It’s a bad time to be a journalist. I’ve said that several times but have never meant it as much as I do now.
Until last week, I assumed our constitution protected all free speech but particularly that of journalists. The founding fathers, in their wisdom, respected the fact that a free press was necessary to ensure a flourishing democracy.
Well, maybe this is no longer true. Here in Montana, we have just concluded a special election to fill the state’s only U.S. House of Representatives seat left vacant when Rep. Zinke accepted a position in President Donald Trump’s cabinet as secretary of the interior.
The day before the election, during an interview at his campaign headquarters, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte attacked Ben Jacobs, a journalist with the Guardian U.S., after he asked a question about pending healthcare legislation. This was not an innocent shove. According to an eyewitness, Gianforte “body slammed” Jacobs to the floor, pounded him with his fist and broke his glasses, all the while screaming at the reporter. “I’m sick and tired of you guys and your questions,” he was overheard saying. Does he think being a billionaire entitles him to behave like a boor?
In this country, at least, politicians are expected to put up with reasonable queries about their positions on pending legislation and other relevant issues. Somewhere, buried in his acceptance speech, Gianforte apologized the next day. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the state’s voters had already turned in their absentee ballots and Gianforte wound up beating the Democratic candidate by a slim margin.
We are still waiting for a judge’s decision on assault charges. Gianforte was ordered to appear in court before June 7 and could be fined and/or sentenced to jail for six months. Voters, meanwhile, haven’t been able to rescind their early votes. It’s my understanding that the U.S. House could deny seating him, but I’m not holding my breath. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he didn’t condone physical violence but acknowledged that Gianforte apologized. Well, they are both members of the Republican Party.
Voters in Montana are generally open-minded (the state has a Democratic governor and senators from both parties). But do we really want to be represented by someone with a vicious temper? Self-control wouldn’t be too much to ask of a public servant.
In countries ruled by dictators, it’s not uncommon for opposing journalists to be jailed and sometimes even shot. We hear about these incidents but somehow don’t make the connection with politically motivated assaults here.
I’m hoping that in this case the judge will impose on Gianforte the maximum allowable sentence to reinforce the notion that we’ve not lost our sense of decency. As citizens of a democratic nation, we must continue to support those brave reporters who speak truth to power.
When I went back to college to get my journalism degree, we were taught that we couldn’t be forced to divulge our sources and that newspaper publishers were not responsible for libel suits if we could confirm disputable facts with two telephone calls. We believed it.
But during the ensuing years, our culture has changed. We no longer teach our children to be polite. The national discourse has become more heated and often crude. Those of us beyond a certain age, while often appalled by public debate, have learned to disregard its vulgarity.
Schools are also to blame by not allowing any kind of competition as it might hurt the feelings of those who don’t win. Whatever happened to the idea that parents and teachers were meant to prepare children for real life?
Well, learning to compete is part of life — or so we believed.
Universities were once thought of as places where discussion was open and students were allowed to express their views. Evidence now exists that graduation speakers have been uninvited by educators who fear violence if contrary opinions are expressed.
And next year, “body slammed” will be added to the dictionary. Sigh.