Greg Gianforte won’t be serving jail time before going to Congress this summer. The Montana Republican, who won last month’s special election to fill the seat vacated by the new interior secretary, will instead have to complete 40 hours of community service and devote 20 hours to anger management sessions. Gianforte pled guilty to misdemeanor assault for physically attacking and injuring journalist Ben Jacobs at a campaign event on May 24, the day before the election. Judge Rick West said he had considered four days of imprisonment but shifted the sentence after learning that a work program alternative was not available for the charge. The judge didn’t want the congressman-elect to “take up space” in jail. “You accepted responsibility,” he said. “You apologized.”
Gianforte’s actions were completely disgraceful. Jacobs, an American reporter working for the British publication The Guardian, was questioning the candidate about the Republican health-care plan. Gianforte’s response was to slam him to the floor and start punching, yelling “I’m sick and tired of this,” according to a Fox News reporter on the scene. Jacobs suffered an elbow injury and broken glasses.
Following the incident, a few partisan voices tried to defend Gianforte. “Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first-class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked,” tweeted Brent Bozell, a longtime media watchdog on the right. It was an absurd defense of the indefensible. We hope that anyone who sought to downplay the assault pays equal attention to Gianforte’s recent actions: A June 7 written apology that doesn’t weasel out, and a symbolic donation of $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists (symbolic in that the tech entrepreneur’s net worth approaches $300 million).
“My physical response to your legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable and unlawful. As both a candidate for office and a public official, I should be held to a high standard in my interactions with the press and the public. My treatment of you did not meet that standard,” he wrote. “Notwithstanding anyone’s statements to the contrary, you did not initiate any physical contact with me, and I had no right to assault you. … I made a mistake and humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
Jacobs has behaved correctly by keeping his cool. “I hope the constructive resolution of this incident reinforces for all the importance of respecting the freedom of the press.”
The Ben Jacobs episode follows the May 9 jailing of West Virginia radio reporter Dan Heyman for dogged questioning of Health Secretary Tom Price at an event in the West Virginia capitol. On May 18, a Roll Call reporter was pinned against the wall by two security officials at the Federal Communications Commission. These are disquieting events but, as always, journalists should stay alert while keeping a sense of perspective. In Mexico, at least nine journalists have been killed this year. In Russia, the body count is three so far for 2017. See the Committee to Protect Journalists website for more (cpj.org).