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Media 'jokes' not so funny

Story highlights
  • After firing blanks from a machine gun, Tampa's mayor reportedly joked, "the first place I point that gun is at the media"
  • Republican Greg Gianforte was elected to Congress from Montana after being cited for body-slamming a reporter

(CNN) Texas Gov. Greg Abbott just joined an ad hoc political club whose members' actions should take your breath away -- especially during this Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who gave their lives for democracy and our freedoms.

Abbott was at a firing range to sign a bill into law. He did some target practice and then held up he target sheet saying "I'm going to carry this around in case I see any reporters." Another public official making a joke about shooting journalists? This less than 24 hours after Republican Greg Gianforte was elected to Congress from Montana after being cited for misdemeanor assault for body-slamming Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs. Gianforte publicly apologized. The Texas governor -- even if he was joking -- has not.

CNN has reached out to Abbott's office for a comment, but has not heard back.

Some unsettling recent incidents suggest violence against journalists -- and claims that it's just a joke -- is gaining ground as a "new normal" for reporters.

Howard Altman, who covers military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times, reported last Saturday that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn made what Buckhorn thought was a "joke" at a military conference attended by special operations troops, commanders and industry.

While riding on a military boat as part of a demonstration during a special operations forces industry conference last May, Buckhorn, a Democrat, was allowed to fire blanks from a machine gun, "and so the first place I point that gun is at the media," the mayor told the crowd. "I've never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one's business. It's great pay-back. I love it."

Buckhorn also has since apologized.

The sometimes-adversarial relationship between journalists and the leaders they cover -- and joking references thereof -- is nothing new; some would say it's even necessary, as Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have in recent months.

But were Abbott's and Buckhorn's attempt to draw laughs funny? Of late, maybe not so much.

Homeland Security John Kelly was caught on a hot mic joking with President Donald Trump about a ceremonial saber the President received after giving a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy -- a speech that was laced with references to being treated "unfairly," "especially by the media."

"You can use that on the press," Kelly told the President, who responded laughingly, "Yeah, that's right." A DHS official later said Kelly's remark clearly was a joke.

Journalists, of course, are no strangers to gallows humor and might once have laughed along. But Trump's unrelenting criticism of the media and divisive rhetoric at rallies -- which during the campaign included hostility and violence directed at protesters and journalists -- seem to have engendered a creeping permissiveness about such attitudes among his followers, those looking to vent their hatred, and now, apparently, even those in government, which should give everyone pause.

Longtime defense writer John Donnelly of CQ Roll Call, which covers the federal government, says he was pinned against a wall by security guards at the Federal Communications Commission while trying to pose a question to Commissioner Michael O'Rielly after a news conference. By the way, Donnelly is the respected chair of the National Press Club's press freedom efforts. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire have written the FCC asking for answers. Their letter said, in part, that the incident at the FCC "is not an isolated one and seems to be part of a larger pattern of hostility towards the press characteristic of this administration, which underscores our serious concern."

Secretary Kelly may be the real surprise in this club of jokers. He is a recently retired four-star Marine Corps general who has served on the front lines, lost his son in combat and personally knows journalists injured on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Buckhorn, meanwhile, enjoys a good relationship with his local press corps, and Tampa is home to both the US Central Command, which runs the wars in the Middle East, and the US Special Operations Command, which oversees units like Seal Team Six and Delta Force, which do not ride around firing blanks.

Troops from both those commands repeatedly have gone out of their way over the years to help journalists stay safe on the front lines. Yes, they do get angry at reporters and news stories they believe misrepresent facts. But we and they both know that the US military is in fact the only profession in the United States where someone is paid to give their life in combat to defend American values -- which include freedom of the press.

So, is the press corps just too sensitive? Has it lost its sense of humor? Journalists who cover the military know the heavy price that has been paid by our colleagues in recent years. We've lost friends. We have colleagues who struggle with grievous battlefield injuries, including amputations, severe burns, brain injuries and post-traumatic stress -- all for just doing their jobs.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,237 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992. Every journalist I know would like to see less tragedy for reporters as well as the civilians caught in the middle of the conflicts they cover. And that is no joke.

This column is updating something I wrote several days ago. The response on @barbarastarrcnn was overwhelming and a significant portion of responses were less than pleasant. But then my colleague @KyungLahCNN on the story in Montana noted this on her Twitter: "MT GOP voter, upon learning we're from @CNN: "You're lucky someone doesn't pop one of you."