May 25, 2017

If you can’t handle reporters asking questions, Congress isn’t the place for you, because that happens here every day. Snowflake, you best stay home.

That’s the first takeaway of shocking events on the eve of Montana’s special election for the U.S. House of Representatives. GOP nominee Greg Gianforte, 56, a Christian conservative multi-millionaire, flew into a rage when a reporter questioned him on health care, grabbing the reporter around the neck, throwing him to the ground, and breaking his glasses while the journalist’s phone recorded and a stunned FOX News crew watched. The candidate blamed “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist;” FOX, not known as a bastion of “liberal journalists,” said the politician “slammed” and punched the reporter unprovoked.

The second takeaway is that Gianforte’s outburst is part of a troubling trend in attacks by politicians and restrictions by authorities on reporters playing their constitutionally enshrined role in our democracy: asking tough, inconvenient questions for the public who can’t ask for themselves.

In the recording, Ben Jacobs of the Guardian questions Gianforte, who says “later” and tells him talk to his press secretary. Jacobs persists, “But . . .” Suddenly there’s a crashing and the candidate bellows, “I’m sick and tired of you guys! The last guy that came in here, you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!” Jacobs last month wrote about Gianforte’s investments in funds linked to Russian companies under US sanctions.

Gianforte was charged with assault. The Democratic Party created an instant ad and reportedly sent canvassers to play tape of the assault for voters. President Trump had recorded robocalls for Gianforte.

Three Montana newspapers — the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, and the Independent Record — took the almost unheard of step of retracting endorsements of Gianforte. The Missoulian said he lacked “brains and ability” and “does not represent Montana values.”

It would be one thing if this were an isolated eruption. But it’s part of a trend.

A West Virginia state house reporter was handcuffed and arrested this month for “willful disruption” after walking alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and asking if domestic violence would be a “preexisting condition” under Republican health care.

As HuffPost’s Michael Calderone points out, cases run from coast to coast. An Alaska reporter told police Republican State Senator David Wilson slapped him over a story this month. Last week in Washington, a journalist was pinned to the wall by guards when he tried to question a Federal Communications Commissioner.

What’s most disturbing is that the ground for physical, legal, and verbal attacks was paved by a president who — rather that defend our First Amendment as any American patriot should — branded the media “the enemy of the people.”

Trump reveled in snarling at the press at rallies, egging on supporters who chanted, “Lock them up!” His attitude worsened when he won. Trump turned “fake news” from a factual description of online hoaxes into a weaponized epithet against any critic.

Trump’s war on the press isn’t just name-calling. It has a more insidious intent: to discredit a profession he fears, because he sees journalism as a challenge to his authority. Trump wants to undermine trust in those who earned the name “muckrakers” by exposing muck and giving voice to disenfranchised working people long before Trump knew the meaning of those words.

Trump’s shown a willingness to let henchmen take it further. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski wrenched the arm of a female reporter from conservative Breitbart when she approached Trump after a rally. New revelations indicate the president urged then-FBI Director James Comey to imprison reporters for publishing classified information. Remember: Classified information leaked to the press — from the Pentagon Papers to warrantless wiretapping to NSA surveillance — has played a powerful role in exposing government deception and altering taxpayer-funded policies.

But Trump, who’s spent his gilded life cocooned by sycophants, wrongly believes the US media owes him the Fox & Friends velvet tongue treatment or an adoring E! red-carpet chronicle of his every word and deed. Affronted by what he sees as a snub from a media that exposes any politician’s flip-flops and errors (he’s not special), he’s become a bitter bully with a powerful pulpit, mau-mauing the media for mentioning missteps.

When a president goads people into hating the Fourth Estate, it endangers our democracy and emboldens those who fail to comprehend that that it’s not the job of the press to toe any party’s line.

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Indira Lakshmanan is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a Boston Globe columnist. She also served as the first Newmark…
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