The Guardian has received a steady stream of correspondence from across the US in the wake of this week’s news of a Guardian reporter being body-slammed by Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate who then went on to win the state’s only House seat.
Some of the emails expressed horror and shame over the assault on Ben Jacobs in which he was thrown to the ground and punched. But the digital mailbag to our opinion section also contained comments of a very different nature.
Take the email from Mary from Montana with the subject line: “You sissy, Ben Jacobs.” In the body of the text, she wrote: “I was raised in an orphanage … and broke other kids glasses; it’s part of living and surviving with jerks like you in the world.”
Then there was the offering from Mark from Pennsylvania, who declared that it was “great your reporter got body slammed. I’d punch him in the nose.” Or Dennis from Dallas, Texas who said that Jacobs was at fault as he “shouldn’t poke his recorder in the face of someone” – a reference to the question he asked Gianforte relating to the CBO score for the repeal of Obamacare.
Dennis went on to say that the Guardian’s reporter “was confrontational and got his (_,_) kicked. There is a reason that the public’s opinion of the press ranks lower than that of Congress”.
The common denominator of all these emails was that they effectively condoned attacking a working journalist. More striking still was the fact that many of the people expressing such tacit approval of violence did so openly, apparently under their own names, even in some cases disclosing their home addresses and phone numbers.
A similar willingness to go public, openly and shamelessly, with views that stopped one step short of actively advocating physical violence was displayed by several leading right-wing figures including politicians and pundits broadcasting to millions. On Friday Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, brandished a gun during a visit to a shooting range and said: “I’m going to carry this around in case I see any reporters.”
Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners earlier in the week that Gianforte was “manly” and “studly” in contrast to “Pajama boy” Jacobs. Conservative provocateur Laura Ingraham likened Jacobs to a bullied school child – denigrating both in the process.
Tweeted “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”
Rachel Campos-Duffy, wife of a Republican Congressman Sean Duffy, said on Fox News that the Guardian reporter had received “a little bit of Montana justice”. Over on Fox & Friends, Geraldo Rivera called the incident “gigantically overblown” and lamented “an excessive amount of whining and a woe is me”.
Had neither of the Fox contributors read the eye-witness account of their own Fox News colleagues who reported that Gianforte grabbed the reporter “by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him”?
Montana’s NBC affiliate, KECI, made its opinions clear in another fashion: it initially put a black-out on coverage of the assault, its news director reportedly telling central NBC News editors that Jacobs worked for a “politically biased publication”. That raised speculation that KECI might have been influenced because the station’s parent company is in the process of being bought by pro-Republican Sinclair Broadcast Group (a suggestion that KECI denied).
All of this flurry of invective and self-censorship has prompted alarm among groups monitoring the media climate in the US. The New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists, which traditionally focuses most of its efforts on assisting reporters under threat around the world, now finds itself increasingly preoccupied with events closer to home.
CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon pointed to a series of recent incidents in which American journalists had been harassed or even jailed in the course of doing their jobs. He also pointed to Donald Trump’s relentless denigration of “fake news” outlets and of journalists as “enemies of the American people”.
“You can say that was just rhetoric, just words,” Simon said. “But now we are seeing rhetoric turned into action – we know that Trump talked to the FBI director James Comey about putting journalists in jail, that was not just talk.”
Simon said that the cumulative impact was the creation of an environment in which “we have a president disparaging journalists, trying to put them in jail, and reporters being assaulted. I think it’s time to be worried. It’s time to step up.”
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, said she had seen nothing like the Montana assault in almost 40 years in the news business. “To have a professional politician beat up on a reporter – this is the kind of thing you would see in a totalitarian state. This is not America.”
Oh Yes It Is!
Dalglish said the most shocking aspect of it was that public commentators and ordinary Americans were willing to argue openly that violence against journalists was acceptable. “That’s even more frightening than the horrible event in Montana – we are living in an America in which people are prepared in public to express the view that this was okay.”
Experts on cyberbullying equate this week’s outpouring of support for Gianforte to changes in behavior they have detected online in recent years. The Cyberbullying Research Center has studied the bullying behavior largely of adolescents over the past 17 years, and has observed a subtle but important shift.
At first, teenagers were careful to maintain their anonymity, adopting pseudonyms online as they carried out their campaigns of disparagement and denigration. But more recently researchers have found an increased willingness among the bullies to speak out openly in public.
“People are becoming emboldened now to say publicly what they want to say under their own names,” said Justin Patchin, the center’s co-director.
Patchin explained the shift by pointing to the lack of penalties for anyone using aggressive language online, coupled with the powerful rewards. “People get clicks and retweets and shares when they make extreme comments, and that is affirmation for someone seeking recognition.”
But he warned there were consequences. “We are seeing the transition from virtual harassment to physical attack. If the virtual is not taken seriously, what’s the next step?”
What’s Next? Cue Sondheim!