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Does an assault on a reporter reflect greater antipathy toward the press?

May 25, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Montana’s special election took a bizarre turn Wednesday, when GOP candidate Greg Gianforte was charged with assaulting a reporter. And there have been other recent incidents over press access, including the arrest of a West Virginia public media reporter in early May. John Yang talks to Howard Kurtz of Fox News and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s closely watched special election for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives took a bizarre turn last night when the Republican candidate was charged with assaulting a news reporter.

The altercation, and other less extreme incidents involving journalists, raise questions about how attitudes toward the news media may be changing.

John Yang has our report.

JOHN YANG: The race between Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte was upended in its closing hours when Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs tried to ask the Republican about the health care bill.

Jacobs was recording the conversation.

GREG GIANFORTE (R), Montana Congressional Candidate: Yes, we’ll talk to you about that later.

BEN JACOBS, The Guardian: Yes, but there’s not going to be time. I’m just curious…

GREG GIANFORTE: OK, speak with Shane, please.

I’m sick and tired of you guys!

BEN JACOBS: Jesus Christ!

GREG GIANFORTE: The last guy you came in here, you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!

BEN JACOBS: Jesus!

GREG GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here! The last guy did the same thing! You with The Guardian?

BEN JACOBS: Yes! And you just broke my glasses.

GREG GIANFORTE: The last guy did the same damn thing.

BEN JACOBS: You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.

GREG GIANFORTE: Get the hell out of here.

JOHN YANG: Gianforte’s press secretary said, “Aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene.”

But a FOX News team witnessed the confrontation.

ALICIA ACUNA, FOX News: Gianforte grabbed him by the neck, both hands, slid him to the side, body-slammed him, and then got on top of him and started punching, and then yelling at him.

JOHN YANG: Late last night, the sheriff charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.

This morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was out of line.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: There is no time where a physical altercation should occur with the press or with — just between human beings. So, that is wrong and should no have happened. Should the gentleman apologize? Yes, I think he should apologize.

JOHN YANG: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi compared Gianforte to President Trump.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., House Minority Leader: To see this person who wants to be the one representative into the House of Representatives from Montana be sort of a wannabe Trump, it’s a tactic to attack the press. And we really have to say, this is about the Constitution of the United States.

JOHN YANG: Mr. Trump, as candidate and as president, has targeted media with harsh language of his own.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The dishonest media, among the world’s most dishonest people.

(BOOING)

JOHN YANG: There have been other incidents involving public officials and reporters. A West Virginia public radio reporter was arrested trying to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. And a Congressional Quarterly reporter was allegedly manhandled by security guards when he tried to ask a question after an FCC hearing.

To explore the meaning of these incidents, we’re joined by Howard Kurtz, host of “Media Buzz” on FOX News Channel, and Tom Rosenstiel, head of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Howie, Tom, thanks for being here.

Tom, let me start with you.

Is there a change in the climate, a change in attitudes toward the press?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, Executive Director, American Press Institute: Yes.

I mean, we’re seeing rhetoric, we’re hearing rhetoric from the White House that is of a nature that we really haven’t seen since President Nixon and the Watergate era, a demonization of the press. It’s qualitatively different than simply accusing the press of liberal bias or unfairness.

I mean, to say that they are the enemy of the people, among the worst human beings on earth, it encourages and legitimizes an anger towards the press that, you know, I think, fosters this attitude.

Now, there are other elements that foster it as well. The Internet creates an environment where there is less civility and decorum. And the economics of the country and the uneasiness about the country put people on edge.

But, yes, there is a climate that’s different, and that I think it’s fair to say the administration has contributed to it.

JOHN YANG: Howie, a different climate, with the administration contributing to it, what do you think?

HOWARD KURTZ, FOX News: Well, there’s no question that President Trump has escalated his rhetoric to a degree we have never seen against the press.

But I think it is a real mistake, and we have to be awfully careful here, to conflate what he says, using words, attacking the press, which a lot of his base likes, and, in some cases, the press deserves — and we can get into that in a moment — and, you know, this congressional candidate in Montana doing something that’s completely unacceptable and, by the way, politically stupid on the eve of the election, to physically assault a reporter who maybe stuck a type of tape recorder in his face.

And I think — I used to say this during the Obama administration when a police officer would be shot and some on the right would say, well, it’s President Obama’s fault because of the way he talks about the police. This kind of guilt by association, I think we have to be awfully careful about.

JOHN YANG: Tom, what about that, that you heard in the tape spot Nancy Pelosi comparing this candidate to President Trump? Howie says that the rhetoric really doesn’t — he can’t directly relate the rhetoric to the actions. What do you think?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, I think that it’s unfair to say — to compare what the reporter did to anything that President Trump has done.

But I think to say that words don’t have implications when you’re the president, you know, that’s probably letting the president off too easily. And this rhetoric is intense.

It’s not a trend. We’re not seeing, you know, dozens of reporters being beaten up. And there may be more attention to it than there has been in the past. But it is important to recognize that the democracy depends on reporters asking people in power questions, so that the general public has information. We can’t really self-govern unless information is widespread.

And, sometimes, reporters have to be a little aggressive. I mean, you know, the reporter didn’t beat up the politician. The politician beat up the reporter.

JOHN YANG: But, Howie, you were saying that some of these — some of the things are self-inflicted by the press?

HOWARD KURTZ: You know, I have never seen the level of anger and frustration and resentment and even disgust among millions of Americans toward the media.

And I think there are a lot of self-inflicted wounds here, big mistakes that are not learned from, but also a lot of it the byproduct of a campaign in which the press appeared to be out of touch with the frustration of the many millions of Americans who helped put Donald Trump into the White House and just the way we botched it.

Everybody woke up on Election Day and thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president. And so it is one thing, of course, for people who don’t like the media to vent that on Twitter or social media or even in conversations.

And another thing — and we have to draw a line between that and the kind of physical attacks that should never be condoned by anybody. And Republicans ought to speak out against what Gianforte did.

JOHN YANG: But talk about — you say that there are mistakes that the press hasn’t learned from. What do you mean by that?

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, you can look at everything from the — what turned out to be the phony and retracted allegations of rape in the “Rolling Stone” case. There’s been a lot of that.

And, also, there have been stories in campaigns where the press has just gone too far, been slow to retract, slow to acknowledge mistakes. I think all of that is a problem.

And, by the way, while I certainly don’t defend Donald Trump saying — calling journalists the enemy of the American people — he says that certain quote, fake news organizations — this is not a one-way street. There has been an incredible level of vitriol directed at the president, mostly by commentators and others, calling him names, everything from jokes on late-night television, to just political commentators calling him a moron, an idiot, a racist.

And a lot of people who at least are favorably disposed toward this president resent that.

JOHN YANG: Tom, what do you — answer, respond to that.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Trust in the press has been declining for a couple of decades. That’s associated with actually technology expanding out.

It started in the ’80s, when we began to see cable and our TV dial went from four to 40 to now 400, and then talk radio, with the deregulation of the airwaves. And you have these organizations or you have media outlets marketing themselves as the alternative to.

I don’t think the rhetoric toward President Trump from media sources or media commentators is any worse than what Franklin Roosevelt got from a conservative press in another era. And Roosevelt was, you know, not as blunt as Trump about the press, but, you know, there was an ideological press back then, when we had multiple newspapers in town.

I would say, on balance, frankly, the mainstream press, which is decried often by conservative as liberal, is more professional and more accurate and faster to correct mistakes than probably it was in an earlier era.

HOWARD KURTZ: But the mainstream press …

TOM ROSENSTIEL: But there’s a — it’s an economic imperative, if you’re conservative media, to ideologically tar the mainstream press as a way of getting audience. So, this is a commercial imperative for …

JOHN YANG: Very quickly, Howie. We’re almost out of time.

HOWARD KURTZ: OK.

People on the left, a lot of people on the left don’t like the press either. It’s not just a conservative vs. liberal sort of thing. And, at the same time, I have heard commentators say that President Trump should be removed under the 25th Amendment. Some of this is pretty harsh stuff.

JOHN YANG: That’s got to be the last word.

Howie Kurtz, Tom Rosenstiel, thanks for being here.

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