The case of a Montana congressional candidate accused of body-slamming a reporter is being blamed by some media watchers on a wave of hostility toward journalists that President Donald Trump helped generate.
“It definitely started before Trump, but he definitely exacerbated it,” said Kelly McBride, a vice president at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank and training center in St. Petersburg, Florida.
For months, Trump, first as a candidate, now as president, has attacked the media, calling it dishonest, branding it the “enemy of the people” and accusing it of putting out “fake news.”
During the White House campaign, reporters at Trump rallies were often confined to a penned-in area, vilified by the candidate and subjected to such insults and threats from his supporters that some members of the media feared for their safety. At one rally, a man was photographed in a shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”
The air of menace was heightened by Trump’s talk of wanting to punch or rough up hecklers in the crowd.
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was arrested during the campaign on battery charges for grabbing a female reporter. A Florida prosecutor later dropped the charge.
On Wednesday, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for a House seat in a special election Thursday, was charged in Montana with misdemeanor assault for allegedly grabbing Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by the neck and slamming him to the ground after Jacobs asked him about the GOP health care bill. Gianforte could be fined up to $500 or get six months in jail if convicted.
Gianforte, who has tried to align himself with Trump, said the reporter was being aggressive and grabbed him by the wrist. Jacobs said he never touched Gianforte. And a Fox News reporter who witnessed the incident said Jacobs was not physically aggressive.
“The attack in Montana is only the crudest and most visible expression of the rising hostility toward the media,” Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, wrote in an email. “The chilling fact is that half of the people seeing the Guardian reporter being beaten may actually — if privately — relish the image.”
Among other recent incidents, all of them reported in May:
— The editor of Alaska’s largest newspaper said a state senator slapped one of his reporters when the reporter sought the lawmaker’s opinion on a recently published article.
— A Washington-based reporter from CQ Roll Call said he was pinned against the wall by security guards and forced to leave the Federal Communications Commission headquarters after he tried to question an FCC commissioner after a news conference.
— A West Virginia journalist was arrested after yelling questions about the opioid epidemic at U.S. Health Secretary Tom Price.
McBride said that while the hostility toward the media really began decades ago with talk radio and the rise of Fox News, Trump has stoked it. What set the Montana incident apart was its “brazenness,” she said.
“Reporters are subject to abuse all the time. Most of it’s verbal, but it’s not hard to imagine some of that verbal abuse transitioning to physical abuse, especially when you have the president calling journalists scum, bad people, evil people and ‘enemies of the people,'” McBride said.
On Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma cast blame on both sides after the incident in Montana. He said it “goes back to kind of what we’re seeing in our country right now, this lack of civility and respect that politicians may have for the free press and the free press not showing deference and respect to people that are putting themselves out there to run for office.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called the Montana candidate “a wannabe Trump,” adding, “That’s his model. Donald Trump. We’ve really got to say enough. Behave. That was outrageous.”
Carlos Lauria of the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists wouldn’t draw parallels between the U.S. political climate and the Montana incident. But he said, “I think this incident sends an unacceptable signal that physical assault is an appropriate response by an unwanted question by a journalist.”
“Everybody needs to take a step back and realize the press has a role to play. We have a right to do our jobs,” said Bernie Lunzer, a former journalist and the president of the NewsGuild, a union representing some 25,000 journalists in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. “You don’t have to like it and you don’t have to talk to us. … If you want to attack journalists for doing their job, then there’s something very wrong.”
Turley said something more chilling than the recent clashes between politicians and reporters might be underway.
“The White House has admitted that it is actively studying new avenues to increase the liability of journalists. President Trump reportedly pressed former FBI Director Comey to arrest reporters using leaked information,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. media has ever faced this type of concentrated threat that runs the gamut from physical to legal actions.”
He added: “I’ve tended not to be alarmist, but I think there’s a real danger here.”