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Pressure mounting on the press

Wow, I’m loving this version of America, the one where we are so great and all. You heard the latest on our climb back to the top, the Montana politician who last month body slammed, then punched, a reporter who questioned him about health care?

I’m telling you what, that’s really great. Even greater than that, the guy doing the punching raked in donations afterwards and won election to the U.S. Congress.

It would appear a lot of people approved of Republican Greg Gianforte’s beating up a member of the media.

You know, the lame-stream media. The liberal media. The crooked media. Our enemies, the media, those people who are stopping us, America, from being great.

A free press? To heck with it. If it doesn’t fit our world view, it can’t be true. Real news is fake news, or at least those facts we don’t like.

I witnessed a journalist get pushed around, years ago, while we partnered on a story about a teacher arrested for sex crimes.

The photographer and I were in a courthouse stairwell. I was trying to get comment from the suspect. Meanwhile, the photographer was backing down the stairs snapping pictures, a precarious, exposed position. Suddenly, the suspect’s brother exploded, shoving my colleague.

We got out of the dicey situation a bit shaken, but otherwise unharmed. We discussed what to do. The brother who had pushed him was a court official in another county. The father, who had been in the stairwell, was a member of law enforcement. We were fully within our legal rights asking questions and taking photographs. They both knew that.

We could press charges. We could call the guy’s boss. We could write an article about what had happened. Any one of those three actions could have ended the young court official’s career – almost certainly so, if he were to be convicted of misdemeanor assault or the situation was publicized.

Ultimately, we did none of those things. Whether we made the correct decision is debatable, but the photographer and I decided the brother, who was clearly overwrought, embarrassed and humiliated, had acted out of those emotions. We felt sorry for him, though it did not excuse his behavior.

What emotions, pray tell me, with the possible exceptions of blind anger and towering arrogance, did Gianforte feel when he attacked that Guardian reporter? Apparently, this businessman and politician had grown weary of questions. He told the reporter in the course of battering him: “I’m sick and tired of you guys.”

What did he expect when he decided to seek public office? No questions? Three questions only? A two question limit? One is allowed?

Before the assault and as reported by the Missoulian newspaper, in April, a man during a campaign stop said to the candidate: “Our biggest enemy is the news media.” He then asked Gianforte, “How can we rein in the news media?’”

The audience member followed up his question by turning to a reporter who was sitting next to him, and “raised his hands as if he would like to wring his neck.” Gianforte smiled, pointed at the reporter and said: “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.”

“Him” is a journalist. “Us” would do away with “him.”

Get it?

This vision of a great America is devoid of reporters asking pesky questions. That scares the dickens out of me. And unless you are one of the Gianfortes of the world, I believe such a prospect should scare you, too.

“You” and “us” are in this together, whether we are Democrats, Republicans, progressives or members of the Tea Party; whether we work for major newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post … or at a small weekly in the mountains of North Carolina. I suggest “we,” those of us who are believers in the U.S. Constitution, must keep this thing called a free press afloat.

North Carolina’s Constitution frames the situation to perfection: “Freedom of speech and of the press are two of the great bulwarks of liberty and therefore shall never be restrained, but every person shall be held responsible for their abuse.”

Published with permission of The Sylva Herald

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