On Thursday night in Billings, President Trump made one of his tiresome little jokes, this time about Congressman Greg Gianforte. Of the Congressman who viciously assaulted a reporter, fled the scene, lied about the assault, and then refused to make good on his offer to discuss his attack, our adolescent-in-chief said Gianforte “has fought in more ways than one.” Heh.
It was the kind of joke that passes for humor in the fascistic wing of today’s Republican Party, a group that regularly threatens reporters, calls for their death and/or assault, and calls them “the enemy of the people” for having the audacity to put some of Trump’s lies to print. It’s the kind of joke that is embodied by t-shirts that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” and by our very own Greg Gianforte when he joked about assaulting a reporter at a Ravalli County rally.
Gianforte, who as a Gazette editorial by Darrell Ehrlick notes today, has never taken full responsibility for his violent act and who refuses to condemn the troubling “enemy of the people” talk from the President and his enablers, seems to content to ride the wave of dangerous anti-media rhetoric that his side feeds to their supporters to explain away inconvenient truths like the deficit-busting nature of the tax deal or the clear crimes committed by this President.
It’s far easier, you see, to call the media liars and wink at rhetoric so charged that almost half of Republicans now believe that the President should have the power to shut down media outlets with which he disagrees than it would be to explain how the actions being taken by this administration and its enablers in Congress are impoverishing future generations to pay for the greed of a very small number today.
Gianforte Has Never Expressed Remorse For His Actions
But while I am glad that the Gazette (like other newspapers before) chose to condemn Gianforte’s tacit approval of the President’s joke and all it entails, that’s just not enough. Ehrlick argues, for instance, that he “believe[s]that Gianforte knows slamming people to the ground is not OK, despite the ogre some make him out to be,” but there’s little evidence to support this assertion.
If Gianforte knew his actions were wrong, why hasn’t he apologized for lying to the people of Montana about it? Why didn’t he condemn a donor who said that Gianforte should have shot Ben Jacobs, the reporter he assaulted? Why did he take money from the same woman this campaign season? Why has Gianforte refused the interview he promised Jacobs, despite saying in open court during his sentencing that he would?
Real contrition demands full acknowledgment of the wrongdoing. While Mr. Ehrlick is perhaps a more charitable person than I am, it seems obvious that the body slamming “ogre” in this story still has some serious reflection to do before anyone can reasonably conclude that he knows assault is wrong.
I would argue, furthermore, that the sincerity of Gianforte’s apology doesn’t matter, and that, if they hope to maintain any credibility as defenders of the importance of the press, the Gazette and other Montana papers must endorse Kathleen Williams and clearly reject Greg Gianforte’s candidacy for office.
The Press Set a Troubling Precedent in 2017
The press already set a bad precedent in the 2017 special election, when they endorsed Gianforte despite his jokes about violence towards reporters and his bullying a female reporter who had the temerity to ask him a question during an editorial board meeting. While the Montana newspapers pulled their Gianforte endorsements the night before the special election, when it was far too late to make a difference, his hostility towards the free press and public information have been clear since he entered public life in Montana.
And it’s hard not to think back to how the same Montana press treated John Walsh back in 2014. Amidst their endless coverage of the Walsh plagiarism case, both the Gazette and the Missoulian demanded that Walsh withdraw from the Senate race because he had plagiarized an academic paper seven years earlier. Perhaps those papers were right to demand that Walsh exit the race, and perhaps the Missoulian was right to argue that “Montanans simply cannot – and won’t – trust a senator who portrayed the words and ideas of others as his own for his own personal gain,” but why was Greg Gianforte not held to a similar standard of conduct?
If so, surely the editorial writers at those papers—neither of which called for Gianforte to resign from Congress nor questioned whether Montanans could trust his judgment after a violent assault—must explain why we should trust Congressman Gianforte, who was not only guilty of a far more serious act but who has not shown any semblance of contrition other than what was required to get a light sentence from a lenient judge and prosecutor.
Endorsing Kathleen Williams Would Be An Endorsement for the Vital Role of the Press
Back in 2017, the editorial writers who endorsed Gianforte were able to construct a tortured logic that suggested he would somehow understand the needs of Montanans more than someone who had lived here his whole life and who understood the financial struggles most of us face far better than a millionaire tech guy ever could.
This time, they simply cannot ignore what is readily apparent: this is a race between Kathleen Williams, a compassionate, knowledgeable, experienced former legislator who understands the intricacies of lawmaking and Gianforte, a smirking, smug, violent Congressman who refuses to meet with the people he represents, endorses threats against those who cover his actions, and who has taken money and support from those who celebrate his violent acts.
Just a month ago, papers across the country argued that “To label the press “the enemy of the people” is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries.” With his deeds and his words, Congressman Gianforte has helped spread the contagion of that idea to benefit himself politically, no matter the cost to our system of checks and balances and the role of the free press.
The press in Montana needs to make a choice. Will it overlook the kind of behavior they argue threatens our very democracy and endorse Greg Gianforte? Or will they stand—and demand—that Montana voters select a candidate who not only has the most experience but whose values and actions match those we should aspire to?
Time will tell if Montana papers have the courage to stand for the best candidate and the First Amendment. If they won’t, how seriously can anyone be expected to take their declarations about the importance of the press?