Not only is freedom of the press under assault from the rise of “fake news” and the lack of critical thinking in this country, it is also under physical threat from politicians who are treating reporters like punching bags.
Today Montana is holding a special congressional election for its “at-large” House seat to replace Ryan Zinke who Trump appointed to be Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. The contest is between Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a popular musician and rancher, and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who was rejected by the state’s citizens in November in his race to become governor against the popular Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock.
The special election is turning out to be referendum: not only about Trumps’ presidency and GOP policies, because many citizens of the state are deeply unhappy with proposed legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but also about the lack of civility and decency in American politics.
On the night before the election, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jones, a reporter for The Guardian at a campaign event, right before he was scheduled to give a televised interview with a Fox News correspondent and her crew. Here is how Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna described the incident:
At that point, 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 reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!”
This assault by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives on a reporter reflects the “zero sum” politics of elections in recent years, and it has to stop. The rise of social media and its outsize influence on electoral politics has come at a cost: the decline of civility and decency among and between citizens and their elected officials.
There is also another cost: with very little consequence for saying whatever people believe, the rise of “fake news” and outright lies have become part and parcel of this political in-fighting. This trend is disturbingly self-evident in the press release provided by the Gianforte campaign after the incident.
Shane Scanlon, who is Gianforte’s spokesperson, should not just be ashamed for lying about the incident in an effort to cover it up; he should also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement officials during the course of their investigation. What Scanlon describes in this press release is falsified by three eye-witnesses who confirmed the details supplied by the reporter to Gallatin County sheriff’s detectives that Gianforte assaulted him.
Unfortunately, over 200,000 Montana voters have already cast mail-in ballots before the campaign was over. If voters do not reject Gianforte at the ballot box today, he should withdraw from consideration. And if he fails to do that, and he is welcomed with open arms to Congress, it will be dark day for Montana history and American democracy.