Inside the First Amendment
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sadly, shamefully, disgustingly, it has come to this: A Montana candidate for Congress was charged recently with assaulting a reporter who was asking him a question about the American Health Care Act.
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte, a Republican, was charged with misdemeanor assault for what witnesses and the reporter involved said was an unwarranted attack.
Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, who has reported for weeks on the state’s close race for its only House seat, tweeted that “Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”
Gianforte’s campaign issued its own statement, claiming Jacobs had entered an office where a TV taping was being set up, “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.” The statement claimed that both men fell to the floor in a struggle over Jacob’s cellphone, and that “this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.”
Too bad for that set of “alternative facts” that several witnesses — including a Fox News television crew — were on hand to dispute them.
A Fox News reporter wrote that “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him … I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top of the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!’”
Three of Montana’s major newspapers, The Billings Gazette, The Missoulian and The Helena Independent Record, quickly got “sick and tired” of Gianforte: By the morning after the incident, on the day of the state’s special congressional election, all three rescinded their endorsements of the GOP candidate.
We all should be “sick and tired” of attacks on journalists in recent weeks, from this Montana mess to a “manhandling” of a reporter by security guards after an FCC hearing, to the arrest of a public radio reporter in the West Virginia statehouse.
The incidents have much in common: The journalists were asking questions of public officials or candidates for office, outside the staged, controlled environments of news conferences. In each case, the journalists were labeled aggressors by those they were attempting to question.
Many defenders of a free press see all three incidents flowing from the stridently anti-press tone set by President Trump, both in office and on the campaign trail. He has called journalists “enemies of the people,” and on occasion verbally abused specific reporters at rallies and news conferences. The Gianforte account took pains to label Jacobs as a “liberal journalist,” continuing the candidate’s anti-press stance through a campaign that has drawn comparisons to Trump’s. In an effort to give Gianforte a boost in Montana’s close congressional race, Trump recorded a robocall in which he calls Gianforte “my good friend.”
For those who are more inclined to view politics as an opportunity for mud-slinging and chest-beating, rather than a spirited exchange of ideas, the Montana attack no doubt will produce appreciative chuckles and nods of endorsement.
Do not be fooled. It’s democracy that got “body slammed” in the Montana incident. It’s respect for the rule of law that was dealt a blow. It’s the First Amendment that was insulted by Gianforte’s attempt to justify what he did: attacking a reporter for asking a reasonable question, on a matter of great public interest, to a political candidate on the eve of an important election.
This recent spate of attacks is not the first time journalists have been hassled by thugs and bully-boys, or by security forces. Multiple attacks and beatings occurred as reporters and television correspondents covered the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. Reporters covering the “Occupy” movement in recent years were hustled aside or held by police looking to prevent news coverage of protesters being forcibly removed from parks in New York City and elsewhere.
At national political conventions, journalist arrests have become so common that national press organizations regularly set up phone banks and offices to help individual reporters who have been taken into custody without cause.
Dangers to a free press have deep roots in this country. Just seven years after the 1791 ratification of the Bill of Rights, Congress passed the Sedition Act, allowing for the arrest and jailing of journalists for publishing political criticism. About 20 editors were thrown into jail.
In the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where I work, there is the starkly tragic exhibit of a lone Datsun sedan — notable because the floorboards at the driver’s seat are peeled up, the result of an explosion that fatally injured Phoenix newspaper reporter Don Bolles in 1976. A remotely detonated bomb had been planted by mobsters seeking to stop Bolles from reporting on organized crime in Arizona. The attack had the opposite effect, as reporters nationwide flocked to Phoenix to complete Bolles’ work, proclaiming that “you can kill a journalist but not journalism.”
The fear is now real that — as we saw after fake reports of a child sex ring in a Washington, D.C., restaurant prompted an armed man to appear on the premises — some disturbed person will decide to counter reporters with more than a “body slam.”
Let’s say again, for the sake of the nonpartisan, nonpolitical 45 words of the First Amendment, that this pattern of verbal abuse and physical attacks on journalists is an attack on all Americans, and that that these attacks must stop.