If Montana residents tuned into the local news Wednesday night on NBC affiliate KECI, they wouldn’t have heard an audio recording of Republican House candidate Greg Gianforte attacking Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, even as it got widespread airplay on national television and online.
“NBC Montana takes pride in reporting only verifiable facts from independent, reliable sources, officials and documents, regardless of what is reported by other media outlets,” anchor Laurel Staples explained to the 10 p.m. audience. (A similar statement appeared in KECI’s online reports.)
Earlier that evening, The Guardian posted a recording in which Jacobs is heard asking Gianforte a question about health care policy right before the candidate snaps. Jacobs’ recording, which contradicted claims by Gianforte’s campaign that the “liberal journalist” was the aggressor, quickly became a key part of the unfolding story.
Before the night was over, Gianforte ― squaring off Thursday against Democrat Rob Quist in a special House election ― had been charged with misdemeanor assault.
KECI’s coverage ― or lack thereof ― drew attention on Twitter in part because the station’s parent company was recently bought by Sinclair Broadcast Group, though the deal hasn’t been completed. Sinclair, which owns 173 outlets nationwide and is poised to add dozens more, has history of boosting Republican candidates. The Washington Post and The New York Times have reported on how Sinclair’s management tilting local news stations to the right through story-selection and framing of events.
Tamy Wagner, KECI vice president and general manager, told HuffPost in an email that the station “did not have specific instructions or any instruction from Sinclair,” in its handing of the Gianforte story.
“We do not put unverified information and audio tapes on the air in any case, political figure or not,” Wagner said.
Instead, Missoula-based KECI essentially framed the incident as a “he said/he said” dispute between Gianforte and Jacobs.
Jacobs’ recording was aired during a Thursday segment on the “Today” show, the national morning show broadcast on local NBC affiliates like KECI. Still, the station’s newscasts opted not to run it.
The newscasts on Wednesday night and Thursday morning also failed to acknowledge that Jacobs’ version of events had been quickly backed up by a Fox News reporter’s eyewitness account.
“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” wrote Fox News reporter Alicia Acuno, who was present with two colleagues. “... 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!’”
UPDATE: May 26 ― New York magazine’s Yashar Ali reported Thursday night that KECI news director Julie Weindel initially told NBC News the station wasn’t covering the incident and refused to share footage with the national outlet. She also referred to Jacobs in an email as a reporter for a “politically biased publication.”
Weindel told New York that they “needed to be confident that we were able to verify the information and report the facts” and that there were no “clear and undisputed facts” at the time of the exchange NBC News. She said the station went on to “aggressively” report the story and sent information to NBC and MSNBC.
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to make clear that Sinclair has not yet completed its purchase of KECI.