The news out of Montana landed like a Brock Lesnar facebuster.
Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs said he was body-slammed Wednesday night by the Republican candidate in Montana’s special congressional election while asking a question about the Congressional Budget Office's revised score of the American Health Care Act.
“Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs tweeted on the eve of the special election in which Gianforte is (was?) considered the slight favorite.
For American journalists and anybody else who cares about the First Amendment and the role of the free press in a healthy democracy, the body-slamming incident added an exclamation point to the sad sentence that began writing itself during Donald Trump's press-hating presidential campaign and hasn't stopped since: We, the so-called enemy of the American people, are under attack, under arrest and, now, under (alleged) assault.
Last week's report of a longtime Washington journalist saying he was manhandled by security guards and ejected from a Federal Communications Commission meeting for asking questions suddenly seems quaint. (At least Trump didn't act on the hot-mic remark by Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, who joked about the president's ceremonial Coast Guard saber: “Use that on the press.”)
Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault hours after the violent encounter — but not before the House hopeful's spokesman attempted to pin the blame on Jacobs, who seems to have triggered Gianforte by committing the apparent crime of journalism.
“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,” Shane Scanlon said in a widely derided statement. “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.”
A Fox News Channel reporter who witnessed the encounter told a totally different story, writing in a vivid first-person account that “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.” The Fox News crew, she said, “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!' ”
An audio recording of the exchange also runs counter to Scanlon's version of events.
Jacobs asks about the CBO score.
Gianforte says he'll talk about it later.
Jacobs says there's “not going to be time” and notes that he's “just curious.”
“Speak with Shane, please,” Gianforte says.
Jacobs continues to press, saying: “But you gotta …”
And then all hell breaks loose.
You can hear the recording in the video at the top of this post. You can also read a transcript.
There is a lot to unpack in Scanlon's fidget spinner of a statement.
But one thing that jumped out to the political class and journalists was Scanlon's assertion that Jacobs “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face, and began asking badgering questions.”
Asking questions is, of course, what reporters do, and that's especially true at the very place Gianforte would like to work, a place where (news flash!) ... there are a lot of reporters.
“If you’re running for public office and don’t like 'recorders shoved in your face,' you’re gonna have a bad time,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz noted.
In fact, there are so many reporters and photojournalists on the Hill these days that the Senate press gallery sent a letter to news organizations last week regarding “Senate Corridor Congestion.”
“The Capitol has reached its capacity for reporters,” said the letter, sent to bureau chiefs and editors from numerous news organizations, including The Washington Post. “The crowding is affecting your reporters' abilities to do their job effectively and adversely affecting Senate operations.
“We understand the increased demand for reporting at the Senate. However, we are concerned for everyone's safety. Collectively, the press following the Senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned someone may get hurt.”
The letter noted that the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms “is monitoring this situation and considering actions ... as a response to safety concerns.”
Here, then, is some potential storyboard inspiration for “Mr. Gianforte Goes to Washington,” which could be a horror film, given Gianforte's aversion to meeting the press:
This is “School House Rock” stuff, but the role of political journalists is to keep tabs on what members of Congress are doing and thinking — and to report their findings to the American people, who, of course, those members of Congress represent. This isn't a complicated equation, and most members of Congress get it.
They may obfuscate or evade or grandstand, or sometimes do all of those things within the same, run-on sentence. What they don't do, however, is commit violence against the people asking questions.
Something for Gianforte to think about as he fights his way to Washington.