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Why the right targets journalists, including CNN’s Brian Stelter, Don Lemon and me

The anger, hate and bitter rhetoric stoked repeatedly by former President Trump has created a culture wherein his supporters feel righteous in their media attacks and victimized by facts and free speech.

CNN’s Brian Stelter and Don Lemon spoke at the sentencing hearing of Robert Lemke, who sent threatening messages to journalists and politicians who said Trump lost the 2020 election.
CNN’s Brian Stelter and Don Lemon spoke at the sentencing hearing of Robert Lemke, who sent threatening messages to journalists and politicians who said Trump lost the 2020 election.
Dreamstime/TNS

“Cancel Christmas.” That’s what the chilling email addressed to me read, nearly a dozen years ago, right around the holidays.

The anonymous author went on to say he’d kill me coming out of Fox News, where I was working at the time.

As a political commentator, I’d sadly grown accustomed to threats of this nature, and I got all kinds. Some were violent rape fantasies. Some were simply images of hanging nooses. Once I was sent a box of bloody chicken parts. And some were actual death threats.

All because I had a political point of view some people didn’t like, and as a member of the media, I had a platform to express it.

Then, because I was a conservative Republican, the threats came from the far left. Now, as I’ve become a vocal Trump critic, they come from the far right.

Of course, actionable threats were — and still are — dealt with swiftly by the FBI, security or other law enforcement. But that doesn’t always mitigate the emotional and psychological toll these attacks have on a person or a family.

The threats are meant not only to terrify us but to muzzle us, to make us afraid to speak, which happens to be our job.

Additionally, we’re often told not to talk openly about these threats, as it only works to encourage new ones, and that’s another kind of muzzle that makes it hard to process them mentally and explain to readers and viewers how they affect us.

But this week, two of my colleagues at CNN, Brian Stelter and Don Lemon, got that very opportunity and bravely took it.

They spoke at the sentencing hearing of a 36-year-old California man, Robert Lemke, who sent threatening messages to nearly 50 victims, including journalists and politicians who had said in one form or another that President Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

His threats were ominous and intimidating. During the Capitol insurrection, he told a family member of one journalist that the journalist’s “words are putting you and your family at risk. We are nearby, armed and ready.”

He went on, “[Y]our words have consequences. Stop telling lies; Biden did not win, he will not be president. We are not white supremacists. Most of us are active/retired law enforcement or military. You are putting your family at risk. We have armed members near your home.”

Stelter and Lemon spoke powerfully and emotionally about the effects of Lemke’s threats.

“I am tired of looking over my shoulder,” Lemon said. “I am tired of being suspicious of even friendly faces in public. I am tired of being called fake news. I am tired of being called names like ‘f----t’ and ‘n----r’ in public by people like Robert Lemke. I am exhausted.”

Stelter, to whom Lemke sent a picture of his father’s grave and a description of his mother’s yard, echoed Lemon’s sentiments, telling the judge that Lemke “was saying my family was in danger because I was telling the truth on TV. Intimidating a person to shut them up is intolerable.”

Those victim impact statements undoubtedly had an effect on the judge, who sentenced Lemke to three years in prison, a clear attempt to make an example of his case.

For his part, Lemke apologized for his “immoral and rude behavior” but insists he is the victim, and promises to continue his “political journey” and support for Trump and the GOP.

Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein corrected him: “His sentence has nothing to do with his opinions. He is not a victim. There is a difference between speech and criminal threats.”

Though there have always been unhinged fanatics and extremists who target the media, from the left and the right, the anger, hate and bitter us-versus-them rhetoric stoked repeatedly and over years by Trump has created a culture wherein his supporters feel righteous in their attacks, and victimized by facts, free speech and the press.

Like many arrested at the Capitol for their criminal actions on Jan. 6, they pervertedly believe thwarting democracy, even violently if necessary, is patriotic and some kind of justice. Trump rewarded them with kind words — “We love you, you’re very special” — and recast the insurrectionist criminals as martyrs and heroes.

It’s no wonder people like Lemke feel emboldened to threaten the press, Trump’s so-called “enemy of the people,” because Trump has turned this from a crime into a cause.

Thankfully, judges like Hellerstein disagree. Hopefully, others learn a lesson that threatening the lives of journalists and their families isn’t righteous. It’s an attack not only on them but all of us. It’s an attack on free speech and a free press — it’s an attack on America itself.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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