In what seems like a lifetime ago, I stood with fellow members of the press as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE addressed a crowd of supporters in Pella, Iowa. It was on Jan. 23 of this year, a little over a week before the Iowa caucuses were to be held. The whole event was beyond the realm of my caucus experience. The Iowans that I had covered for three caucus cycles had turned into people I no longer knew. Prior to this year, those who came to candidate events for both parties were polite, thoughtful and given to light applause. Sure, at larger events close to the caucus date, there were cheers, and at times, even thunderous applause.
But this was something different.
I wasn't accustomed to Iowans being hateful.
Trump pointed at the perhaps two-dozen media present, and said, "I hate them, but I wouldn't kill them." The crowd roared. He said it again: "I hate them, but I wouldn't kill them," and the crowd roared louder. Again: "I hate them, but I wouldn't kill them."
Although I was a credentialed member of the media, I wasn't in media row. I was in the balcony, looking down at the scene. Pella was, after all, in my coverage area, and for my story I was as interested in what my townspeople thought about Trump as much as Trump himself. From my perch in the balcony, I watched the crowd of media as Trump went on at length, vilifying them. Most of my fellow reporters looked straight ahead; some seemed to ignore his comments, while others shuffled nervously. Regardless, it was a clear effort to intimidate the press, and I wondered how this treatment might influence their coverage. I hoped it wouldn't.
Trump focused his tirade against the media in general, but The Des Moines Register — Iowa's paper of record — in particular. As a native Iowan, The Des Moines Register is the paper I grew up with and have great respect for. I'm not sure that the paper uses this motto anymore, but when I was a kid, a frequent promotion the paper printed was something like "Only one newspaper has won more Pulitzer Prizes than The Des Moines Register — our congratulations to The New York Times." Trump soon had the crowd booing the Register.
Sure, I understand that Iowans might disagree with editorials, but boo Iowa's largest and most important newspaper? The paper many in the audience had grown up with, and quite likely many had read that morning and even subscribed to?
Boo it? Come on, I thought, but Trump had them eating from his hand. He could say anything, and did, and they cheered, or booed, no matter whether or not what he said made any sense. At one point I thought he could have said "McGillicuddy cheesecake" and they would have cheered. It was earlier the same day, in Sioux Center, that he said, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." My memory has him saying the same thing in Pella, which also drew cheers.
Trump had banned Register reporters from his events in July for what he considered biased coverage. At the time I was surprised, and naive enough to think that perhaps it wasn't possible: the First Amendment, and freedom of the press and all that. Other media took little note of this, and in retrospect, perhaps unfortunately.
That assault on the press was the low moment of the caucuses for me.
Last week, Trump banned reporters from The Washington Post, adding them to a growing list that includes Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, the New Hampshire Union Leader, Univision and reporters from many other publications.
When will he stop? When he has a subservient and compliant media that only fawns over him? Maybe. Even Fox News has seen the share of his wrath. Megyn Kelly's treatment during the Fox News debate was an early indicator of this pattern. Her questions were excellent, and well put. He just didn't like having to answer them.
Trump banning media impinges not only the First Amendment, but is a threat to democracy itself. I'm reluctant to evoke Martin Niemöller's anti-Nazi poem, but as a defense of the First Amendment, maybe it's appropriate: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist."
Or, in this instance, "First he came for The Des Moines Register, and I did not speak out ... "
It's time to speak out. For the media to unite and stand up to Trump in defense of the First Amendment and tell him it isn't OK to ban the press from his events. It's also time to remind some of the public of the importance of a free press.
Last Tuesday, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank suggested a near-blackout on Trump coverage. While I agree with Milbank's sentiment, his plan is too draconian for me.
So how do we do it? I suggest we — all the media worldwide, large and small — stand united in defense of the freedom of the press by holding a moratorium on coverage for Trump for one day. Only one day. Whatever he does, no coverage. Even media who support Trump must recognize the precedent he is setting, and hopefully join this protest.
So what day to we pick? Easy. The symbolism is compelling: the Fourth of July — Independence Day. Independence Day for the American people, and Independence Day for a free press and democracy.
If Trump holds a rally in Miami? No coverage. If Trump goes to a picnic in Boston? No coverage. If Trump watches fireworks along the East River in Manhattan? No coverage.
If a Trump falls in the forest and no one is there to report on him, will he make a sound?
Leonard covers the Iowa caucuses for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. He's the author of Yellow Cab and more. Follow him on Twitter @robertleonard.