RTDNA today strongly condemned the apparent assault of a journalist who was attempting to ask questions of a candidate in today’s special election to fill a Montana congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who is now serving as Secretary of the Interior.
Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for The Guardian, told local law enforcement that candidate Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” him and broke his glasses Wednesday while Jacobs was attempting to ask Gianforte about the impact of the recently-passed House health care bill. Deputies cited Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.
A statement from Gianforte’s campaign claimed it was Jacobs who was responsible for the altercation, not the candidate, saying the reporter “aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions.” The Guardian, and independent witnesses, dispute that account.
“If the criminal charges are proven true, this would be an outrageous escalation of the recent trend toward elected officials and those seeking elected office obstructing and even, now, assaulting reporters who are merely trying to do their jobs,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director, who is spearheading the association’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force.
“Whenever a reporter’s responsible attempts to hold elected officials and candidates accountable are interfered with, it’s the public that suffers,” Shelley said. “The First Amendment was intended to protect our citizens’ right and need to know the truth.”
During the past several months, RTDNA has heard from members and other industry leaders about an increasing vitriol against reporters at the national and local levels. This has manifested itself in ways ranging from more acerbic online comments, to the phrase “enemy of the people” being written into legal documents attempting to have a chilling effect on responsible journalism, to verbal and physical assaults on local broadcast and digital reports.
Just last week, RTDNA joined the National Press Club and several other media organizations in calling on government and other public officials to tone down anti-news media rhetoric.
“Reckless statements by politicians, most notably the president of the United States, give forces who don’t understand or don’t like a free press permission to harass, threaten and even physically harm reporters,” the statement said.
Last month, Gianforte was reported to have joked with a supporter at a town hall meeting about physically assaulting a reporter, after the supporter is said to have remarked, “Our biggest enemy is the news media. How can we rein in the news media?” The Missoula, Montana, Missoulian reported that the supporter then turned to a reporter “who was sitting next to him, and ‘raised his hands as if he would like to wring his neck.’” Gianforte smiled, pointed at the reporter and said this: “’We have someone right here.’”
“In this politically and ideologically divisive and highly charged environment, even joking about assaulting anyone, including journalists, is irresponsible and reckless,” Shelley said. “Actually attacking someone, a reporter or anyone else, is beyond unacceptable.”