As the polls close for Montana's special election, voters respond to whether the incident with Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte and a Guardian reporter influenced their vote. (McKenna Ewen,Abbey Nelson/The Washington Post)

Greg Gianforte would like to be the next Republican congressman from Montana. He is also facing a misdemeanor charge of assault after allegedly body-slamming a reporter who tried to ask him a policy question the night before the state’s special election.

The reporter, the audiotape of their exchange and the first-person account of the entire incident by a Fox News journalist all tell a similar story: Gianforte slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground after he asked him about a Republican health-care bill. Jacobs was persistent but calm, according to the audiotape. The Fox team who witnessed the incident said the reporter showed no signs of “physical aggression” toward the would-be congressman.

A BuzzFeed reporter was also nearby, but she was unable to see the entire incident. Her account doesn’t contradict Jacobs’s.

Gianforte tells a different story, one blaming “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist.” The campaign’s statement accuses Jacobs of shoving a tape recorder in his face (which is a daily occurrence for sitting congressmen in D.C.). The campaign says that “Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face,” and “Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.”

One incident, an audio recording, and plenty of witnesses. Two totally different stories. This isn’t unusual, particularly now. The witnesses supporting Jacobs’s account appear to outnumber those supporting Gianforte’s. But Gianforte does have plenty of backing online, particularly among Trump-supporting media personalities who have built careers and followings off a sentiment that the mainstream media is “fake,” biased against conservatives and corrupt. The president’s belief that mainstream journalists are “the enemy of the American People!” is a guiding principle in this world.

The mainstream conversation about all this has focused on a few things:

  1. What this incident says about current anti-media sentiment, particularly with a president in office who seems to encourage it.
  2. Whether this will affect the outcome of Montana’s special election, which is Thursday.
  3. How Republicans will respond to this — particularly if Gianforte wins anyway and comes to Washington.

The pro-Trump response has been different.

Question the alleged victim

The Guardian is not a conservative publication, a fact that should have nothing to do with justifying an alleged physical assault on someone who works there. But Jacobs’s employer and personal politics became an early subject of scrutiny for those working to cast doubt on his version of events. Gianforte himself made sure to call Jacobs a “liberal reporter” in his statement.

There’s not exactly a ton of good polling out there on how the nation feels about seeing journalists physically assaulted, but we do know that Trump’s base doesn’t trust the media to tell the truth.

As news of Jacobs’s alleged assault spread, so did a couple of conspiracy theories. Chuck Johnson’s GotNews claimed Jacobs was a “Democratic operative” who assaulted Gianforte, not the other way around. A story posted to Infowars about the incident accused Jacobs of “Interfer[ing] in the election. The post doesn’t question whether Jacobs was body-slammed, but it does seem to think Gianforte should have joked about “taking the fight to the liberal media” in his statement.

Others simply implied that Jacobs deserved to be allegedly assaulted by a person running for public office:

Question all the evidence 

Outside the Trump Internet, the fact that a Fox News reporter corroborated Jacobs’s account was seen as just the sort of thing that might convince conservatives that this story might not be made up. That might be true to some degree, but its power as evidence was limited. The story Infowars ran, for instance, said they thought the account seemed “exaggerated.”

Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna went on Laura Ingraham’s radio talk show on Thursday to talk about what she saw. Ingraham questioned her version of events, and Acuna eventually said it’s possible she saw Gianforte grab Jacobs on either side of his neck, and not by the neck as if to choke him, which is how many inferred her written account of the whole thing (it used the phrase “by the neck”). Although it doesn’t appear that Acuna has walked back her account of Gianforte’s actions beyond that one clarification on the exact placement of the politician’s hands, Ingraham’s Lifezette ran the updated version of events as a “bombshell.” Drudge ran with “witness changes story.”

A tweet from a now-protected Twitter account corroborating Gianforte’s version events was widely circulated (and posted on GotNews) as proof that Jacobs was lying. On r/The_Donald, the popular subreddit devoted to spreading pro-Trump news and memes, an image of the tweet was one of the most popular posts on the board about the whole incident. It doesn’t appear that the alleged witness has provided evidence she was there, as even some comments on the subreddit noted.

Others, like Mike Cernovich, raised the bar for required evidence. Although there is an audio recording of the incident, he said video was needed for the story to be reliable.

Gateway Pundit wrote that it was “strange” there was no video.

Bring up something else 

As this story spread, so did a couple of retorts. One of the more popular was to remind liberals that an activist punching white nationalist Richard Spencer in the face on the day of Trump’s inauguration became a meme — something that was widely covered in the media, including by The Washington Post. 

This sort of conditional response is a pretty common way that the Trump Internet responds to mainstream stories. It works, for them and their base of dedicated readers, for the same reason that all of the above works: They’ve taken the idea that the mainstream media is the enemy to heart. Bringing up the Nazi meme implies that journalists are hypocrites, which in turn reconfirms the disdain for mainstream journalism and journalists.

Anyway, if all this surprised you, it shouldn’t. This particular way of responding to alleged violence against a journalist by a political figure has happened before, to former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. Her own former employer helped to question her story of what happened last year. One of the witnesses was The Post’s Ben Terris, who wrote a piece about how the Trump campaign aggressively tried to get him to doubt the reality he clearly saw.

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