Last week, the American media got another battering, in the form of a Montana congressional candidate's brutal attack on a young reporter simply doing his job. After the attack, the candidate's campaign followed up with a press release that completely fabricated what had happened. That the candidate went on to win an election the following day isn't startling in and of itself because of the context in which it occurred: The fact that the incident occurred in the first place and the generally blasé public response to it reflects the troubling Trump-era reality that, for a wide of swath of America, the media is seen as "the enemy of the American people."
As it happened, my husband and I were heading to dinner in Whitefish, Mont., last Wednesday as news arrived via Twitter and cable news that Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in the special election for Montana's lone seat in Congress the next day, had "body slammed" Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. The attack was precipitated by the reporter's timely request for a comment from the candidate on the fresh Congressional Budget Office score of the American Health Care Act. So, just as we heard the national reaction to the bizarre story, we got a taste of the reaction on the ground.
The progressive Arkansas expats who have settled in the mountains around Whitefish that we met for dinner were optimistic the events could pull Democrat Rob Quist to victory. However, the results the following day, while a significant shift toward the Democrats from the 2016 cycle, were a 6-point loss for Quist. The votes cast on Election Day did indicate a slight nudge in favor of Quist compared to the absentee balloting but the large number of early votes banked by Gianforte — a healthy majority in most counties across the sprawling state — gave him the cushion needed for survival.
Gianforte, charged with a misdemeanor, will still face a judge for his actions, but the more troubling thing is that a well-crafted apology incorporated into his election night victory speech appears to have "taken care" of the incident politically. This is shocking, not just because of the anger management issues evidenced by Gianforte in the incident, but because the press release that Gianforte's campaign released immediately after the candidate scurried from the scene of the attack inaccurately pointed blame directly at the reporter for what occurred. It created a false tale about the events, concluding that "[i]t's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene ... ." That account was undermined by Jacobs' own audiotape, which clearly showed the viciousness of the attack, and by the reporting of a veteran Fox News reporter who saw the entire exchange and did her job by reinforcing Jacobs' description of the events.
The conservative National Review described Gianforte's actions as "disappointing, shocking and disgusting," but as soon as it became known the Republican had won, that assertiveness toward Gianforte's actions was exceptional. Instead, with victory in hand, most simply said that Gianforte's apology was enough, refusing to grapple with the assault on the media — and the candidate's lies about it. Some politicos even began joking about the incident and using the violence of the event in a celebratory fashion. As antitax activist Grover Norquist tweeted: "Congratulations to tax pledge signing Greg Gianforte who just body slammed tax hiking Democrat pol."
Such a normalization of physical and verbal attacks on the media has been fostered by the apparent success of President Trump in using the media as his go-to punching bag. Obviously, attacks on the media are nothing new. In America, it goes back to the founding of the country and reached its modern high point in the era when Vice President Spiro Agnew perfected rhetorical attacks on the media, saying in 1969: "Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York!" His boss, President Nixon, followed by stocking his infamous "enemies list" with a number of high-profile media figures. Clearly, though, with his regular tweets about "Fake News," the president has taken these attacks to a new level; most disconcerting, of course, was his February tweet in which Trump deemed the media the "enemy of the American people."
Polling on the degree to which Trump's attacks on the media as purveyors of "false news" is somewhat contradictory. In a Morning Consult survey at the 100-day mark of the presidency, Trump was seen as more trustworthy than the media by an 8-point margin. However, other polling has shown that individual news outlets (including Trump's favorite targets CNN and the Washington Post) are seen as decidedly more trustworthy than the president.
The concern is that the significant erosion in public trust in the media that has occurred in the Trump era will deepen and will outlive this presidency. As the strong investigatory work of the major American newspapers regarding the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia shows, the grand American tradition of a free press is a valuable gift that cannot be bullied out of existence.