It’s hard to tell what’s most disturbing about the vicious assault on Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs by US Republican candidate Greg Gianforte: the assault itself? Or the fact it’s been shrugged off by the political elite?
The evening before a special election for Montana’s single Congress seat, the candidate was questioned about healthcare reform. He deflected the question and then beat up the questioner.
According to an eye witness account from a Fox News journalist: “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him … Gianforte then began punching the reporter.”
Jacobs tweeted out: “Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”
Although charges of misdemeanour assault were subsequently laid (in an only-in-America kind of way, by a sheriff who was a donor to the candidate), Gianforte went on to be elected and the political establishment stayed silent on the attack. Even Australia’s Ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, ignored it with a political insider style tweet that said only: “The Republicans win a ‘federal by-election’ in Montana pretty convincingly given the circumstances. This is sobering for many ‘experts’!”
The Montana assault was a response to a perfectly proper question about the key political issue of the day, immediately before an election. It was textbook fourth estate. Still, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another reflection of the myriad ways the USA — and its wild west in particular — is just that little bit different from us.
Except that the assault coincided with the publication here in Australia of the sadistic fantasies of Quadrant about bombing the ABC and murdering people conducting a civilised on-air debate that the author happened to disagree with.
While this Quad-rant as we might call it, fell somewhere between the ridiculous and the non-sensical, it reminds us that here in Australia, too, violence against journalists can easily edge into the mainstream.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The Gianforte assault, the Quadrant fantasy, don’t come out of nowhere. They come out of a sustained onslaught against media and against journalists. They come out of the climate that uses the phrase “fake news” to suggest that any story a politician doesn’t agree with is not just wrong, it must be maliciously and deliberately wrong.
Of course, around the world, violence and threats of violence are not new to journalists. The annual death counts of media workers have become part of the craft’s ritual. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 24 journalists and media workers have died in the course of their work already this year. In 2016, the number was 93.
Australian journalists haven’t been immune to violence, although no one has been killed on Australian soil since Juanita Nielsen in 1975. Yet, in a tragic precursor to the Quadrant sadistic farce, in May 2009, a Perth reporter from A Current Affair had his car firebombed. In 2002, shots were fired through the Brisbane family home of The Australian’s Hedley Thomas. Almost every journalist who investigates crime and corruption has received violent threats against themselves or their families.
Regularly, photographers and camera people are pushed and shoved around when they’re working in public. We’ve seen the deaths overseas of Australian correspondents such as Harry Burton in Afghanistan in 2001 and Paul Moran in Iraq in 2003.
Now, journalists aren’t perfect. Some practices are abhorrent. We far too regularly get wrong the difference between how we treat private individuals and public figures.
Over the past few decades, popular culture has fed on this. Notoriously, in the final scene of Die Hard, the wife of Bruce Willis’ character, Holly McClane, punches television journalist Richard Thornburg. The audience is expected to cheer her on. Why are we surprised that others hear that and want themselves a piece of that cheering?
But the Quadrant bombing fantasy and the Montana assault take this disdain to a new level. When a criminal threatens or resorts to violence, they are acting out criminal behaviour. It’s dangerous, but it doesn’t tell us anything about our country’s own innate culture. When a leading cultural magazine fantasises about murder, when a political candidate chokes and punches a journalist, we’re in a very different place.
There are two ways Australia and the United States can go from here: either the kickback against the threat and the assault are so great that our countries take a breath and walk back from where we are; or silence encourages escalation until political violence becomes entrenched in our society.
And we’ll all think that’s impossible. Until it isn’t.
Journalists innately understand this. Those other journalists present in Montana — ranging from Fox News to BuzzFeed all defaulted to their sense of the craft, not their politics. All called it out. The local Montana papers responded by immediately withdrawing their endorsement of the Republican.
Journalists are right to push back. Politicians have to join them.
*Disclosure: Christopher Warren is a former president of the International Federation of Journalists