Members of the press are used to the occasional rhetorical attack. The candidate who criticizes a lousy story on stage. The campaign manager who shouts on the phone. The volunteer who tosses off a casual insult about the media. The relationship between the press and politicians is supposed to be adversarial.
But Wednesday night brought something else entirely.
An American reporter for The Guardian, a British-based news outlet that has invested heavily in covering U.S. politics, was aggressively manhandled by Greg Gianforte, a Republican congressional candidate in Montana, for asking a question out of turn, according to witnesses. “Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault,” Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a statement Wednesday night. “The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault.”
Ben Jacobs, the reporter, says he was “body-slammed” by Gianforte after asking about the Congressional Budget Office report on the Republican health care bill released earlier today. In audio of the incident posted by The Guardian, Gianforte can be heard yelling “I’m sick and tired of you guys!” as something happens. Fox News reporters who were at the scene described a violent attack: “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man.”
The Gianforte campaign blamed Jacobs “aggressive behavior” for the incident, saying he “aggressively shoved a recorder” in Gianforte’s face and refused to leave. “Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground,” said Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon. Three Montana newspapers, which had previously endorsed Gianforte’s campaign, withdrew their backing the night before Election Day.
Many political reporters worry that this is not an isolated incident. For years, the level of official hostility at the political press has been steadily growing. Last week, security officials at the Federal Communications Commission pinned a veteran reporter against a wall after he tried to ask a commissioner a question. (The FCC later apologized.) Earlier this month, another veteran reporter was arrested by West Virginia police after he repeatedly attempted to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. (Price later praised the police.) Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager was video taped grabbing the arm a female journalist and pulling her away from the candidate, although prosecutors declined to prosecute charges of assault.
This is not how political reporting has worked in the U.S. in the past. As a veteran campaign chronicler, I have encountered nothing worse than John McCain accidentally knocking a cup of Dunkin Donuts out of my hand early one morning in 2007, or a Democratic House campaign in 2010 flooding my tote bag with bar-b-q at a Big 10 tailgate, or a 2013 candidate for Virginia Governor burning my fingers when handing me a grilled oyster. (Disclosure: Jacobs and I have worked alongside each other in the far-flung corners of America, though I don’t think that we’ve ever spent time socially in a non-campaign environment.)
Veteran politicians have a healthy respect for the press, even when they’re annoyed with us. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, will give reporters his cell phone number the second time he meets them. And you’re more likely to face danger from Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who leads the minority in the upper chamber, because he is barreling over you to get to the microphone. Politicians as different as Sen. John McCain, former President Obama and Speaker Paul Ryan have even taken time out to chat with my parents.
But in recent years, some politicians have begun to view reporters not just as adversaries, but as the enemy. The trend is worrying. During the 2008 election, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin used to rile up crowds about the media, though McCain helped calm the waters. In 2016, Donald Trump again pushed the envelope with daily taunts about the media, leading members of the crowd to chuck the occasional water bottle and shout insults at reporters. “Their priorities are not my priorities, and not your priorities,” Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania to mark his 100th day as President. “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade.”
And there is broad public skepticism of the press. Recent polls by Gallup show that only about one in five Americans say they have confidence in the newspaper and television press, which is still better than the one in ten who say they have confidence in Congress.
Such skepticism is not new. Nor is the tension between press and politicians. The relationship is supposed to be tense. But it should also be civil. On the truly worst days of any campaign that I’ve covered, I’ve never feared anything more than a stink eye from a candidate or a tsk-tsk from a wife or child. Now I wonder if that will hold true in the next time I pack a bag to watch democracy in the wild.