American political leaders need to defend the freedom of the press 


Last night, Guardian reporter Ben C. Jacobs tweeted that Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Montana’s Congressional seat, had “just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”

A spokesman for the campaign, Shane Scanlon, released a statement that blamed Jacobs and presented an alternate version of the altercation.

“Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.

Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then 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. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”

Reporter Alexis Levinson was present and corroborated the chain of events Jacobs described in a series of tweets, latter filing a story at Buzzfeed.

Jacobs published a story about Gianforte assaulting him in the Guardian, including audiio of the interaction.

A team of three Fox News journalists was present to bear witness to the candidate do more than break the reporter’s glasses, reporting more than a “body slam”:

“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I’m sick and tired of this!'”

It’s not clear whether the candidate’s frustration might be related to the Guardian’s reporting: in April, Jacobs reported on Gianforte’s public disclosure of investments in funds indexed to Russian equities markets that contain companies under sanction.

What is clear is that in the campaign’s statement was a lie, debunked by the accounts of eyewitnesses reporting for the Guardian, Buzzfeed and Fox News.

Last night, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Gianforte for misdemeanor assault, who will now need to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court before June 9.

As Mike Calderone reported, this is the worst incident in a dangerous pattern of threats of press freedom in the United States.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nathaniel Herz told police earlier this month that Republican state Sen. David Wilson slapped him during an encounter over a recent story.

West Virginia reporter Dan Heyman was arrested on May 10 while trying to ask a question of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who later praised police for their handling of the situation. And last week, CQ Roll Call reporter John M. Donnelly said he was pinned against a wall by security guards after trying to ask a Federal Communications Commission member a question in Washington.

That this stunning interaction between a Congressional candidate was provoked by a reporter simply doing his job — asking for comment the night before an election about proposed legislation in Congress that would affect the health care of millions of Americans — should give every member of the public pause.

The anti-press rhetoric that has escalated over the past year, led by the President of the United States, has now led to a flashpoint in which far too many politicians and commentators condoned the violence or  remained silent in the face of a physical assault or trivialized its meaning.

Silence or trivialization of what happened in Montana is shameful.

In the wake of this incident and established pattern, it’s important for US politicians everywhere, at every level of government to reaffirm the role of the free press in a democracy and make it clear that this is unacceptable behavior.

Valid critiques of journalists, journalism and the media are one thing. Physical assaults are another, much less by a candidate for Congress. This isn’t about the Democrats or the GOP. This is about the kind of country we have built since 1776, and the kind of country we will be.

As the Hill reported, the Speaker of the House  commented, calling on Gianforte to apologize but not calling for him to drop out or whether GOP leadership would accept him into the conference if he is elected.

“There is no time where a physical altercation should occur with the press or just between human beings. So that is wrong and that should not have happened,” Ryan said.

“I think he should apologize,” he added. “I know he has his own version and I’m sure he’s going to have more to say, but there is no call for this under any circumstance. …I do not think this is acceptable behavior.”

The governor of Montana has now commented on the “unsettling” incident, as have Senator Tester and Senator Daines, calling on Gianforte to apologize.

Calling for apologies isn’t sufficient for this moment.

The United States of America needs more Congressional leaders and the White House to speak out and defend the essential role of journalism in democracies, making it clear that journalists are not the “enemy of the people” but crucial guardians of the public’s right to know what is done in our name.

Freedom of the press is an American value, principle and a right enshrined in our Constitution. We all need to speak up and act to defend it.

Postscript: The people of Montana voted for Gianforte to represent them in Montana’s sole Congressionnal seat in the special election, despite assault charges. Gianforte admitted that he’d attacked Jacobs in a victory speech and apologized. “I shouldn’t have treated that reporter that way,” he said.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post reports that Congressional leaders don’t appear inclined to penalize Gianforte for the incident, reflecting a rising tribalism in American politics that condones political violence not only against people who hold different beliefs but the journalists who seek to inform that public about candidates for higher office and how they are served by government officials.

Whether that changes as he moves through the legal process remains to be seen. For now, we passed a Rubicon this week in our democracy.