By David Crisp/Last Best News
In my salad days as a reporter, an angry source stormed into the newspaper office and reached across the counter to lift a fellow reporter by his collar.
To its credit, the paper pressed charges, and the guy was convicted of misdemeanor assault. He paid a fine, if memory serves, of $53.80, a number that sticks in my head because my boss said afterward, “That’s the going rate for assaulting a reporter in Texas.”
Raising public ire is an occupational hazard for journalists, although America remains a relatively safe place to practice the craft. Politicians rarely assault reporters, but stranger things have happened. I mean that literally: In 1981, Texas legislator Mike Martin apparently arranged an assassination attempt of himself in hopes of gaining publicity and sympathy. He got the publicity.
The only bill Martin introduced before he was convicted of perjury and forced to resign would have required science teachers to teach creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Like Martin, fellow creationism supporter Greg Gianforte made national news last week for shooting himself in both feet, which were firmly planted in his mouth.
Gianforte’s attack on a Guardian reporter ought to have been enough to disqualify him for public office, but assault wasn’t the worst crime he committed last week. Even Jesus occasionally lost his temper. But what Gianforte did after losing his was far worse.
Gianforte has taken public heat for his support of creationism, but I have never held that against him. I was raised to believe in a six-day creation, and the fact that I have since rejected that view doesn’t make me feel morally or intellectually superior to people who still believe it.
But here’s the deal: If you are going to take Genesis seriously, then you have to take the rest of the Bible seriously, too. If your anger management issues cause you to commit a crime, you don’t get to hide behind your P.R. flack with a statement that all of the evidence suggests was a flat-out lie. Then you don’t get to lie low for more than 24 hours until the political winds subside before apologizing.
Even now, so far as we know, Gianforte has not apologized directly to the reporter, who is, according to accounts by people who know him, a kind and gentle man. Unlike Gianforte, he is far too professional to body slam people who offend him. Nor has Gianforte apologized for falsely accusing the reporter of attacking him, an allegation undermined by eyewitnesses. Nor has he apologized to the people of Montana for making us all look like heathens. Nor has the multi-millionaire even offered to pay for new glasses for a guy who works for a paper that pays senior reporters in one of the world’s most expensive cities just over $50,000.
Some of Gianforte’s more craven defenders say that body slamming nosy reporters is the Montana way. But the Code of the West doesn’t permit the rich and powerful to sucker punch the low and weak, and it surely doesn’t permit them to lie about it. Gianforte wasn’t acting like a Montanan. He was acting like a New Jersey crime boss.
Gianforte may have learned last week not to assault reporters, but he still hasn’t learned his lesson about the media. On the day of the assault, his campaign put out a fundraising email saying that a victory for Rob Quist would be a victory for “fake news media.”
Sorry. Reading that sentence probably cost you a few brain cells. But it demonstrates that Gianforte is unable to distinguish between legitimate questions asked by legitimate news reporters and scam artists who just make stuff up. His assault victim, Ben Jacobs, asked for a straight answer about healthcare, an issue that Gianforte ducked throughout the campaign.
Jacobs, on a tight deadline, said afterward that he figured the worst that could happen was that he would be kicked out of the room. He was wrong about that. He got beaten up first.
Gianforte still hasn’t answered the question about healthcare. He should fit in well with his coward-in-arms, Sen. Steve Daines.
Both men have fully adopted the Trump doctrine: evade, insult, deny and, when all else fails, blame the media. Such attitudes have international consequences. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that an all-time record number of reporters were in jail at the end of 2016.
The worst offender? Turkey, whose brutal leader, Recep Erdogan, was warmly welcomed at the White House this month by Trump, who did not mention Erdogan’s repeated free-speech violations, even those on American soil.
At the end of his campaign, Gianforte was offering chances to win a Make America Great Again cap. He has learned well how to be a duplicitous bully. Here’s hoping he spends the first six months of his freshman—and final—two-year term stewing in the Gallatin County Jail and reading not just the first chapter of Genesis but also the fifth chapter of Matthew.
You know. That’s the one where Jesus says, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
UPDATE: A GoFundMe campaign to replace Jacobs’ glasses has raised more than $7,500. He urges contributions instead to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors free speech issues around the world.
David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and columnist for Last Best News.