A special congressional election in Montana today has suddenly become a test of Americans’ devotion to press freedom and tolerance for journalistic persistence.
Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in what had been considered a safe district for the GOP, was cited for criminal assault after witnesses said he grabbed a reporter by the neck, threw him to the floor, and began punching him. The journalist, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, had been questioning Gianforte about a Congressional Budget Office report on the cost of health care legislation being pushed by House Republicans.
An audio tape of the incident indicated that Gianforte twice declined to discuss the CBO report and referred Jacobs to his press secretary. “Yeah, but there’s not going to be time,” Jacobs said. “I’m just curious about it right now.”
With that, there are sounds of a scuffle and Gianforte is heard shouting: “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the Hell out of here! Get the Hell out of here! The last guy did the same thing. Are you with the Guardian?”
“Yes, and you broke my glasses,” Jacobs said.
Alicia Acuna, a Fox News reporter who also was in the room as her crew prepared for a scheduled interview with Gianforte, said the candidate grabbed Jacobs neck “with both hands,” threw him to the floor and began pummeling him. Local police, called to the scene, charged Gianforte with assault after interviewing the Fox reporter and other witnesses and reviewing the tape. The charge is a misdemeanor.
In a statement after the altercation, Gianforte’s campaign said Jacobs had badgered the candidate. “It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.” Several GOP members of Congress, interviewed about the incident this morning, also blamed Jacobs, though former Republican National Chairman Michael Steele told MSNBC that Gianforte’s behavior was “beyond crazy.”
“If you can’t even handle a question on the CBO, what’re you going to do when there’s a really important question?” Steele asked.
It’s unclear how the incident will impact today’s election. Reports indicate at least two-thirds of the expected votes were cast before the polls opened this morning.
Still, hours after Gianforte was charged, Montana’s two largest newspapers withdrew their editorial endorsements. “We simply cannot trust him. Because trust — not agreement — is essential in the role of representative, we cannot stand by him,” the Billings Gazette said in an editorial. The Missoulan’s editors wrote that Gianforte had demonstrated “that the lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office.”
The Montana incident came a week after John M. Donnelly, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, was pinned against a wall by security guards at the Federal Communications Commission as he tried to ask questions of Commissioner Michael O’Reilly while the commissioner was walking down a public hallway. No charges were filed in that case and O’Reilly apologized after the incident.
Tensions between the press and political candidates – from both parties – are nothing new. But candidate Donald Trump’s press-hostile rhetoric last year, escalated since he took charge at the White House in January, has tapped into longstanding resentment of the media among conservatives. The president has labeled reporters “enemies of the people” and complains that well-documented stories critical of him or his administration are “fake news.” Before firing FBI Director James Comey earlier this month, Trump reportedly pressed him to step up investigations and prosecutions of journalists who unearth and publish government secrets.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy