On Wednesday evening, Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the floor as Jacobs tried to ask his view on GOP health care legislation.
As Jacobs and a Fox News crew told it, it was a shocking assault on a reporter just one day before a special election to fill the state’s lone House seat.
But it was hardly an isolated occurrence. In the past three weeks, political reporters have described being arrested, pinned against a wall, slapped, and now body slammed ― all this in a nation where freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution.
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.
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.
The Gianforte incident stood out, in part, because of the galling absence of an apology from the candidate. His campaign tried to characterize Jacobs as the aggressor, and labeled him a “liberal journalist.” Even though Jacobs’ audio recording contradicts the campaign’s version of events, the campaign’s statement implies that the “liberal” reporter is perhaps deserving of violent retaliation for doing his job.
A Gianforte win on Thursday would potentially signal that both assaulting a member of the press and disputing a recording and credible eyewitnesses is palatable with voters (with the caveat that about one-third of Montana’s mail-in ballots are in already).
But similar behavior was displayed by President Donald Trump during his campaign, and a large swath of the public seemed not to mind. Some people even cheered him.
Distrust in the news media didn’t begin with Trump. But he escalated antagonism toward journalists by waging the most anti-press campaign in recent memory. The Trump campaign blacklisted news outlets, manhandled reporters and restricted movements at events, while the candidate routinely and recklessly blasted journalists on stage and on Twitter. As president, he railed against the “fake news” media as “enemies of the people.”
The Trump White House still hasn’t disputed recent reports that the president suggested imprisoning journalists for publishing classified leaks, despite multiple requests for comments over the past week. The Justice Department on Tuesday declined to tell HuffPost whether it would consider breaking with tradition to prosecute journalists for doing their jobs in ferreting out information in the public interest.
Last month, 75 percent of White House reporters surveyed said they viewed Trump’s anti-press rhetoric as a distraction, rather than a threat. That perception is likely shaped by journalists knowing that the publicity-crazed president who assails the fake news is simultaneously obsessed with coverage of himself.
But press freedom organizations that advocate for journalists working under authoritarian regimes and war zones have long understood that the demonization of journalists, especially from the highest rung of the U.S. government, is a global threat. And perhaps more U.S. journalists will begin to acknowledge that anti-press rhetoric, which sets the conditions for physical retaliation against reporters to be condoned, is not a distraction.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said about two-thirds of Montana’s mail-in votes were in at the time of publication. It was actually about one-third.