Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Expert Opinion / Commentary / Attacks, threats against journalists must stop

Attacks, threats against journalists must stop

Daily Record and Rochester Business Journal Editor Ben Jacobs

Daily Record and Rochester Business Journal Editor Ben Jacobs

News of a reporter being physically assaulted by a political candidate in Montana on Wednesday was disconcerting for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

The first is the growing antipathy displayed by politicians toward journalists.

Politicians disliking journalists is certainly not a new phenomenon. One main purpose of journalism, after all, is to keep a close watch on politicians to make sure they are fulfilling their obligations and not taking advantage of their station.

However, the First Amendment guarantees the rights of the press, and those rights have generally been respected — more or less, anyway — in this country.

Wednesday’s alleged attack is another example of that attitude shifting. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for journalists, going so far as calling the media “the enemy of the American people.”

As with so much of his rhetoric, Trump’s constant criticism of the press is dangerous even if he never acts on his thoughts. By putting the office of the presidency behind such thoughts, he lends confidence to people who might be inclined to act on his words.

GOP Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte appears to be just such a person.

There are conflicting reports of what happened Wednesday. A reporter for the Guardian claimed that Gianforte body-slammed him and broke his glasses after he asked a simple policy question about health care. Gianforte’s campaign claimed that the reporter was overly aggressive and initiated the physical contact.

Audio that the reporter recorded and eyewitness accounts from Fox News reporters who were in the room both back up the reporter’s account. Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault.

It’s also worth noting that Gianforte apparently has a history of threatening the media. An editorial in the Helena Independent Record said: “In the past, he has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer.”

The Independent Record was one of three Montana newspapers to quickly rescind its endorsement of Gianforte for the House seat vacated when Trump made Ryan Zinke the Secretary of the Interior.

There is no excuse for a politician to attack a journalist for any reason. If Gianforte can’t answer a simple policy question without becoming violent, he has no business holding public office.

But the second major reason that Wednesday’s assault was so troubling is the segment of the population that thinks it’s OK — or even a good thing.

Many people seem to think that nobody should question politicians whose views align with their own, which is a terrible shame. Even if you agree with every policy position Gianforte holds, you should be disgusted by him resorting to violence.

This case has been of particular interest to me because I happen to share the name of the reporter who was assaulted. Given that I have received some charming social media messages from misguided individuals who think I was involved in this incident, I can only imagine the kinds of vitriol the reporter himself is seeing.

Condoning violence against anyone is despicable, but accepting violence by politicians toward the journalists who are covering them is misguided even beyond the human norms of not wanting to see other people harmed.

The more journalists can uncover about the views and activities of politicians, the better able you are to make sure you really want that person representing you. Sadly, too many people would rather remain ignorant of facts than face a reality that does not comport with their own preconceived notions.

We are lucky to live in a country where journalists have freedom of the press and can question politicians without fear. There are many countries where that is not the case. The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks how many journalists are killed each year, and under what circumstances. In 2016, 79 journalists were killed worldwide. Predictably, the beat with the highest number of journalists killed was war (36). The beat with the second-most deaths? Politics (18).

Regardless of how you feel about the media—and I have been on the receiving end of plenty of barbs about journalists throughout my career—we perform a crucial function in a democratic society. You may think the media is too biased to be trusted, but the alternative—politicians who have no outside checks on what they are doing—should be the much scarier option.