all should cast critical eyes on the news we see and hear, we also should hold those demanding accountability in news and speech to live up that same exact standard – even if it doesn’t advance a personal or political agenda.

Demand Truth.

Now that’s a “#-movement” we all should support.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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