Shooting the Messenger

Last week, on the eve of a special congressional election in Montana, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs pressed Republican candidate Greg Gianforte to answer questions on the American Healthcare Act. In response, Gianforte grabbed his neck, threw Jacobs to the floor, punched him, and broke his glasses. Gianforte’s team tried to blame Jacobs for the altercation and pass him as the aggressor. But the Fox News crew witnessing the incident repudiate him saying, “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.” The audio recording clearly illustrates what they saw with the candidate shouting, “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last time you came here you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with the Guardian?” Gianforte was later charged with an assault misdemeanor (by a sheriff who donated to his campaign, incidentally) which can result in either a $500 fine or a 6 month jail sentence if convicted. The Billings Gazette, The Missoulian, and The Helena Independent Record all rescinded their endorsements of the Republican favorite. However, he still won with 51% of the vote in the state. Though to be fair, he was already expected to win and over 2/3 of Montanans had already cast their vote before the body slamming incident. So whatever Gianforte did at the moment wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Nor does his election mean that Montanans were okay with his actions. Nevertheless, conservatives and supporters were quick to defend the now congressman-elect. Gianforte’s campaign blamed the incident on “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist.” They alleged Jacobs, “aggressively shoved a recorder” in Gianforte’s face and refused to leave. And that “Greg attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground” to defend himself against “badgering questions.” Fox News pundits explained that the Gianforte had merely given Jacobs, a taste of “Montana justice.” Geraldo Rivera remarked that Monatanans “are no strangers to the more robust way of living.” While Laura Ingraham asked, “What would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?” In addition, Gianforte was even able to reap over $100,000 before the vote with most of it contributed after the incident. Texas Governor Greg Abbott even joked about shooting reporters. Other Republican politicians mostly brushed it off as if his choke-slamming a reporter either didn’t occur or wasn’t a problem.

Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs isn’t the first recent incident involving physical attacks on journalists. On May 18, security guards pinned CQ Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly against a wall during an open Federal Communications Commission meeting. All what Donnelly tried to do was question a commissioner as he recalled, “I could have not been less threatening or more polite. There is no justification for using force in such a situation.” He was held until FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly had passed and was escorted out of the building. And on May 10, police arrested reporter Dan Heyman of Public News Service for “willful disruption of state government processes” at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston. What Heyman did was repeatedly ask if domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the GOP healthcare bill to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Price defended the police, saying they did what was appropriate. In March, Trump supporters allegedly assaulted an OC Weekly reporter and two photographers during a rally at Huntington Beach. And in 2016, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was videotaped grabbing Breitbart’s Michelle Fields and pulling her away from the candidate while she was trying to ask Trump a question. Though prosecutors declined to pursue charges for assault. Then a day after Gianforte’s election, there was a criminal mischief shooting at the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky which resulted in a window shattered and other minor damages. Not to mention, a fake bomb threat at a printing works 75 miles out of town.

It’s very clear Donald Trump has been responsible for the growing and increasingly dangerous hostility toward the press. Since he began his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has thrived on demonizing the media as “the enemy of the people” on daily Twitter taunts whenever he can. Throughout his campaign, he’d refer to the press as “dishonest, disgusting, slime, and scum.” He called political reporters the worst human beings on earth. And at rallies, he prompted crowds and thousands of supporters “to turn without fail, to jeer and sometimes curse at the press,” according to CNN. At a rally in Harrisburg to mark his 100th day as president, Trump trashed the media saying, “Their priorities are not my priorities, and not your priorities. If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade.” According to recent reports, Trump had instructed then-FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists for publishing classified leaks. Yet, the danger isn’t just that Trump speaks of the media with such hostility. Rather it’s that his supporters believe him. It doesn’t help that there’s broad skepticism of the press with recent Gallup polls showing 20% of Americans having confidence in newspapers and TV broadcasts.

We need to understand that Trump’s hostility toward the media has been well-known for years. Not because he hates the press. He doesn’t. But because he absolutely despises whenever anyone says anything undermining his brand or his ego, especially if it’s the truth. Unfortunately for him, Trump has a long history of mind boggling corruption pertaining to unethical business practices, shady ties, personal misconduct, misusing public funds, and little regard for the law when it suits his bottom line. It’s well-known Trump has gone to great lengths to avoid taking responsibility for his actions whether it be through filing or threatening lawsuits, dragging court battles against his victims, framing someone else for them, peddling conspiracy theories, paying off officials, character assassination, appealing to his well-born privilege, or what have you. The news media is no exception for they’ve reported on his misdeeds for decades. Unlike Trump, they’ve often backed their claims with evidence consisting of court transcripts, eyewitness testimony, financial records, or basic facts about him. After all, the media is charged with telling the truth. And the truth is Trump is a thoroughly despicable human being. Trump has often and viciously retaliated in response because he knows the media can turn people against him for exposing him as the kind of horrible man he really is. Or that the media tells the public that his nefarious actions shouldn’t be acceptable, which looks bad on him. Now that he’s GOP leader and president, he can delegitimize the media’s claims all he wants with his lies and people would still defend him for whatever reason. In many ways, Trump’s decrying of the media as “fake news” is a form of character assassination to discredit their reports on him. Or in other words, “shooting the messenger” because he doesn’t like what the messenger has to say. For he feels it’s the media’s job to provide him with coverage so he can dominate the airwaves to reach his fans and to make him look good with unconditional adulation. Yet, since Trump is known for his lack of transparency, lack of self-awareness, and flagrant lies, it’s better to side with the media who at least fact-checks before going on air or print. Whereas, Trump incessantly demonizes the mainstream media as “fake news” for reporting on stuff he doesn’t like. So for me, whenever it’s Trump vs. the media, the media wins every time.

Now it may be news to conservatives. But the media has no obligation to tell the public what they’re comfortable to hear. Sure they may whine about the mainstream media having a liberal bias because it doesn’t cater to their worldview like Fox News does. And while the mainstream media may not always be fair, balanced, or provide adequate coverage of what’s going on in the world, there have been countless time when liberals have been unhappy with the news. Just watch any political satire or comedy show like The Daily Show, Colbert, Last Week Tonight, or Full Frontal. Jon Stewart once devoted considerable Daily Show airtime to CNBC for their coverage on the stock market before the 2008 Recession as well as frequently attacked CNN. Also, the mainstream media has come under constant criticism for ignoring marginalized and more progressive voices like ethnic religious minorities, poor people, social justice activists, and doves. In addition, since a lot of media outlets are owned by huge corporate conglomerate, you’d be hard pressed to find broadcasts pertaining to net neutrality, profiteering in the criminal justice system, labor conditions, or wage theft. Not to mention, the sheer girth of news stories out there that leads to many important stories to fall through the cracks for whatever reason. And how media sensationalism leads many outlets to focus on less important instances for entertainment value and ratings. Or how cable news outlets unintentionally mislead the public by treating politics as a spectator sport. Or even how they endlessly speculate on certain events they don’t know much about. I was especially not happy with media coverage on the 2016 Election, which appeared to devote loads of airtime to Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal while barely paying attention to Trump’s far more serious scandals at all (though many major newspapers, magazines, and websites didn’t). Nor was I too thrilled about their coverage on certain domestic terror incidents like the one about a right-wing militia seizing an Oregon wildlife refuge. And don’t get me started on how local news devotes considerably more time to crime stories than local and state politics, especially on policies that affect people’s lives. Yet, despite all of that, my fellow liberals and I have never saw the press as “enemies of the people.” Nor even considered inflicting violence on journalists. Even if they come from right-wing outlets like Fox News as they call themselves. After all, the media is only a messenger to inform the public what’s going on with the world whether they want to hear it or not. Aside from several ideological outlets, it largely serves no partisan agenda but the truth and an audience.

That being said, a politician physically attacking or apprehending a journalist for merely asking a question they don’t want to answer isn’t brave or noble. In fact, it’s an act of cowardice which should never be defended or encouraged. Gianforte’s body slam on Jacobs is no exception. After all, Jacobs was just trying to do his job and was professionally obligated not to fight back. He only asked Gianforte on a cruel policy that could leave 23 million Americans without health insurance as well as result in thousands of personal bankruptcies and highly preventable deaths. In other words, a reasonable and relevant question on a policy Americans want to know where their elected officials stand since it affects their lives. Yet, Gianforte responded with unprovoked violence because he didn’t want to answer it. Whereas most candidates in his place would’ve simply answered the question. Sure they’d probably try to explain their position with dishonest spin, an irrelevant explanation, or an unconvincing argument their opponents would use in an attack ad. But that’s what political candidates have to put up with. We should understand that Gianforte didn’t take a clear public position on the deeply unpopular bill during the special election. Nor apologize to Jacobs until after he won his seat. He also threatened the news media before and spent all election day hiding from reporters. Gianforte’s attack on Jacobs was clearly motivated by fear. He’s for the AHCA and knew his position didn’t represent what most of his constituents thought of it. Since he was running a close race against Rob Quist, he didn’t want voters to know where he stood. So he pummeled a reporter who had the gall to ask about it.

Nevertheless, Gianforte’s attack on Jacobs and the troubling fallout is frightening. Part of an elected official’s job involves answering questions and dealing with journalists is part of the bargain. Even if the questions make them uncomfortable and the exchanges can occasionally be infuriating. But having elected officials take questions and give answers is fundamental to the basic practice of democracy. Only demagogues and wannabe dictators refuse to engage, dodge hard questions, and hide from the media. Using violence to quiet journalists may not make a man like Gianforte a totalitarian monster. But his attack on Jacobs reveals he doesn’t respect the basic rights of reporters or anyone else to ask questions. Nor does he believe he has any obligation to respond to them. In losing his temper, Gianforte illustrated his contempt for anyone taking it for granted that our elected officials owe us their attention and their answers. Too bad too many Montana voters learned too late that their new at-large representative isn’t fit to hold public office in a democracy. After all, most Americans do believe that the politicians they elect to represent them owe an explanation for the decisions they make and the votes they cast. And they should be held accountable for policy decisions that affect their lives. Suppose you went down to City Hall and asked your council representative whether they favor lowering taxes, building a new library, fixing the sidewalk in front of your house. Would you expect an answer or a nosebleed? Most likely an answer. Let’s say you write to your US Representative asking about well, EPA regulations or farm subsidies and they don’t like the question. Would it be okay for that rep to send goons to your house to rough you up a little in order to keep your mouth shut? Of course not.

In many ways, the relationship between the press and politicians is supposed to be adversarial. So much so that journalists should expect an occasional rhetorical attack when covering politics whether be criticism for a lousy story during a rally, shouting on the phone, or tossing off a casual insult about the media. But at the same time, no matter how tense things get, the relationship should be civil. Politicians should have a healthy respect for the press even when they’re annoyed. Or at least enough respect to not beat up reporters whenever they ask a hard question. The worst a journalist should have to fear is a politician’s dirty look or a tsk-tsk from a spouse or child. Not physical assault. After all, without the media how can politicians communicate with their constituents? And how can people know where their elected officials stand or what they’re doing?

Nevertheless, for years Republican politicians and conservatives have attacked the mainstream media for years over alleged “liberal” bias in order to smear and discredit an unflattering news story as well as its author. Casting doubt on someone’s motives whenever they’re an obstacle to your ambitions is part of the game. And yes, it can be fun for awhile. But as we’ve seen in Montana, it can be corrosive over time. The fact Gianforte’s team referred to Jacobs as a “liberal journalist” as an implicit excuse for his violent behavior suggests that the candidate struck out at an enemy instead of a reporter just doing his job. Yet, we should keep in mind that Republicans were perfectly fine with electing a president whose onetime campaign manager assaulted a reporter from a media outlet once led by his closest advisers. And like Jacobs, Fields also got assaulted for trying to ask a question yet a “liberal journalist” she definitely wasn’t. And a president according to University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “has contributed to a climate of discourse consistent with assaulting a reporter for asking an inconvenient question.” If you think attacks on journalists just to those in the so-called “liberal media,” it’s not always the case. But we should understand that many media usually fill the messenger role and usually don’t have a partisan motive unless stated otherwise. Nevertheless, while conservatives have criticized the mainstream media for liberal bias for several years, Trump escalated it to full-blown antagonism with terrible consequences.

Trump’s repeated denunciations of critical press has normalized hatred for journalists and by implication even encouraged physical attacks. Though to blame Trump alone may be unfair, but he’s at least broadened acceptance on bullying tactics by embracing and even celebrating resolving differences by force, if necessary. And though Trump hasn’t personally committed violence against reporters, his rhetoric makes such acts much more acceptable to conservative voters. According to University of Maryland professor Lucy Dalglish, “Trump has created an atmosphere where it’s not only okay — it’s encouraged — to disparage and mistreat journalists,” even while journalism is “the only profession” that is “specifically covered by the First Amendment.” She went on to say, “Every time he calls out a reporter for being ‘the enemy of the people,’ he is putting a bullseye on the back of about a dozen reporters. People in oppressed countries know what a free press is. This administration does not.” Doesn’t help that other politicians like Gianforte are following suit. As legal defense director for the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press Gregg Leslie states, “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the demonizing rhetoric that we’ve seen since the presidential campaign began is starting to have an effect on others, whether they’re candidates, security guards or other officials.” And it can’t be more clear than in the Columbia Journalism Review’s condemnation of Gianforte’s assault writing, “Trump’s rhetoric from the White House–the largest bully pulpit in the world — has implicitly condoned such behavior. Gianforte’s words in the moment, coupled with his campaign’s response to the allegations afterward, paint an alarming picture of a venomous media climate in which the most mundane acts of journalism have been politicized.”

For much of American history, the media has played a pivotal role in informing the public on what’s going on in the nation as well as the world. It is enshrined in our American ethos that a free press is critical to ensuring a free and functioning democracy. After all, the First Amendment guarantees us the inalienable right to question officials and pursue the truth to inform the public. So the public can form opinions and participate in politics whether it be election time or grassroots activism. Press freedom isn’t just important to journalists but also to every American citizen who cares about democracy and free speech. Gianforte’s attack on a reporter for asking him a question is an assault on constitutional rights and democratic norms. In addition, a president to who consistently demonizes the press for informing the public on things he doesn’t like makes journalists more vulnerable to physical violence. When political leaders either defend, condone, or ignore incidents like Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs, they undermine our constitutional rights, democratic values and our ability to hold our elected leaders responsible for the decisions that affect our lives. And as PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel remarked, “That should frighten any American, especially as these attacks could bleed into outright government censorship.  All responsible officials should step forward to reject this corrosion of American values and to defend the essential role of the media in our democracy.”

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