RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force today condemned remarks made by President Trump during an October 18 campaign rally in Missoula, Montana, in which he joked about violence against journalists.
The president was introduced at the rally by Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), who was elected in May 2017, one day after being arrested for body slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs as Jacobs attempted to ask him a question at his campaign headquarters.
When he took to the podium October 18, the president stated:
Greg is smart. And by the way, never wrestle him. You understand that? Any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my guy. He’s my guy. I shouldn’t say that, [but] there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. So I was in Rome with a lot of the leaders of all sorts of countries, and I heard about it. And we endorsed Greg very early. But I heard that he body-slammed a reporter. [Cheering and laughter from the audience.] And he was way up. Way up. And this was like the day of the election, or just before, and I said, “Oh, this is terrible. He’s going to lose the election.” And then I said, “Wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him. And it did!”
“Through his remarks in Montana, the president of the United States has once again encouraged violence against journalists not only by refusing to condemn it, but by joking about it,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director. “Please, Mr. President. Journalists have a constitutionally-protected mandate to seek and report the truth. Any suggestion, even if in jest, that they should be physically attacked for doing so is unconscionable. Quite literally, it is no laughing matter,” he added.
More disturbing than the president’s Montana remarks themselves is the fact that they were uttered at the very moment journalists and many others in the free world are mourning the apparent October 2 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
“Clearly the president did not surrender his own First Amendment rights upon assuming the oath of office. However, we urge – no, plead with – him to remember that his words have consequences on a global scale. All over the world, totalitarian leaders have taken the president’s cue and have cracked down on journalists whose reporting they don’t like,” Shelley said.
The president’s vitriolic anti-press freedom remarks have also served to embolden those in America who don’t appreciate the role of responsible journalism in our society to lash out against journalists, too often in harsh ways. According the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats to journalists throughout the nation, at least five journalists have been murdered, and another 39 journalists physically attacked, so far in 2018. RTDNA is a founding partner of the Tracker.
Gianforte, the congressman whom the president referred to as “my guy,” pleaded guilty in June 2017 to misdemeanor assault charges for his attack on journalist Jacobs. He received a six-month deferred jail term, was ordered to pay $358 in fines and fees, perform 40 hours of community service, and attend 20 hours of anger management counseling. Gianforte also paid Jacobs $4,464.97 in restitution and issued an apology, which the reporter accepted.
“Any time a journalist is threatened, assaulted, or worse, it is not just those specific journalists who suffer. It is the American people, on whose behalf those journalists do their jobs, who are deprived of their work, which is critical to their communities and the nation,” Shelley said.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. Reach out to RTDNA by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.