On Monday, congressman-elect Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service. On May 24, the night before the election, Gianforte threw Jacobs to the ground and punched him in response to a question about the Republican health-care plan. That night, his campaign released a statement claiming that the "liberal journalist" had grabbed Gianforte's wrist and caused them both to fall.
That statement was not true. It was presented by Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon and flatly contradicted, in the hours that followed, by a Fox News crew that had been in the room and seen the attack. Kids, remember the moral of this story: If you're going to falsify your account of a crime, make sure there are no witnesses.
The Republican Party seems to have learned that lesson. According to the McClatchy news organization, GOP strategists hope to make the 2018 midterm elections a referendum on the media. Without a prominent Democrat to position themselves against, they plan to direct voters' hostility against reporters and news organizations. "If you can pick a fight with them," consultant David Woodard told McClatchy, "I think it kind of helps you, and I don't think many people care."
Gianforte bet on that lack of caring after he assaulted Jacobs on the eve of the election. He refused to talk to reporters for the next 24 hours, emerging only to address his victory party once the votes were in. It's hard to say whether that strategy worked, given all the other variables at play. But in the hours after he made the worst mistake of his political career, Gianforte wanted voters to have as little information about it as possible.
This strategy draws attention to the flaw in Republicans' plans to harness resentment against the media. In the game of representative democracy, reporters and voters are on the same side. I'm sure many political actors would like to do business in secrecy, without the news telling people what they're up to. But the GOP trying to make the media its opponent in the next election is like the Mets saying they plan to win baseball games by breaking the cameras in Citi Field. The very strategy implies wrongdoing.
You can see this principle at work in the dishonest version of events the Gianforte campaign released after the candidate attacked Jacobs. I've said this already, but it bears repeating: That statement was not true. Scanlon lied about what happened. Through his spokesperson, Gianforte libeled the man he had just assaulted, and then he hid from reporters in the hope his lie would pass unquestioned long enough for Montanans to cast their votes based on false information.
- courtesy youtube.com
It seems Republican politicians are not against telling voters what's happening. They're against telling voters what's happening objectively. Their frustration with the media does not extend to PR flacks, partisan websites and 501(c)4 "social welfare" organizations that publish news-like content favorable to their donors. When they say they're against the media, they mean they are against the media they do not control.
Maybe that's not Gianforte's policy. Perhaps he just lost his temper, lied about it, ducked reporters until he was safely elected and then remembered how much he values a free and independent press.
He has since offered Jacobs a written apology and promised to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The apology was part of a settlement agreement in which Jacobs waived his right to file a civil suit and Gianforte reserved his right to plead no contest to the assault charges in court. On Monday, however, he pleaded guilty. That choice suggests that he either genuinely regrets assaulting Jacobs, or he wanted to do everything possible to avoid jail time.
The maximum fine for misdemeanor assault in Montana is $500, which doesn't mean much to someone with hundreds of millions of dollars. Community service is a drag, but 40 hours isn't much when you don't have a job. The judge also ordered Gianforte to complete 20 hours of anger management therapy, in which he will presumably learn techniques to control his violent impulses in the absence of any meaningful consequences for them. He won the election. His party is standing behind him. He only has to contend with everyone knowing what he did.
Greg Gianforte is a liar. He told the truth only when it was sure to benefit him, after he had gotten what he wanted. I'm sure he regrets what he did, in that special way that only a multimillionaire congressman whose party plans to turn his mistake into a strategy can. The reason we know about that mistake is the press. Without it, we would still believe Scanlon's report that Gianforte was the victim of the man he punched. That's worth keeping in mind when his fellow Republicans start telling you we're all in this together against the newspapers.
Dan Brooks writes about people politics, culture and blaming the ref at combatblog.net.