Journalists who love to talk about how good and important journalism is have been worrying for some time about freedom of the press under Donald Trump. As a candidate, Trump singled out journalists for vitriol at his notoriously violence-prone campaign rallies. He talked about bolstering libel laws, and White House chief-of-staff Reince Priebus admitted that the administration has looked into how to make that happen. And thanks in part to the investigation into alleged collusion between Trump's campaign and Russian spies, we know with a pretty high degree of confidence that Trump at least broached with former FBI director James Comey the terrifying prospect of using federal law enforcement to put journalists in jail.
But fears of a direct assault on the First Amendment appear to be overblown. No anti-journalism laws have been proposed, and in fact, you could argue the free press is feistier than ever, with major papers scoring scoop after scoop in the ongoing Russia scandal.
At least that's how I felt until Wednesday night.
On Wednesday, Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for the Guardian and one of the kindest and gentlest people I've ever met, got body-slammed by Greg Gianforte, the Republican frontrunner in the race for Montana's congressional seat. Why? Because he asked a question about the healthcare bill in Congress.
When people talk about "fake news" and the "liberal media bubble," they aren't talking about Jacobs (full disclosure: I've worked with him in the past). He is one of those reporters who loves his work, cares about the country, and plays it straight—though the Guardian is certainly on the liberal side of the spectrum, Jacobs does not carry himself as a partisan. He wanted to know what Gianforte thought of the healthcare bill. It was a fair question.
The good thing, as VICE News reported, is that Gallatin County Sheriffs charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault. The bad news is that the Jacobs incident clarifies that there really is a new climate of hostility toward journalists in America.
"In an environment where the president calls the press the enemies of the people, it's not surprising that a candidate would treat a member of the press like an enemy," Noah Feldman, a Harvard legal historian, told me. "The direct effect of this is to make reporters think twice before persisting in their questions."
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Last year, perhaps most infamously, a TIME photographer got choke-slammed by the Secret Service at a Donald Trump campaign event. A few weeks ago, a reporter in West Virginia was arrested inside the State Capitol for trying to ask Health Secretary Tom Price about the healthcare bill he supports. And Democrats in the US Senate just last week raised questions about why a reporter was "manhandled" for asking about a recent FCC vote on net neutrality, a.k.a. a free and open internet.
The danger to the free press isn't a ham-fisted totalitarian crackdown—it's a culture that treats the media with increasing disrespect. There was audio of the Jacobs incident, and FOX News journalists confirmed his account. Yet some right-wingers were still unwilling to condemn Gianforte. Here's how Laura Ingraham, a longtime conservative firebrand, reacted to Jacobs being attacked last night:
Even if American politics has always had a violent streak, the press and politicians have generally learned to play by basic rules—to observe a sort of decorum—over the past few decades. Journalists are supposed to hold those in power accountable. There can be loud partisan debate about which scandals are real and which are overblown, but asking questions, gathering information, and objecting to provable outright falsehoods are—or should be—protected rights that know no party affiliation.
Things actually lurched in a troubling direction under the Obama administration, which was rightly criticized for prosecuting whistleblowers and spying on reporters. Still, we never saw such routinized and overt hostility to the very practice of engaging powerful people in a line of questioning until the age of Trump. This problem is obviously bigger than one man, but it's impossible not to look to the president, who has demonstrated considerable contempt for the rule of law; certainly it would be nice if Trump raised some objection to the conduct of a candidate his own son has campaigned with.
But I'm not holding my breath. In all likelihood, Gianforte will win the Montana House seat (many ballots were submitted by mail before all this happened). There will be another incident where a reporter gets hurt, or detained, and some people will cheer, or say they had it coming. When the president is encouraging crowds to taunt the media, that's all but inevitable.
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