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American journalists placed on the front line of democracy

Photo: Frederic J. Brown Agence France-Presse Journalist Doni Chamberlain, who publishes the website “A News Cafe,” said she was harassed, assaulted and violently kicked out of a public gathering last summer.

Fabien Deglise In Redding, California

Published at 0:00

  • United States

When she recalls that day in July 2023, journalist Doni Chamberlain still seems shaken by it. “I was forcefully and violently ejected from a public meeting because the participants did not want me to report what they said,” she says, sitting in the living room of her home in Redding, the seat of Shasta County in northern California. Among them was Chris Kelstrom, one of three elected officials, fervent Trump supporters and Make America Great Again (MAGA) activists who, since 2021, have won a majority on the Board of Supervisors of this rural region, the highest political body in this local government.

“I came out of there with a concussion and a neck injury,” continues the editor of the blog A News Cafe, which closely follows the authoritarian excesses which characterize the rise in power of these supporters of Donald Trump in this corner of one of the most progressive states in the United States. It is a traumatic experience, doubly traumatic, since, despite the testimonies and a video exposing the altercation, the county prosecutor did not see fit to bring charges against my attacker. »

Republican for decades, Shasta County has seen its politics radicalize in recent years with the coming to power of activists of the ex-president, stemming from the anti-health measures movements born during the pandemic and fuel, just like him, for conspiracy theories, resentment and unfounded assertions about alleged electoral fraud. And the rare journalists who, like Doni Chamberlain, persist in documenting without complacency this singular experience of governance have become prime targets for them.

“We entered a hostile environment,” summarizes Annelise Pierce, a former community worker and independent journalist with the Shasta Scout, sitting on the terrace of a Redding café. The media and journalists are constantly ridiculed, called liars, diminished during public meetings. This climate of mistrust is maintained by the comments, sometimes violent, made towards us by elected officials of the county government, which puts us at risk on a daily basis. »

She adds: “We know that several of the elected officials and even citizens carry weapons during these meetings. If things get heated and someone decides to use it, who's going to get shot first, do you think? Representatives of the independent media, that's for sure. »

This is the plan that comes from Donald Trump. We insult journalists, we carry out online harassment campaigns against them, we multiply the humiliations against them.

—Doni Chamberlain

The small-scale Trumpism that has taken hold in Shasta County unsurprisingly follows the movement's rhetoric. It thus implements the denigration and intimidation of journalists who do not blindly adhere to the populist lines as an attack strategy of these radical conservatives against a political and media elite that they dream of replacing.

“This is the plan that comes from Donald Trump,” says Doni Chamberlain. We insult journalists, we carry out online harassment campaigns against them, we multiply the humiliations against them. Anyone who questions their policies and decisions or sheds light on their inconsistencies and the risks they pose to public administration are exposed to threats, sometimes death threats left on an answering machine. »

Also read, in our “Le Devoir” file in California

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The risks of the truth

And the opportunities to be exposed to the wrath of these Trumpist activists now in power are numerous in this new local political context, which forces journalists to daily bear witness to purges in the public administration or power games within decision-making committees. . They must also reframe, explain, deny incomplete or deliberately erroneous information aimed at imposing a vision, an ideology in a world that these new elected officials do not always give the impression of understanding well.

“They say they want to do things differently, but their fundamental misunderstanding of how things actually work ends up creating a lot of problems in government,” says Annelise Pierce. We must devote a lot of time and energy to dismantling propaganda, to recalling operating rules or legal concepts that are under attack. Several of their decisions risk leading to a collapse of public services or a suppression of rights, and they must be explained to allow citizens to fully understand the ins and outs of several of their campaigns. »

Last April, the County Board of Supervisors fueled a rumor that a busload of migrants was on its way to Redding from southern California. This has never been demonstrated. But the tactic made it possible to mobilize the supporters of the new elected officials on the adoption of a new policy aimed at reducing the rights of citizens of immigrant background on the territory of the county.

Explaining, illuminating, helping to understand… this has always been part of the journalist's work. But in our particular context, it becomes tiring. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing whack-a-mole

— Annelise Pierce

“They seek to fill all the positions that become available in the public administration, including in secondary boards, such as that of mosquito control and transmission vectors, where one of theirs is entered recently, says Doni Chamberlain. It's an insidious infiltration strategy that we must continue to monitor closely because, ultimately, it will allow them to have total control over every aspect of the daily lives of county residents, from licensing to passport applications, health services, elections, the school system and transportation networks…”

See democracy leave

“Explaining, enlightening, helping to understand… this has always been part of the journalist’s work. But in our particular context, it becomes tiring, continues Annelise Pierce. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing the game of whack-a-mole, constantly pushing back with a club an erroneous statement or a fallacious point of speech that ends up reappearing through another hole.

An experience of “loss of democracy”, she says, which encourages her to continue her work despite all. “I see Shasta County today as being on the front lines of American democracy. »

“My children regularly ask me why I continue to blog and follow local politics in such a climate,” adds Doni Chamberlain. It’s true that it’s exhausting to document all of this and to see that, despite my efforts, these Trumpist activists are resisting criticism and even increasing their hold on local government. »

The region's independent media, financed by the contributions of a handful of readers, are lost in a media ecosystem dominated by local television, owned by the Sinclair Broadcast group, whose big boss had promised Donald Trump in 2016 to “deliver [his] message.” The radicals in power locally have also launched Mountain Top Media, which broadcasts a set of information in the form of video or podcasts promoting the extreme ideas of the ex-president's movement, those which attack the credibility of the elections, democratic institutions, international agreements, environmental measures or dehumanize immigrants and are reductive about authoritarian regimes.

“I could return to my life before, write light articles on gardening and the art of living, continues Doni Chamberlain. But that would be unconscious. “A lot of dangerous things are happening here, and we need to keep every trace of them,” she concludes.

This report was financed with the support of the International Journalism Fund Transat-Le Devoir.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116