On Wednesday night, as news broke that Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs had been physically attacked by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte after Jacobs asked him his position on the Republican health care bill, the conservative movement’s pro-Trump voices rallied to Gianforte’s rescue. This moral cowardice has become commonplace for commentators who have spent so much time immersed in the battle to defend the president and vilify the press at all costs that they are apparently incapable of ethical seriousness.
Faced with a conservative politician who had -- in full view of a Fox News camera crew -- grabbed a reporter and slammed him to the ground, then lied about the incident through a spokesperson, these pundits backed the politician. Their reactions ranged from efforts to undermine the stories of the reporter and the witnesses, to declarations that it looked bad but Jacobs probably deserved it, to outright cheers for the assault. In doing so, they showed there are few actions that they are unwilling to excuse as long as the victims are journalists and the perpetrator a Republican.
In some ways, the responses mimicked the right wing’s scorn for HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly and The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery when they were arrested while reporting on protests in 2014. But the Gianforte affair represents not just the misguided use of the power of the state against journalists, but also a politician literally taking matters into his own hands because he didn't want to answer questions. If that behavior is worthy of defense, what isn’t? Where would Gianforte’s defenders draw the line?
It comes as no surprise that these critics have sought to fend off what seems to be an obvious conclusion to draw from the events -- that they are the result of President Donald Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the press. For if journalists are, as the president says, the “enemy of the American people,” are they not worthy of violence as well as scorn? Or, at least, are those who do respond with violence not worthy of defense?
Press freedom advocates warned of the dangers of a soft authoritarian like Trump becoming president. And indeed, the first months of the Trump administration have featured a wave of these cases. From an Alaska reporter who says he was slapped by a Republican legislator to a West Virginia reporter arrested while trying to ask questions of a member of the Trump cabinet to a CQ Roll Call scribe who was manhandled by security guards while trying to ask questions of FCC commissioners, government agents are becoming increasingly comfortable responding to the press with force.
In this environment, as pro-Trump conservatives demonstrate their willingness to support anything and everything the president does without question, it becomes unsurprising that they might also be willing to look away when a politician physically attacks a reporter. This feeling is by no means universal -- many conservatives have been willing to criticize both the president and Gianforte for their attacks on the press. But the Trumpists are ascendant: They have the largest audiences and the most powerful media posts, and their man is in the White House.
This support for the use of force against journalists is horrifying, but it is not new to the U.S. conservative movement. Trump-style invective against the press has been a staple of modern conservative commentary since at least former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ)’s 1964 run for the White House. But before conservative activists at the Republican National Convention jeered at journalists who they believed had taken sides in the struggle for civil rights, segregationist mobs assaulted and even murdered reporters covering integration efforts.
The faces change, but the plan remains the same: delegitimization by dehumanization. By convincing themselves and their followers that journalists are something other than citizens who deserve the scrupulous protection of the law and human beings who deserve respect, conservative leaders seek to limit the impact of damaging stories and step in as information gatekeepers for their supporters.
This is not a failure of “our politics,” as some mainstream journalists have claimed. When a Democratic president says that journalists are vital to the democratic process but could at times do better, and his Republican successor denounces individual reporters from his rally podium to the delight of his jeering audience, it is nonsense to throw up one’s hands and declare oneself under attack from both sides.
The conservative movement is suffering from a unique and acute defect. And if physically attacking a reporter is now considered acceptable, where will this anti-press mania end?