Journalism advocates are “horrified” by GOP candidate’s assault on reporter

A Montana Republican congressional candidate’s alleged body-slamming assault on a reporter for The Guardian the day before today’s special election is drawing harsh criticism from journalism advocates and reporters, while also causing three local newspapers to pull their endorsements of the politician.

Greg Gianforte, the GOP candidate in the race for Montana’s lone House seat, was charged with assault Wednesday after allegedly attacking reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian.

Audio of the incident indicates Jacobs was asking the candidate his view of the recent Congressional Budget Office report, released Wednesday, on the latest House Republican health care bill. The long-awaited report indicated that the plan would leave up to 14 million more people without health insurance next year and as many as 23 million uninsured by 2026.

Apparently without provocation, Gianforte reportedly assaulted Jacobs so badly that he broke the reporter’s glasses.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is among several groups that condemned the incident.

“Public figures in Montana and throughout the U.S. should condemn the violent assault of a reporter by a congressional candidate,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's program director and senior program coordinator for the Americas. “The role of reporters is even more important on the eve of elections. Gallatin County authorities should show that politicians will be held accountable for attacks against journalists who are merely trying to keep the public informed.”

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement that said, in part:

While Mr. Gianforte’s campaign seemed to excuse his violent behavior by belittling Mr. Jacobs as a “liberal journalist,” his fellow reporters at Fox News who were on the scene have supported his account by stating that “at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”

The journalists are united, and the country should be united, behind the belief that these kinds of attacks on reporters are an assault on the very core of democratic life and require the swiftest condemnation by public officials everywhere.

Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and the investigative executive producer at NBC 7 San Diego, called it an “attack against the rights this country was founded on.”

“Ben was practicing his rights guaranteed in this country, freedom of the press,” she said in an interview. “To be physically harmed for doing this, the public should be outraged. Is this the direction we want to be going in? We condemn any sort of attacks, physical harm or arrests of journalists when they are doing their jobs. This was a journalist doing his job to get information to share with the public.”

Kelly McBride, vice president at The Poynter Institute, said Jacobs was only doing his job.

Jacobs “was politely trying to do his job,” McBride told Media Matters. “Getting a comment from this guy’s important, and this guy didn’t want to give a comment, and this is what we do as reporters -- nail public officials down on their beliefs in public policy.”

Several of the journalism advocates also pointed to the latest incident as part of a trend of recent unacceptable violent actions against reporters, adding that President Donald Trump’s ongoing anti-press rhetoric may have been a cause.

The CPJ statement also included this view:

The attack on Jacobs comes less than a week after security forces at the Federal Communications Commission allegedly pinned CQ reporter John Donnelly against a wall while he tried to ask a question of the departing commissioners at the agency's headquarters in D.C., according to press reports. In a separate event, a West Virginia reporter was arrested this month as he tried to ask a question of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price in the West Virginia state capitol.

Bernie Lunzer, president of the News Guild-CWA, which represents Jacobs and other Guardian staffers through Local 3122, said the union is “horrified” at what appears to be a growing trend.

“This is not an isolated incident,” Lunzer said in an interview Thursday. “We had the situation in West Virginia, the FCC incident. I think a climate has been created where people, rather than argue and debate facts, we’ve now got a situation where they target the messenger. … It is a climate where Trump has made it OK to attack reporters.”

McBride agreed, adding that “it’s rare that it escalates to some sort of physical assault, but not surprising in the general level of disdain for reporters to do their job. Trump has definitely made it OK and popular.”

Walsh echoed that view: “When you look at it and make an educated assumption, you tend to see these sorts of things, they do tend to come from the top down, follow what the top of their party might be doing. I think the assumption that because of the things President Trump said during the campaign and has continued to say as president I think can be contributing to some of this. We have to make sure this doesn’t become the new norm.”

In a related move, three of Montana’s largest daily newspapers that had endorsed Gianforte pulled their support Thursday morning.

Among them was the Billings Gazette, the state’s largest paper in terms of circulation. Its editorial board stated, in part:

While there are still questions left unanswered about GOP House hopeful Greg Gianforte's altercation with Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, eyewitness accounts, law enforcement investigations and records are all shocking, disturbing and without precedent.

That's why The Billings Gazette editorial board is also doing something without precedent: We're rescinding our editorial endorsement of Greg Gianforte.

Although we're greatly troubled by this action against a member of the media who was just doing his job, to make this an issue of media intrusion or even a passionate defense of the role of a free press during an election would be to miss the point.

If what was heard on tape and described by eye-witnesses is accurate, the incident in Bozeman is nothing short of assault. We wouldn't condone it if it happened on the street. We wouldn't condone it if it happened in a home or even a late-night bar fight. And we couldn't accept it from a man who is running to become Montana's lone Congressional representative.

The other two papers included the Missoulian of Missoula and the Independent Record of Helena, the state capital.

The Independent Record stated, in part:

Democracy cannot exist without a free press, and both concepts are under attack by Republican U.S. House Candidate Greg Gianforte.

A reporter for the Guardian newspaper called Bozeman police Wednesday night to report that Gianforte had assaulted him at a barbecue for campaign volunteers. The reporter said he was “body slammed,” and a Fox News reporter said she saw the candidate grab him by the neck, slam him to the ground and punch him.

We cannot condone that kind of violence.

The reporter went to the hospital, and Gianforte has been cited for misdemeanor assault. And while we may not know all of the specifics of the incident until the investigation has concluded, we know that we can no longer support Gianforte’s candidacy.

The Missoulian’s withdrawal added:

Greg Gianforte should not represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republican candidate for Congress not only lost the endorsement of this newspaper Wednesday night when, according to witnesses, he put his hands around the throat of a reporter asking him about his health care stance, threw him to the ground and punched him — he should lose the confidence of all Montanans.