The evening after Greg Gianforte’s assault against journalist Ben Jacobs, he appeared at a victory celebration and finally apologized for his act. He did not apologize for his campaign’s initial explanation of the incident, which flatly tried to blame the victim and propagate further hatred against “liberal journalists.” But it was a start, and the new congressman-elect will have to face a legal reckoning for his criminal act in a local court on June 7, which we can only hope will humiliate him a bit.
There is some risk that he and other politicians will, however, learn the wrong lesson from the incident. We have no way of knowing how many Montana voters knew about the assault when they went to vote (sometimes exit polls really are useful) and how they felt about it, just as we’ll never know how many of the hundreds of thousands of Montanans who voted by mail before the incident might have changed their votes if that were possible. There is certainly anecdotal evidence that some Gianforte fans gloried in the attack on Jacobs, and even offered grim little tokens of intimidation to other journalists that they might be next. And anybody with any sense of perspective had to wonder if this was just the next inevitable step beyond the words of the president and several of his chief advisers treating “the media” as “the enemy of the American people.”
Conservatives have the right to their opinions about alleged “media bias,” but the demonization of journalists needs to stop lest politicians get the idea that brownshirt tactics against the Fourth Estate are now in-bounds so long as their inflamed supporters don’t mind. And it needs to stop first and foremost among conservative media, who depend on freedom of the press from violence and intimidation by politicians and government as much as anyone else.
Unfortunately, that has not always been the case in the reaction to the Gianforte assault, notably on Fox, where some on-air “personalities” played up the Gianforte campaign’s highly mendacious explanation of the incident (even though a Fox video team on the scene entirely corroborated Jacobs’s account) and others openly cheered the violence.
At National Review, veteran conservative journalist Mona Charon deplored such bully-boy reactions in no uncertain terms:
[T]he age of Trump has corrupted a great many people and shattered norms. Those whose moral compass has long since been stashed in the bottom drawer defending the indefensible piled on to applaud Gianforte’s thuggishness. The Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell tweeted, “Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked …”
Laura Ingraham chose to impugn Jacobs’s manhood: “Politicians always need to keep their cool. But what would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?” She followed up with “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?” Dinesh D’Souza struck the same tone, calling Jacobs a “crybaby,” and also implying that the story was a “scam” perpetrated by Jacobs to swing the election to the Democrat. None of this is a gray area. You either uphold certain basic standards of decency or you don’t. Some who call themselves conservatives have shown that they are nothing of the kind. To be conservative is to be honorable. These are contemptible, partisan hacks.
Conservative media folk do not have to stop being conservatives — or even hyper-partisan Republicans — to get that their own values and interests are at stake here. They simply need to resist the temptation to follow Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon down this particular road to perdition.
And it is fair, if a bit beside the point, to insist on common standards for us all. When I wrote a Twitter plea yesterday for conservative media condemnations of violence against journalists, I immediately got responses asking if I was willing to condemn leftist violence as well. I was, and I am, much as I resent the implication that I’m somehow on the same “team” as random anarchists in San Francisco, or that 19-year-olds trying to intimidate conservative speakers on campuses are as powerful as the president of the United States. Use of violence to suppress free speech is wrong, all the time.
It’s a line that is really important to defend, particularly now that it has been crossed in such a conspicuous way.