Montana House candidate takes ‘enemy of the people’ to its logical conclusion

Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, news rippled across social media that a Republican candidate for a Montana congressional seat allegedly body-slammed a Guardian journalist on the eve of the state’s special election. Reporter Ben Jacobs’s audio recording of the event suggests that he was assaulted after asking candidate Greg Gianforte a routine question about the GOP’s health care bill. Gianforte’s words in the moment, coupled with his campaign’s response to the allegations afterward, paint an alarming picture of a venomous media climate in which the most mundane acts of journalism have been politicized.

The Gianforte campaign’s defensive statement, issued after Jacobs tweeted about the altercation, attempts to cast the violent encounter between a GOP candidate for office and a “liberal journalist” as some sort of partisan battle. The incendiary rhetoric echoes repeated statements from President Donald Trump portraying journalists as the “enemy of the people,” and it fits into an increasingly frightening pattern of anti-media invective permeating all levels of American government. By casting the altercation as part of a larger political battle with the “crooked media,” the campaign is attempting to skirt blame for what this incident appears to be: an attack on the free press.

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The altercation took place as Gianforte visited his campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, to thank volunteers for their work. The audio recording begins with Jacobs asking Gianforte a question about the recently released Congressional Budget Office analysis of the American Health Care Act. Gianforte dodges the question, and then there is a commotion and a crash. “I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte yells. “You’re with The Guardian? Get the hell out of here.”

BuzzFeed reporter Alexis Levenson witnessed at least part of the altercation, and supported Jacobs’s account. In a series of tweets posted soon after the incident, Levinson wrote, “Ben walked into a room where a local tv crew was set up for an interview with Gianforte.”

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An even more damning account came from Fox News, of all outlets, which had a video crew in the room. Alicia Acuna, a reporter for the network who was part of that team, posted a first person account of what she witnessed. She said that Gianforte was making small talk with the Fox reporters when Jacobs approached him, asking about the health care bill. Gianforte first attempted to redirect Jacobs to a press representative, but Jacobs persisted.

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“At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Acuna wrote in an admirable defense of her fellow journalist. “Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”

As these accounts rocketed through social media and onto primetime cable coverage, the Gianforte campaign suggested a far different series of events in a statement. It alleges that the candidate for Congress fell victim to “badgering questions” by a reporter who “aggressively shoved a recorder” in his face. Its concluding line is even more striking, emphasis ours:

“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.”

The campaign’s dog-whistle labeling of Jacobs as a “liberal journalist” is intended to signal to the GOP candidate’s base that because this guy worked for The Guardian, he had it coming. No matter that Jacobs’s audio recording and multiple witness accounts contradict this version of events.

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Wednesday’s incident in Montana comes in the wake of a West Virginia reporter’s arrest after shouting questions at the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in addition to a Roll Call journalist being pinned against a wall in a public hallway of the Federal Communications Commission. Embracing partisan rhetoric to distract from critical media coverage has been a favorite tactic of candidate and President Trump. But doing so as an implied excuse for assaulting a reporter goes a step further.

Trump’s rhetoric from the White House—the largest bully pulpit in the world—has implicitly condoned such behavior. The question now, with Gianforte’s special election just hours away, is whether the Republican Party and the right-wing media that energizes its base will continue to do the same.

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David Uberti and Pete Vernon are CJR staff members. Uberti is a staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow and can be followed on Twitter @DavidUberti. Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow and can be followed on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.