Before the body-slam heard around the world, Montana Republican House candidate Greg Gianforte dropped a dangerous hint of what was to come: Asked how to control journalists, he declared that "our biggest enemy is the news media." He even pointed at a reporter in the crowd and said, "It seems like there's more of us than there is of him."
So, the night before last week's election when Gianforte attacked Ben Jacobs, a journalist with the Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the literal assault on the free press felt like a logical conclusion of the rising rhetoric.
There's a certain irony in responding with "I'm sick and tired of you guys!" when asked a health care question. Specifically, Jacobs wanted to know if Gianforte supported the American Health Care Act, which the Congressional Budget Office had just revealed would cause 23 million Americans to lose their insurance.
A Fox News reporter standing two feet away said Gianforte grabbed Jacobs "by the neck, both hands, slid him to the side, body-slammed him, and then got on top of him and started punching and yelling at him."
Tellingly, Gianforte initially apologized to Fox News before mentioning Jacobs, and claimed that the Guardian reporter started it, because that's what grown-ups do.
Journalists facing intimidation and violence for doing their job is a creeping result of this trend. Last month, Dan Heyman of Public News Service was handcuffed and arrested at West Virginia's state capitol building for questioning Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services. A reporter from CQ Roll Call was pinned against a wall by two security guards for asking an FCC commissioner questions in the lobby of a public building in Washington, D.C.
Given all this, the escalation isn't surprising, but it's no less deeply saddening: In this case, Jacobs wound up in the emergency room.
Republican House leaders stood with Gianforte, ignoring calls for him to resign and welcoming him. Some suggested that Gianforte's actions were justified. "It's not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it," Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California told the Associated Press.
Statements like these reveal a comfort in a violation of not just respect for the press, but for basic human decency.
We know that the Trump brand is to blame reporters and label them "enemies" — a convenient strategy that allows him to seed mistrust of the media, the one institution able to hold him accountable — so it makes sense for his acolytes to do the same.
Untold gallons of ink have already been devoted to defining the elusive concept of "media." It's an overgeneralization, but people having partisan preferences is nothing new.
In the 1950s, newspapers were perceived to have a conservative media bias. At a 1952 campaign rally in Spokane, President Harry Truman delivered a standard stump line about how he reduced the national debt, but "you'd never guess it by reading the papers." He then stopped reading his prepared remarks and ad-libbed this gem: "Especially, if you read that second-worst newspaper in the United States, the Spokesman-Review. That paper never told the truth in politics in its life and it wouldn't know the truth if it met it coming down the road."
Today, Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley), who has blocked local reporters on Facebook, refers to Spokane's daily newspaper as "The Socialist Review." Even this very newspaper you're holding (or reading online) gets offensive calls targeting a certain columnist — hello there, haters! — because the content might respectfully disagree with your viewpoint.
Politicians like Gianforte believe the news media are the enemy, but the feeling isn't mutual. Marty Baron — the editor whose work at the Boston Globe became the focus for the Oscar-winning film Spotlight and is now executive editor of the Washington Post — said it best: "We're not at war with the administration, we're at work."
And in a profession that grows more necessary each day, the fight for facts won't go quietly.
Of course, Gianforte went on to win, and faces a misdemeanor charge. How fit for office are he and others who lie, or won't explain positions on issues that affect the people they're asked to represent? No comment. ♦