Americans love that our nation has freedom of the press, but what does that really mean?
According to Wikipedia:
Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment is generally understood to prevent the government from interfering with the distribution of information and opinions. Nevertheless, freedom of the press is subject to certain restrictions, such as defamation law.
Indeed, despite the consolidation of media and deterioration of integrity in much of journalism, the U.S. does still have some degree of freedom of press, though, it is increasingly under attack.
This past week saw the “body slamming”, or what sounded more like a choke slam, of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on Wednesday by then-candidate for Montana’s at-large seat in the House of Representatives, Republican Greg Gianforte. (Gianforte went on to win the election the next night.)
Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) May 24, 2017
What led to the altercation? Jacobs went into a room at Gianforte’s campaign headquarters, during an event being held, to ask him about the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA). After making attempts to get an answer to his question, it was reported and confirmed by multiple parties that witnessed the incident, that Gianforte initiated the physical attack.
Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna corroborated the story, writing that “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him.” Regarding what she, Field Producer Faith Mangan, and Photographer Keith Railey witnessed, Acuna also said that they “watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man, as he moved on top the reporter and began yelling something to the effect of ‘I’m sick and tired of this!'” She further stated that Jacobs did not show any physical aggression.
The Gianforte Campaign released a statement with a very different version of the event, which can be found below:
— Whitney Bermes (@wabermes) May 25, 2017
Before the night was over, Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault.
In a statement, the office of Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said:
Following multiple interviews and an investigation by the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office it was determined there was probable cause to issue a citation to Greg Gianforte for misdemeanor assault (MCA 45-5-201). The nature of the injuries did not meet the statutory elements of felony assault. Greg Gianforte received a citation on Wednesday night and is scheduled to appear in Gallatin County Justice Court between now and June 7, 2017.
Two days after the incident in Montana, after signing a bill aimed at reducing the cost of obtaining a license to carry a handgun, and practicing shooting on a target, Texas Governor Greg Abbott reportedly held it up and joked, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters.”
These are only two of many examples of an increasingly aggressive attitude seeking to silence members of the press.
Earlier this month, on Tuesday, May 9th, Public News Service reporter Dan Heyman was arrested after posing questions to Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services, regarding the AHCA, as he was walking to a meeting at the West Virginia State Capitol with Kellyanne Conway.
Heyman, who later wrote about the incident, was arrested by officers from the West Virginia Division of Protective Services and charged with a misdemeanor count of willful disruption of governmental processes. The reporter spent hours in jail before Public News Service posted $5,000 bail.
When asked about the arrest of the reporter, Secretary Price praised police for “doing what they thought was appropriate”. Regarding Heyman’s questioning of him, the Secretary said, “That gentleman was not in a press conference”. But when asked if he felt Heyman should have been arrested, Price said, “That’s not my decision to make.”
Side note: Members of the press are not prohibited from asking questions unless at a press conference. Price’s above comment might as well have been, “That gentleman was rude to ask a question as I was walking down a hallway.”
According to the New York Times, a criminal complaint regarding the matter stated that Heyman “tried aggressively to breach the security of the Secret Service” and was “causing a disturbance by yelling questions.”
If convicted as charged, according to his attorney, Heyman faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $100 fine.
Upon his release, Heyman and his lawyer held a press conference commenting on the matter, which can be seen above. Heyman said he was just doing his job.
During the height of the coverage of the dispute over the Dakota Access Pipeline, journalist and investigate reporter Amy Goodman, who is well known as the co-founder, Executive Producer, and Host of Democracy Now!, was made to face charges in North Dakota while covering the protests at Standing Rock.
Goodman was initially charged with trespassing, but that was dismissed when North Dakota State Attorney Ladd Erickson charged her with rioting. After Goodman turned herself in, in response to a warrant that was issued for her arrest, a North Dakota Judge dismissed the case, finding that there was not probable cause for the charge.
There is rightfully a great deal of criticism made against corporate and mainstream media outlets. This criticism is based on a slew of well-documented reasons, not least among them being shallow and biased coverage, manipulating and misdirecting the public’s attention, thereby misinforming it.
Related Series: This Week in the Narrative
There seems, though, to be a blurring of the line that is becoming apparent when we’re not only being critical of biased reporting, but the act of reporting itself is being attacked (a whole separate piece could be written on how President Trump has contributed to this).
It’s dangerous when all of the media, in general, starts to be viewed as the enemy.
@JustDKG Most reporters are just reprehensible spin drag, Gianforte like many of us have had enough of their verbal thuggery.
— Richard French (@troyannason) May 26, 2017
Do we not want politicians to be held accountable? Should they only be questioned in comfortable arrangements and environments? Should they not be questioned at all?
— Richard French (@troyannason) May 26, 2017
We as citizens, and as the public, should absolutely be wary of the information we are given. We should be careful where we get our information from, and the intentions of the sources we choose. But if we begin to villainize those who do the work of reporting and providing information, we will be doing ourselves and our society an extreme disservice.
An intense, scrutinizing free press should be sought after and protected. It is not our enemy.
Politicians and those in power should not be comfortable. For far too long they have been, and, at least in part because of this, we’ve found our country to be in the very predicament and state it’s in.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Amy Goodman was arrested. This article has been corrected to reflect this.