By:
October 18, 2021

On Jan. 6, as Trump supporters were storming the U.S. Capitol, a California man soon began sending texts and then, eventually, more texts and emails to politicians, journalists and others. He was convinced that Donald Trump won the election and was taking out his frustration on anyone who dared to report the fact that Trump, actually, did not win.

This kind of story is not really new. Journalists are targeted all the time by readers, viewers or listeners who allow their personal opinions and biases to overwhelm them to the point that they take out their resentments on the messengers.

Brian Stelter, CNN’s lead media reporter and host of “Reliable Sources,” often writes and talks about threats against journalists. On Sunday, he passed along a very personal story about an attack on one journalist in particular: himself.

It essentially started with Stelter accurately reporting on the 2020 election and how Joe Biden won the election fair and square, as well as adding that claims of election fraud were not based in fact or reality. The California man grew angry enough that he went online and began searching for details about Stelter and Stelter’s family. He texted Stelter, saying he had spoken to Stelter’s brother, who was being “cooperative.” Turns out, Stelter’s brother was getting strange texts.

“Then it got worse,” said Stelter, who said the man began leaving threatening voicemails on Stelter’s phone. The man mentioned Stelter’s parents, even sending a photo of the tombstone of Stelter’s father, who died in 2001.

Turns out, Stelter wasn’t the only target of this man, who also stalked and harassed other journalists at CNN, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, members of Congress and many more.

The man has since been arrested and pleaded guilty to one count of threatening interstate communications.

“The government’s filings made me realize: This wasn’t about just trying to scare me,” Stelter said. “This man thought he was a part of something bigger, a crusade to keep Trump in power. He really seemed to believe Trump won. To him, every day was Jan. 6.”

Stelter said, like a lot of journalists, he became numb to such trolling and threats. I, too, have had creepy and threatening emails and voice messages sent to me over the years — even back when I was a sports columnist and wrote something critical about someone’s favorite player or team. They include the usual: “Watch yourself when you walk to your car tonight” and, “If I ever see you in public …” Most grotesquely, I had one reader so upset that I picked one hockey team to beat another in a playoff series that he wished my kids would get cancer.

Such threats and ill wishes have continued since I joined Poynter three years ago and began writing about the media and, occasionally, wading into politics. As Stelter said, usually you don’t give it much thought.

“We just try to tune it out,” Stelter said on air, “but it’s always still there, weighing on journalists whenever they stand outside for a live shot or start to ask for an interview. Threats and harassment hinder a free press.”

As Stelter accurately noted, the public never hears about this harassment and it almost never results in any kind of prosecution.

“But this case, with dozens of victims, can be a statement,” Stelter said.

More about the case

The man Stelter was talking about was Robert Lemke, a 36-year-old from California. During the Jan. 6 attacks, he began sending texts to a “New York-based” journalist, according to the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office. It’s believed this is the incident involving Stephanopoulos.

One of the texts read, “You do understand not only your life, but your families is at risk, right? We know everything. … You forget tens of thousands of militia members are law enforcement and military all the way to the upper brass and upper ranks. We have judges and prosecutors too. Politicians. So don’t you find it silly to write such things with your name on top when 200,000 plus members can access databases with you and your family’s information that seems very stupid. We even have people at (the News Organization’s) corporate security that released stuff from your employee file.”

Law & Crime’s Marisa Sarnoff has more details, including some of the other text messages. And here is the press release from the Southern District announcing that Lemke has pleaded guilty.

A media interview

Also on Stelter’s “Reliable Sources,” you can check out his interview with Bari Weiss, the former New York Times columnist who left the paper and is now writing on Substack. Weiss talks about today’s current state of media and she has strong opinions. I don’t agree with all she says, but you might find it worth watching.

The latest with Politico

The Wall Street Journal’s Bojan Pancevski is reporting that the new owner of Politico, Axel Springer SE, plans to eventually put Politico behind a paywall, in addition to going on a hiring spree — perhaps adding as many as 100. Axel Springer bought Politico this summer for $1 billion.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple tweeted, “Hmmm: The thing about a new paywall sorta contradicts what he told Politico staffers when the deal was announced. ‘We’re from Berlin. We don’t like the concept of walls.’”

Then, Sunday evening, The New York Times’ Ben Smith dropped his column: “At Axel Springer, Politico’s New Owner, Allegations of Sex, Lies and a Secret Payment.” It details several cases of harassment and inappropriate behavior.

As the subhead of the column reads, “A high-flying German media giant is ahead on digital media but seems stuck in the past when it comes to the workplace and deal-making.”

Nothing to see here, says NFL

Former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

A week ago today, Las Vegas Raiders football coach Jon Gruden resigned after it was discovered that he had sent multiple emails using racist, anti-gay and ​​misogynistic language. The emails were among the 650,000 being investigated by the NFL regarding the workplace environment with the Washington Football Team.

On Saturday, The Associated Press’ Barry Wilner wrote, “The NFL has found no other current team or league personnel to have sent emails containing racist, homophobic or misogynistic language similar to messages written by Jon Gruden that led to his resignation as Las Vegas Raiders coach, according to a person familiar with the documents.”

Wilner wrote that the source “spoke on condition of anonymity because the league has not publicly released what is in the 650,000 emails the independent investigators” collected in their investigation. The source went on to say, “The NFL did not identify any problems anywhere near what you saw with Jon Gruden.”

Well, isn’t that convenient.

As ProFootballTalk tweeted, “The AP should have refused to repeat this self-serving statement from the NFL without insisting that someone from the league attach their name to it.”

Mike Florio, who runs ProFootballTalk, wrote, “If that’s the case, let’s have a name. Let’s have an on-the-record quote. Let’s have someone whose ass is on the line if/when someone else gets taken down by the weaponized trove of 650,000 emails, which already has wiped out Gruden’s career and potentially threatens the ongoing tenure of NFL general counsel Jeff Pash.”

The Pash reference was to a New York Times story by Ken Belson and Katherine Rosman: “N.F.L.’s Top Lawyer Had Cozy Relationship With Washington Team President.”

Florio wrote, “So even if someone sent emails not nearly as toxic as Gruden’s, it’s possible that those emails were problematic, but that the league would contend they aren’t. Pash’s are, but the league was inclined to look the other way. For who else are they looking the other way, and is there any way of knowing whether, eventually, they won’t? These are all fair questions, which can be resolved only if all of the emails are released. Indeed, if there are no problematic emails … WHY NOT RELEASE ALL OF THEM?”

Williams leaves ESPN

Former ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams, while covering a game at the University of Florida in 2020. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Allison Williams, who had been a perfectly adequate sideline reporter for college sports at ESPN since 2011, is leaving the network because of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Disney, which owns ESPN, requires its employees to be vaccinated, and ESPN made the requirement for those covering live events.

Williams said recently she would not get the vaccine while she and her husband were trying to have a second child and that she was denied a “request for accommodation” by ESPN and Disney. Let’s stop here for one second and note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said:

  • COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all people 12 years and older, including people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future.
  • Evidence about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy has been growing. These data suggest that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy.
  • There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men.

It should also be noted that the CDC says “pregnant and recently pregnant people are more likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 compared with non-pregnant people,” but that “getting a COVID-19 vaccine can protect you from severe illness from COVID-19.”

Pregnancy concerns were not Williams’ only reason. In an Instagram video, Williams said she was “so morally and ethically not aligned with this.” She also said, “Ultimately, I cannot put a paycheck over principle. And I will not sacrifice something that I believe and hold so strongly to maintain a career.”

If so inclined, you can watch her five-minute-plus video explaining her decision. But here’s the bottom line. Disney had a reasonable and responsible mandate in place. And Williams decided her moral and ethical principles were more important than being a good citizen and helping us all fight a virus that has now killed more than 700,000 Americans. It’s her right to walk away and it’s certainly ESPN’s right to hold the door open for her as she goes.

Speaking of vaccine mandates …

Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” that the “whole debate on mandates takes away from the efficacy of the vaccines themselves and our push to increase vaccination rates.”

Hutchinson told moderator Chuck Todd, “I’d like to see us get back to, without the mandate battle, let’s just encourage the vaccine acceptance, build confidence in it. And that’s the direction we need to go. My heart goes out to these workers that many of them say, ‘We’re not anti-vax. We’re just anti-mandate.’ And they’re making a principled stand. And that sort of makes the point that the mandates are not being beneficial.”

The whole, “I’m not going to get it just because people are telling me to get it” argument seems rather juvenile, like something a 7-year-old would say. And Hutchinson admitted that vaccines work and danced all around the mandate debate.

Hutchinson said, “And so, let me make it clear that when I say, ‘I don’t believe we ought to be engaging in mandates,’ I’m speaking of the government mandates, whether it’s a federal government mandate or a state government mandate. And the states are sometimes coming in and saying, ‘Employers should not have the ability to impose a vaccine requirement on their workers.’ To me, that’s the wrong direction as well. It’s not practical in terms of creating that debate, but it’s not principled either. So, I am a defender of the employer’s right to provide a healthy workplace. You would have just as many workers say, ‘I don’t want to work there because it’s not a healthy workplace, because not everybody’s going to be vaccinated.’ The employers are in a tough position. They would have the prerogative to make those decisions and I support that.”

Hutchinson also talked about Donald Trump and some Republicans who continue to talk about the 2020 election. Hutchinson told Todd, “Relitigating in 2020 is a recipe for disaster in 2022. Let’s talk about the future. The election is passed, it’s been certified, the states made decisions on the integrity of each of their elections and made improvements where it need be. It’s about the future, it’s not about the last election, and those kinds of comments are not constructive.”

One more thought on vaccines …

New York Times Opinion columnist Zeynep Tufekci has an interesting column: “The Unvaccinated May Not Be Who You Think.”

Tufekci notes that there is clearly a partisan divide over vaccination and that there are many on the right — including politicians and media — who are driving anti-vaccine propaganda. However, Tufekci points out, “Almost 95 percent of those over 65 in the United States have received at least one dose. This is a remarkable number, given that polling has shown that this age group is prone to online misinformation, is heavily represented among Fox News viewers and is more likely to vote Republican. Clearly, misinformation is not destiny.”

Tufekci also points to the effectiveness of mandates. At one point, unvaccinated employees said they would quit their jobs rather than get vaccinated, but data shows that isn’t happening in a way that was initially expected.

Read the rest of Tufekci’s piece for a better understanding of the unvaccinated.

Media tidbits

(Courtesy: NBC News)

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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