A reporter asks a politician a question — and allegedly gets attacked for doing his job. There’s even an audio recording of the incident.
While it sounds like the alleged assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte on Wednesday, the episode in question actually occurred three weeks ago in Alaska, part of what may be a rising trend of physical violence against journalists.
Reporter Nathaniel Herz of the Alaska Dispatch News said he was questioning state Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla) in the capitol building in Juneau on May 2 when the legislator turned and slapped Herz across the face. Herz, who recorded the confrontation, filed a report with the Juneau Police Department, which has turned the case over to the state’s Office of Special Prosecution.
It was the first of four incidents involving reporters and public officials in the past month.
Gianforte’s alleged body-slamming of Jacobs on Wednesday night — which resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge against the Republican candidate — came less than a week after CQ Roll Call reporter John Donnelly said he was pinned against a wall by security guards at the Federal Communications Commission as he sought to question agency officials. The FCC has apologized repeatedly for its treatment of Donnelly.
Separately, reporter Dan Heyman of the Public News Service was handcuffed and arrested on May 9 as he tried to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway in the West Virginia state capitol. After Conway and Price declined to respond to his repeated questions, Heyman was charged with “willful disruption of government processes” by police. He spent seven hours in jail before being released.
In the Gianforte incident, the candidate’s campaign specifically labeled Jacobs a “liberal reporter” and argued that he “aggressively shoved a recorder in [Gianforte’s] face.” Jacobs and eyewitnesses rebutted Gianforte’s account of events.
Press advocates see an increasing climate of anger, disrespect and hostility aimed at the media from the public and elected officials. And they generally blame President Trump for rhetoric that has made attacks, verbal and otherwise, more common and even acceptable.
During the presidential campaign, Trump banned reporters who displeased him from campaign events, repeatedly demonized journalists as purveyors of “fake news” and sometimes called them out by name in front of jeering crowds. Reporters who covered him repeatedly described a sense of imminent violence — and sometimes actual violence — at his rallies.
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, yanked the arm of a reporter seeking to ask Trump questions at an event; Lewandowski denied bruising the reporter until a videotape emerged showing him in the act. (Police ultimately dropped the battery charge.)
As president, Trump has called mainstream news organizations “enemies of the American people.” He also reportedly urged then-FBI Director James B. Comey to jail journalists for publishing unflattering information based on leaks from administration sources.
Trump’s verbal attacks led the press-advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders to lower the United States’ standing in its annual international press-freedom index. It ranked the United States 43rd out of 180 nations in its survey, placing it two spots lower than a year earlier and ranking the United States just behind Burkina Faso for government restrictions and threats against the news media.
“The election of the 45th president of the United States set off a witchhunt against journalists,” it said. “Donald Trump’s repeated diatribes against the Fourth Estate and its representatives — accusing them of being ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’ and of deliberately spreading ‘fake news’ — compromise a long U.S. tradition of defending freedom of expression.”
It added that Trump’s “hate speech” helped unleash attacks on the media “almost everywhere in the world,” including in countries with long democratic traditions, such as Britain, France and Italy.
“There is definitely a direct correlation between more aggressive rhetoric toward the press and this shocking incident,” Delphine Halgand, the group’s North American director, said in an interview, referring to the Montana episode. “When you hear people at the highest levels insulting and targeting [journalists], it’s not a surprise that other politicians turn these words toward violence. We’ve reached a new level in this game of war against the news media.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday that Gianforte’s alleged assault of Jacobs “sends an unacceptable signal that physical assault is an appropriate response to unwanted questioning by a journalist.”
The National Press Club’s president, Jeff Ballou, called Trump’s statements “part and parcel of a pattern that has been happening to journalists.” Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama criticized and even indicted journalists, he said, “but this president is upfront about [his hostility]. He has set an example that has given a license to people to have an open season on journalists.”
While physical attacks against journalists are relatively rare in American history, they aren’t unknown. Perhaps most infamously, Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles was killed in 1976 in a car bombing linked to his reporting on organized crime.
In a lesser-known incident, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) physically attacked syndicated newspaper columnist Drew Pearson in the cloakroom of a Washington social club one night in 1950, recalled media historian W. Joseph Campbell of American University. McCarthy was peeved over Pearson’s columns attacking him as a bully and demagogue for his crusade to root out communist sympathizers in the federal government. (The fight was broken up by a young senator named Richard Nixon.)
McCarthy wasn’t charged, but Pearson may have ultimately had the last word, notes Campbell. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954, one of the few to be disciplined this way, amid relentlessly negative coverage by Pearson and other journalists.