Some people will call it surprising that a reporter was reportedly assaulted Wednesday night by a political candidate. Truth is, it is not surprising in the least.
For those who hadn’t heard: Greg Gianforte, a Montana Republican running for Congress, was charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly body-slamming Ben Jacobs, who works for the British newspaper The Guardian, hard enough to break his glasses. This, because Jacobs tried to ask for Gianforte’s opinion of the GOP health care bill in the wake of an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that it would leave 23 million Americans without health care.
In a statement, Gianforte’s campaign sought to paint the incident as a result of Jacobs’ aggressiveness:
“Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene …”
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Problematically for Gianforte, his version of events is at odds with audio captured by Jacobs’ recorder. In it, Gianforte is heard declining to answer Jacobs’ question. Jacobs tries again, and Gianforte tells him to “speak with Shane” — meaning his flack. Immediately, there is a loud crash, and Gianforte is heard ranting: “I’m sick and tired of you guys! The last guy who came in here, you did the same thing. Get the hell out of here!”
Gianforte’s story is also refuted by eyewitnesses, a crew from — you can’t make this stuff up — Fox News, who describe the candidate grabbing Jacobs’ neck with both hands, slamming him to the floor, and punching him.
Many adjectives might apply to all this. The incident is appalling, infuriating, disturbing. But no, it is not surprising.
Not after a congressman threatened to throw a reporter from a balcony. Not after the arrest of reporters covering a protest in Baton Rouge and the arrests and intimidation of reporters covering unrest in Ferguson. Not after a West Virginia reporter was jailed for shouting questions.
And especially not after Donald Trump declared journalists “enemies of the people.” That was not unlike a home invader declaring the family Doberman an “enemy of the house,” but his fans bought it, snarling at reporters and dismissing as “fake news” every fact that intruded upon their fantasies.
“Rope. Journalist. Tree,” read a T-shirt spotted at Trump rallies. “Some assembly required.”
Perspective is important here. After all, this is not yet Mexico, where journalists are killed with frightening regularity.
Still, Gianforte’s alleged assault is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence suggesting right-wing intolerance, not simply for inconvenient facts, but also for impertinent questions. Of course the one is a tool of the journalist’s trade, the other a part of her job description. So this should trouble you, whatever your partisan loyalties.
Power that answers no questions has no conscience. Power unconstrained by facts is unconstrained by anything. And a nation where asking questions or reporting facts leads to assault or arrest cannot be America. Down this path, then, lies potential disaster.
Many adjectives will apply to that, too. Once again, surprise will not be one of them.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.