Big Sky Spat


If you were following the Twitter feeds of even a handful of journalists Wednesday evening, you might be forgiven for thinking the world was coming to an end. It was an amazing thing to behold, as a story that started with a single tweet blossomed into a multi-hour, multi-character drama that soon caught the attention of the entire news media.

And why shouldn’t it? It’s a ridiculous, fantastic story, and would be almost unbelievable if not for the shocking audio recording and the eyewitness testimony of various media on the scene.

I mean, think about it: a billionaire Republican candidate for Congress assaults a reporter, seemingly out of the blue, the day before the election. Multiple sources confirm the attack, the audio emerges, and the candidate is charged with misdemeanour assault.

Then he wins the election.

To be fair to Montanans, the candidate in question, Greg Gianforte, was heavily favoured already going into the election and with Montana’s fairly accessible early voting regulations, over a third of registered voters had already cast their ballots. Gianforte ended up winning with 50.2% of the vote. It’s unclear how much the assault affected the election, or how much opportunity it had to do so.

But the story has been sensational as much for the aftermath as for the event itself. An assault on a reporter is bad enough, but the ensuing statement by Gianforte’s campaign (which essentially blamed the reporter, Ben Jacobs) and the response by the conservative media has been equally disturbing. In particular, Fox News (surprise, surprise) has been active in discrediting Jacobs and ascribing Gianforte’s actions to “Montana justice.”

Obviously, this is garbage. It should be clear to everyone that Gianforte’s actions were wildly inappropriate to the situation (no matter how “aggressively” Jacobs was shoving the recorder near his face), doubly reprehensible coming from an electoral candidate, and criminal. And it probably is obvious to everyone, but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to agree what to do about it.

Should we be surprised that conservative media has done its best to tar Jacobs and dismiss the actions as simply another scuffle in a rough-and-tumble state? Probably not. At this point, the idea that partisanship extends into the realm of criminality and violence is abundantly clear. We’ve already had a taste of this exact thing, when Breitbart quickly disavowed its own reporter, Michelle Fields, after she accused then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of battery in March 2016.

Especially on the eve of an election, the stakes are high and the zero-sum-game attitude of partisan media is at a fever pitch. With no ground to give, Fox has little choice but to walk the fine line between condemning Gianforte (an unacceptable option) and saying he did absolutely nothing wrong (similarly unappealing). So instead we get this grey-washing of the situation, where everyone is at fault, so let’s just forget about it, OK?

This is stupid, but again, we shouldn’t be surprised. The frantic attempts to spin a cut-and-dry case of assault are nothing new, if painfully obvious in this case. It once again shows us that the right is willing to go the distance and stick to their guns when it matters most.

Unfortunately, left-wing criticisms soon made it easier for them to do so. If the story had stayed centred directly on Gianforte, the full weight of the evidence might soon have become too much for even the most proficient spinners to handle. But scenting weakness, left-wing commentators abandoned the weakened member of the pack and went straight for the alpha.

By pinning the blame for the incident (in varying degrees of directness) on Trump, the left gave Fox and others a chance to change the channel. Personally, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Trump has perpetrated a culture of disrespect, delegitimization, and hatred towards journalists that has no doubt lowered the barriers to violence against them. He encouraged this attitude at his campaign rallies (and since then) and has consistently sought to undercut the public image of reporters and journalists. It’s easy to see this attack as a direct outgrowth of that culture.

But it’s also easy to see it as an unfortunate outburst by a man under a great deal of stress on the eve of an important election. By trying to tie the event to Trump, the left has given Fox and others breathing room not only to portray the event as more innocuous than it probably was, but also to change the topic completely. Now it’s about Trump, not Gianforte, and that’s a much easier fight. The argument has shifted from “how do we address the incident?” to “is Trump to blame?” and Fox can argue that to death. In the past 24 hours, they haven’t been talking about the attack, they’ve been talking about the hysteria on the left that somehow Trump is responsible for this, even though he’s thousands of miles away!

It’s just too easy.

Again, I think that there is something to the idea that Gianforte, who was basically modelled himself after Trump, was influenced by the president’s disdain for the media. But tactically, the impulse of the left to try to pin everything on Trump only makes it easier to deflect. I understand wanting to make a larger point about the increasing danger to journalists in the Trump era, but the left should be aware of the favour they’re doing to Fox News and networks like it.

By attempting to connect the incident to the larger partisan battle, the left allowed Fox to obscure the incident itself, thus alleviating its immediate negative impact (on the special election) and reducing its impact on the wider discussion. The effect that this event will have on Americans’ attitudes towards the media is unclear at this point, but what is clear is that Fox has been far more effective in obscuring this story than if Trump had stayed out of the picture.

At the end of the day, Democrats are left empty-handed in Montana, though with better results than they probably expected. They should feel hopeful that the relatively close result will bode well for them in the more important (and more tightly contested) Georgia congressional race in June. Of Gianforte, meanwhile, Democrats will be thinking: “Sure, we lost, but maybe he’ll be in jail soon.”

Strange, they were saying the same thing in 2016 about President Trump.


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