I’ve wrestled with this my entire career: What do journalists do immediately after we’re attacked while lawfully doing our jobs? It takes place on occasion. In this age of Donald Trump, it’s happening more. Our president has turned long-simmering bad feelings about media into boiling hatred. We can consider the reasons in a moment, but the reality is that the nutcases are emboldened as never before to physically attack those who cover news in ways they don’t like.
I am pondering the dilemma again thanks to the attack by Greg Gianforte, who ran in a Montana special election to fill the state’s lone House of Representatives seat in Congress. The short version, according to several witnesses, is that he didn’t like the persistent questioning he got from someone covering his campaign, and assaulted the newsman, physically body-slamming him while screaming at him. The journalist notified police, and the sheriff, a contributor to Gianforte’s campaign, faced with overwhelming evidence, reluctantly charged candidate Gianforte with misdemeanor assault. The reporter did the mature thing, but I’m wondering still again whether it was the right thing to do, as opposed to fighting back physically.
Let’s face it, Gianforte is not going to be found guilty of a thing. He’s in super-red, friendly GOP territory. Did I mention that a couple of days after the assault, he won his election? So, turning to the police accomplishes very little. No more than the charges against then Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski resulted in a guilty finding, even after Lewandowski was legally charged in Florida for grabbing a reporter so hard he left bruises on her arm from shoving her aside. That’s right, “her.” However, the state attorneys decided not to proceed on the battery charges.
What would I have done in that situation? Would the satisfaction from doing serious harm to Lewandowski be worth the hassle? Notice, I’m not asking myself whether it would be the moral thing to do, but I’ve never believed in turning the other cheek. It really comes down to practical considerations.
After the 2014 State of the Union, Congressman Michael Grimm from Staten Island was caught on tape threatening a TV reporter that he’d “throw you off this (expletive) balcony” in the U.S. Capitol complex if he again asked a question Grimm didn’t like. What if I was that reporter? Would I provoke the congressman by asking the same question, then defend myself? Duking it out might provide some personal satisfaction, but the legal consequence attached to hitting a member of Congress probably outweighs the instant gratification.
That’s also the reason not to fight back when an abusive law-enforcement officer takes out his fury on a journalist, particularly while under siege in a violent situation. It’s happened to most news reporters. The smart ones remember that the overly aggressive policeman is armed and dangerous, assaulting him is a crime and self-defense is tough to prove.
So this is nothing new. But it’s becoming more common, thanks in large part to politicians to who try to deflect unfavorable reporting or embarrassing questions by demonizing those asking and exposing their shortcomings. This is true of the likes of Trump, of course, and other longtime media baiters, like Newt Gingrich. In Washington and elsewhere, we are seeing repeated examples of reporters blocked by official security, ejected and assaulted.
Those of us who attempt journalism should know that what we do is never going to endear us to newsmakers, who would prefer groupies instead of reporters. Sadly, all too many of us, in fact, do become shills just to get favored treatment. Those who don’t go along get ostracized. But that should be considered a badge of honor. The physical assaults, of course, take the battle between covered and coverer too far.
Short of a violent response from us, we need to come up with some way to get people to accept that the messy job of reporting is one of the ways to prevent abuse and stop corruption by our leaders. It’s called a democracy. Otherwise, we need to get self-defense training.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast reporter, including 20 years at CNN.