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A Message to the Media: Don’t Give Attention to Political Bullying

Published in ChicagoNow, August 7, 2018

At a rally in Florida on July 31, Donald Trump whipped his MAGA followers into such an anti-media frenzy that angry attendees attacked the media covering the rally. This time, the attack was verbal and vulgar. Next time someone could easily get hurt. The president continues to tell his followers at rallies and via twitter, “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Fake news. The enemy of the people. Really?

There is nothing we can do to change Trump’s character. He’s a classic bully. He always used his power to intimidate, dominate, coerce, and abuse others. Now that he is president, his power extends far beyond his wealth and reality television fame. His targets or victims include those he sees as less than: people of color, immigrants and asylum seekers, the disabled, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, children, and the press.

It is the latter that has been feeling the heat lately. But the press also bears some responsibility for election of Trump. When he was running in the Republican primaries, now-critics like Joe Scarborough were happy to give candidate Trump unlimited airtime. It was good for ratings. Amusing. Fodder for conversation and a few jokes. It was funny until he defeated all of his Republican primary foes and then beat Hillary Clinton in the electoral college to become our commander in chief.

Trump received almost $5 billion of free media coverage in the year leading up to the November election. His political rallies were “breaking news.” Since he became president, he has dominated cable news, Twitter, and late-night shows. Saturday Night Live has had its best seasons in years parodying The Donald. His shadow hangs over sports teams as he created the #takeaknee controversy, and more recently as he attacked Lebron James. “Donald Trump is inescapable.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I wonder if, as Khizr Khan (father of a Muslim Army captain who died in Iraq) asked at the Democratic convention, @realdonaldtrump has ever read the Constitution. His actions indicate that if he has, he doesn’t care about the first amendment or freedom of the press. He certainly thinks that the very media that made him and still feeds his presence in our lives is FAKE if it is unfavorable.

Reporters have been physically and verbally assaulted at his rallies. After Trump’s tweet calling CNN reporter Don Lemon the “dumbest man on television” and saying the media is causing the divisiveness in our country, one of his MAGA supporters threatened to shoot Lemon and fellow reporter Brian Stelter. And yet, the media continues to broadcast Trump’s political rallies as “breaking news.”

Here’s a thought. What if the media adopted the old Vietnam war adage, “suppose they gave a war and nobody came”? Stop sending reporters to cover these rallies. Simply have a camera there to record the event, but don’t make his ranting to his infamous base more than it is. No more free media.

The key to dealing with bullies is the bystander. The bully chooses his target for arbitrary (or in Trump’s case political) reasons. And he maintains his power by controlling the bystanders. In this case, the bystanders include the media. I worked hard in my thirty-year professional career as an early childhood educator to create caring and respectful communities for young children. And I have thought long and hard about the best way to deal with bullies. Political bullying is no different from the way children treat one another on school playgrounds if we let them. So here are a few bullying 101 pointers for the press and all of us who often feel like we can’t even:

Don’t encourage the targets of bullying to change their behavior in an effort to appease the bully. The bully craves a reaction from his targets, but more importantly, he boosts his own status by putting someone else down.

Empower the bystanders. The key to stopping bullying is the bystander. That category describes most people who feel relieved and are likely to respond passively when the bully is not picking on them. Bystanders have plenty of power to help by simply ignoring the bully and helping the victim. If bystanders are afraid to confront the bully, all they have to do is refuse to participate by giving him their attention. A bully without attention is much less powerful.

“When they go low, you go high.” Michelle Obama’s words make sense if we look at the long arc of history. There is no appeasing a bully and the impulse is to respond in kind. It’s hard to maintain one’s dignity in the face of relentless, cruel attacks. But efforts to respond to Trump in kind have failed and only served to lower his opponents to his level and get them to play a game of which he is the master.

The media has an important job to do now, which is to ferret out the truth and share it with the American public. Start treating Trump like the bully he is. Stop covering his tweets and political rallies. Walk out of press briefings in which you are lied to and labeled fake news. You are the bystanders who can choose not to give so much attention to our bully-in-chief. You are the hope for preserving our democracy


by Laurie Levy
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