The alleged assault of a Guardian reporter by a political candidate in Montana comes at a time of deteriorating relations between US news outlets and Republican politicians that has seen one reporter pinned against the wall at a federal agency, another journalist arrested and jailed for eight hours for asking a question, and the US president himself labelling the media “the enemy of the people”.
As details circulated of Wednesday’s incident, in which Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground after he was asked a routine policy question, commentators expressed bewilderment and concern about what they said amounted to an increasingly ugly climate in a country with a proud history of press freedom.
Jeff Ballou, the president of the National Press Club, said that since Trump took office in January, there had scarcely been a day when he hadn’t had to deal with some serious challenge to members.
“This is not Turkey, I get that; this is not North Korea, I get that, too. But the steady deterioration of atmosphere, of civility and common decency, of outright unconstitutional behavior towards journalists, is deeply worrying,” he said.
The National Press Club (NPC) had personal experience of the syndrome just last week. The chairman of its press freedom team, John Donnelly, was pinned against the wall by security guards and frogmarched out of the building after putting questions to a senior federal official. The official he was attempting to question was Michael O’Reilly, commissioner of the federal agency that regulates communications, the FCC.
Ballou said there was an unquestionable link between this and other recent incidents involving journalists and the stream of invective directed at the media that has poured out of Trump’s Twitter feed and at his public rallies over many months. “People feel that if the leader of the free world can be offensive and aggressive towards journalists, why can’t they do the same?” the NPC president said.
Such expressions of distress were not confined to journalists themselves. Those with experience on the political side of the divide were also concerned about an apparent chilling of the climate prompted by Trump’s remarks.
Nicolle Wallace, former communications chief for the Republican president George W Bush, detected the rise of “animalistic behavior out of our politicians – this is not the way we should expect someone to behave who wants to represent his constituents”.Wallace told the Morning Joe show on MSNBC that in her view, the cause of the chill was clear: “Anyone who thinks it’s unfair to draw a direct line between Donald Trump calling reporters ‘enemies of the state’ and people beating up a working journalist – that’s ridiculous. For the White House to think these are separate, isolated incidents, that they don’t think they’ve created a climate in which something like this could happen, is an unsustainable position.”Relations between politicians and journalists in America have been fraught over the generations. Richard Nixon was scathing about the media, which his vice-president Spiro Agnew denounced as the “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Barack Obama was singularly aggressive in his pursuit of officials leaking information to news organisations, bringing more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.
But most observers agree that Trump has taken the hostilities to a new level. In a February meeting in the Oval Office with the then FBI director, James Comey, the president is reported to have asked him to throw journalists in jail for receiving leaked information.
Last year on the campaign trail, Trump regularly encouraged his supporters to turn on gathered reporters and chant: “CNN sucks! CNN sucks!”
Nor did he limit himself to general verbal attacks. Trump frequently singled out individual reporters, notably the NBC reporter Katy Tur, whom he denigrated at rallies as “third-rate”. She described the impact on his followers: “The crowd, feeding off Trump, seemed to turn on me like a large animal, angry and unchained.”
He continues to ridicule major outlets such as the “failing” New York Times as purveyors of “fake news”, and to and accuse them of being “enemies of the people”.
Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, said such relentless disparagement had consequences. “It gives tacit permission to this disturbing and worrisome trend of incidents against journalists,” she said.
Of those incidents, the alleged assault on the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs was the latest in a growing line. Last December, reporters were cleared from the public galleries of North Carolina’s general assembly, and one was arrested, as the Republican-controlled legislature tried to pass a measure to strip the incoming Democratic governor of many of his powers.
Earlier this month, a reporter for the Public News Service who attempted to ask the US health secretary, Tom Price, a question about the Trump administration’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act was arrested, handcuffed, charged with “willful disruption of governmental processes” and put in jail for eight hours. He had been following the health secretary in a hallway of the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia.
“Just in the past few weeks we have seen people harassed, arrested or harmed,” Sullivan said. “And that’s simply for doing their jobs.”