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Michael A. Cohen

The assault on the press in the Trump era

Republican Greg Gianforte speaks to supporters after winning a special election in Montana.
Republican Greg Gianforte speaks to supporters after winning a special election in Montana.Janie Osborne/Getty Images

On Wednesday night Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte launched an unprovoked attack against Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, was charged with misdemeanor assault, and then went on Thursday night to win a special election to be Montana’s sole congressman in the House of Representatives.

As depressing a turn of events as this has been, what makes it so much worse is the silence and complicity of Gianforte’s Republican cohorts in the face of the physical assault — both inside and outside of Washington.

Over the past two days, one would have to look far and wide to find a single Republican office-holder willing to forthrightly say that attacking a journalist — in a country where freedom of the press is literally the first amendment of the Constitution — is a line no politician should cross.

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It began with the candidate himself, whose spokesman put out a statement late Wednesday night that not only was later contradicted by eyewitness accounts, but actually blamed Jacobs. Decrying the allegedly “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist,” Gianforte’s press flack, Shane Scanlon, offered a roadmap for Republicans more focused on winning a special election than condemning a physical assault on a journalist.

According to GOP Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona, the real blame here lies with “the left,” who he claims have “precipitated this intense, confrontational approach throughout the country in recent months.”

California Rep. Duncan Hunter said what Gianforte did was not “appropriate … unless the reporter deserved it.”

For Glenn Grothman, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, Gianforte’s body slam made him an even more appealing potential colleague. “I think he’d be very welcome here,” said Grothman, “seems like a good guy.”

Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia thought the whole thing was pretty amusing. He reported that all his colleagues in the Capitol Hill weight room were “laughing” when they heard the news.

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There were a few Republicans willing to take the barest of steps toward civility. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said what Gianforte did was “wrong and should not happen” and that he should apologize. But Ryan also made clear that he’d welcome Gianforte into the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives. Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the candidate wrong, but ‘‘from what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes.’’

But when it comes to truly mealy-mouthed reactions to a physical assault on a journalist doing his job, Steve Daines, the GOP senator from Montana, stands out as a profile in courage. “I have confidence in local law enforcement,” said Daines in a written statement, “I do know Greg Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault and will leave the questions and answers to local law enforcement. I do not condone violence in any way.”

With the notable exception of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford,

few Republicans were willing to stand up for the notion that journalists shouldn’t be attacked.

If there’s any consolation for Republicans it’s that at least they’re not as bad as some of their voters. Here’s just a smattering of comments given to Garrett Haake of NBC News and Kyung Lah of CNN from Gianforte voters heading to the polls on Thursday:

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“My kind of politician.”

“That audio made me cheer.”

“You’re lucky someone doesn’t pop one of you.”

“I think reporters have it coming.”

None of this should come as a surprise. During the 2016 campaign, few moments at Trump campaign rallies riled up the crowd more than when he instructed his supporters to jeer and taunt reporters after he’d finished calling them the worst and most dishonest people in the world. As president, Trump has routinely derided as “fake news” any news story that he doesn’t like and has even called the media the “enemy of the people.”

But Trump’s assault on the press is worse than just his noxious rhetoric. His cabinet secretaries, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have regularly barred reporters from press briefings and foreign trips. Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services, praised police officers who arrested a reporter who was trying to ask Price a question.

Trump privately mused to the director of the FBI that reporters should be thrown in prison for publishing classified information and has talked about ending press briefings altogether.

If anything, physically attacking a reporter feels like a logical next step for the GOP. After all, never before in America have we witnessed a political party — and a president — so brazenly and audaciously seek to delegitimize the press. Ginning up voter suspicion and hatred of news sources that don’t line up with their unique conception of reality has become more important than standing up for basic decency and democratic principles.

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It is yet one more reminder of the political sewer into which the Republican Party – and far too many of its voters – have lowered themselves.

Quite simply, if you won’t speak out against an assault against a reporter because you’re afraid it might cost you the election — or because you don’t want to upset your supporters — there’s pretty much no degradation of American democracy that you won’t defend in the name of political expediency.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just remind yourself who is the president of the United States . . . and who is the newest elected member of Congress from the state of Montana.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.