Is It Wrong to Body Slam a Journalist? These Days, Opinions Vary

2017-05-25 22:20:02

 

Is It Wrong to Body Slam a Journalist? These Days, Opinions Vary

In this time of intense partisanship, shiv-in-the-kidney politics and squabbles over the meaning of truth, can Americans come together and agree that a politician slamming a journalist to the ground for asking a question is wrong?

The answer, it turns out, is no.

After Greg Gianforte, the Republican House candidate in Montana, was charged with assaulting a reporter for The Guardian on the eve of Thursday’s special election, public reaction ranged from rank disgust on the left to mild chastening, and amused mockery, from many on the right.

Mr. Gianforte’s behavior, at his campaign headquarters Wednesday night, was either “outrageous,” as Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House minority leader, put it, or “totally out of character” — the tempered assessment from Representative Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We all make mistakes,” he added.

The Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs, was deemed “a pajama boy journalist” by the right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who said the reporter acted “insolent and disrespectful and whiny and moan-y.” The conservative host Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter: “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today?”

Eyewitnesses to the episode said that Mr. Jacobs approached Mr. Gianforte with questions about the Republican health care bill. A Fox News reporter in the room, Alicia Acuna, described in an account on Fox’s website that Mr. Gianforte grabbed Mr. Jacobs before throwing him to the ground and punching him. (A Gianforte spokesman, in a statement, called Mr. Jacobs a “liberal journalist” who grabbed the candidate’s wrist, an assertion contradicted by witnesses.)

Heated anti-media language is a fixture of the Trump era, with journalists derided by the president as “the enemy of the American people” and cast as villains in recent weeks by conservatives who say speculation about Russian ties to the White House is a news media-driven plot.

But the episode in Montana, which sent Mr. Jacobs to the hospital for an examination, came on the heels of several other cases involving reporters and physical altercations, raising alarms among advocates for journalists.

In West Virginia, a public radio reporter was arrested this month in the statehouse as he tried to ask a question of Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services. In Washington last week, a reporter was pinned against a wall by security personnel as he tried to ask a question of a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

To political reporters, Mr. Jacobs’s experience seemed the troubling next step in a growing trend.

“Sadly, shamefully, disgustingly, it has come to this,” lamented Gene Policinski, an executive at the Newseum in Washington. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also condemned the rough handling of Mr. Jacobs, calling the recent spate of incidents involving reporters “an assault on the very core of democratic life.”

Representative Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, said on Thursday that he saw a direct link between the Montana episode and what he described as an erosion of American civic life.

“Some demons have been unleashed,” Mr. Sanford said in an interview, “which I think are threatening to those who believe in free speech and free governance.”

Mr. Sanford described a recent town hall at a retirement community where he found himself having to calm a pair of older adults, who were shouting at each other about President Trump. “Literally, you had to talk these people down, and I’ve never done that before,” Mr. Sanford said. Voters, he added, seem to believe that “if the guy at the top can say anything he wants about anybody at any time, then why can’t I?”

The notion that Mr. Trump’s unorthodox behavior — the insults and personalized attacks that were once anathema to the presidency — might be trickling down the political food chain was echoed by others on Thursday.

“There are people who are listening to this dog whistle,” said April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. She recalled a hot-mike moment last week where Mr. Trump and his Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, were overheard joking about using a ceremonial saber on the press.

“It is not cool,” Ms. Ryan, who encountered brusque treatment herself at a White House press briefing, said in an interview. “Who are we? Are we a third-world country? You cannot persecute the press for asking questions about the truth.”

There were some critical remarks about Mr. Gianforte on Thursday from his fellow Republicans.

Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, said that Mr. Gianforte ought to apologize, even as he declined to withdraw the Republican party’s support. Ms. Ingraham, responding to a reporter’s query in an email, wrote that she was surprised Ms. Gianforte “would erupt that way.”

“If you can’t take the heat from reporters without blowing up, then politics isn’t the best career choice,” Ms. Ingraham wrote.

Still, for Mr. Limbaugh, the idea that Mr. Trump had inspired bad behavior was preposterous. “When did Trump beat up a reporter?” Mr. Limbaugh asked on his radio show. “It hasn’t happened, right? Trump’s never thrown a reporter to the ground.”

And Breitbart News, the right-wing news and opinion site, ran an op-ed criticizing news coverage of the alleged assault; its author, Joel B. Pollak, called it “ridiculous” that some media outlets had attempted to blame the president for a single candidate’s actions.

The episode prompted some levity on Capitol Hill, where Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, posted a sign on his office door announcing a “bodyslam-free zone” for journalists. “Reporters will (1) get the truth and (2) not get body slammed,” Mr. Lieu wrote on Twitter.

Back in Montana, where the special election was held on Thursday, some journalists found that residents were not necessarily disturbed by the account of Mr. Gianforte’s behavior — some, in fact, seemed to relish it.

A CNN correspondent, Kyung Lah, wrote on Twitter about an interaction with a Republican voter on Thursday morning. When Ms. Lah said she worked for CNN, the voter replied: “You’re lucky someone doesn’t pop one of you.”

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