US congressional candidate in Montana charged with assaulting reporter

May 25, 2017 — The alleged assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by a candidate competing in today’s special congressional election in Montana sends an unacceptable signal that physical assault is an appropriate response to unwanted questioning by a journalist, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Jacobs tweeted yesterday evening that Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte “bodyslammed” him and broke his glasses. The alleged incident occurred in Gianforte’s campaign headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, as Jacobs attempted to ask a question about the Republican-sponsored health care plan, according to the Guardian, which published Jacobs’ audio recording of the altercation. In the recording, Gianforte can be heard shouting, “I’m sick and tired of you guys.”

Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault late Wednesday night and is scheduled to appear in court on June 7, according to a post on the Gallatin County Sheriffs Office website. If convicted, Gianforte could face a $500 fine or up to six months in jail.

“Public figures in Montana and throughout the U.S. should condemn the violent assault of a reporter by a congressional candidate,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s program director and senior program coordinator for the Americas. “The role of reporters is even more important on the eve of elections. Gallatin County authorities should show that politicians will be held accountable for attacks against journalists who are merely trying to keep the public informed.”

Montana voters head to the polls today to decide on a special congressional election to fill the seat vacated by former Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who stepped down to join President Donald Trump’s cabinet. Gianforte faces Democratic nominee Rob Quist.

Gianforte’s campaign released a statement last night: “Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.”

Gianforte’s campaign did not immediately respond to emailed questions sent late last night.

The campaign’s statement appears to contradict witness testimony. Fox News journalist Alicia Acuna reported that she and her colleagues Faith Mangan and Keith Railey saw Gianforte attack Jacobs. “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith, and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man,” Acuna told her employer.

BuzzFeed News reporter Alexis Levinson said on Twitter that she saw part of the attack from outside the room. She tweeted that she “heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air” and that she heard angry yelling that sounded like Gianforte.

Jacobs was examined in the hospital and released, according to an NBC News report.

During an meeting between Gianforte and a Christian group in April, a voter called the media the “enemy” while miming wringing a neck. Gianforte, gesturing to a reporter, responded, “It seems like there are more of us than there is of him,” according to a report in the Helena Independent Record. Gianforte later said that he was joking and that the reporter also laughed, according to The Associated Press.

The attack on Jacobs comes less than a week after security forces at the Federal Communications Commission allegedly pinned CQ reporter John Donnelly against a wall while he tried to ask a question of the departing commissioners at the agency’s headquarters in D.C., according to press reports. In a separate event, a West Virginia reporter was arrested this month as he tried to ask a question of Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price in the West Virginia state capitol.