In Trump's America, that reporter body slam didn't come out of nowhere

Montana Special Election
Republican Greg Gianforte, right, welcomes Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, onto the stage at a rally in East Helena, Montana, on May 11.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: But that’s what we have. They’re incompetent, dishonest people, who, after an election, had to apologize because they covered it, us, me, but all of us — they covered it so badly that they felt they were forced to apologize because their predictions were so bad. You remember their predictions? They lost a lot of people because of the way they covered. So here’s the story. If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, then I think we would all agree the media deserves a very, very, big fat failing grade.

AUDIENCE: Booo –

TRUMP: Very dishonest people.

-- President Trump rally to mark 100 days in office, Harrisburg, Pa, April 29, 2017.

The journalist Ben Jacobs said he never saw it coming. And of course in one sense, no one would expect something like this. One second you're holding out your recorder and trying to get the GOP front-runner in a closely watched special election for Congress in Montana to weigh in on his party's health-care plan that takes insurance away from 23 million people, and the next second you're slammed against the wall, your eyeglasses are broken, and all you can hear is a crazed voice screaming at you, "I'm sick and tired of you guys."

In the all-night drag strip known as cable TV news, talking heads who'd almost lost their capacity to be shocked since January 20 were suddenly saying they'd never seen anything like this, congressional candidate Greg Gianforte (the pride of Upper Merion) getting arrested for a misdemeanor assault on a journalist just hours before polls opened on Election Day. And of course in the broad sense they were right. There's been nothing exactly like the attack on Jacobs, a dogged, persistent reporter for the Guardian, a news org that's based in the UK but has a strong U.S. presence on the web.

But just because Jacobs was essentially cold-cocked by a man who could be headed to the U.S. House when the votes are tallied later tonight doesn't mean that you couldn't see this coming from miles away. To the contrary, a politician physically attacking a reporter asking him a tough question is the sadly predictable next step in an ongoing assault on press freedom that's been slowly smoldering for nearly 50 years -- one that has seen gasoline poured on its  flaming embers over the last two years.

You tell people that there's a war on journalism and they imagine a president giving some type of Pearl Harbor address about the "infamy" of the American media right before the police vans show up outside the New York Times and Washington Post newsrooms to cart everybody off to Gitmo -- but that's not exactly how it works. Rather it's the death of 1,000 cuts. A reporter who tries to ask perfectly reasonable questions of a Trump Cabinet secretary gets arrested in a West Virginia hallway. A few days later, an accredited journalist trying to question a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gets pinned against a wall by agency security guards.

And now this monstrosity in Montana. Not sweeping, Orwellian "Big Brother"-style censorship. But disgusting brownshirt-type stuff -- cops, security guards, assorted goons and now a politician himself administering fascist-flavored beatdowns.

Hatred of journalists has become as much a part of the atmosphere for American conservatives as the toxic radio waves that bombard us daily with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. And now it's sparking into actual violence. Why now? Some of it looks like old-fashioned intimidation tactics (although most journalists I know are not easily intimidated). More importantly, this push for a war footing between the political right and U.S. journalism is about the only thing left that's sustaining modern conservatism during Trump's disastrous reign.

Turn to any mainstream media source right now -- TV news that isn't Fox, or your hometown newspaper -- and you'll see stories about incompetence, corruption, scandal and out-and-out lying from the White House. To the conservative movement, that truth is so devastating that their reality just has to be something else:  A war between Team Trump and "incompetent, dishonest people."

Distrust of the media has flowed through the bloodstream of conservatism since the early 1970s when a president named Nixon farmed out that task to his vice president Spiro Agnew, and it metastasized during the rise of an "alternative facts" culture on AM talk radio and the Fox News Channel. But Trump has taken this cancer on our political discourse to Stage IV, calling journalists "the enemy of the American people" and threatening to make it easier to sue the media and to investigate "leaks," a coded threat to jail more journalists who dare to expose the things that our delusion strongman in the Oval Office doesn't want people to know.

How successful have Trump and his minions been in making the cauldron of media hated boil over the top? Body slams and arrests of journalists are part of it, but so is the fact that so many conservatives -- both "thought leaders" (how's that for an oxymoron) and rank-and-file voters -- are perfectly cool with a man whom they hope will soon be a U.S. congressman committing a criminal assault on a reporter. They could justify it because they see Jacobs as a pushy "liberal" from a news org that's not even American, or, inexplicably, because he wasn't "man enough" to punch back.

The veteran conservative media critic Brent Bozell tweeted: "Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I'm not surprised he got smacked."A Fox News contributor called the cowardly sneak attack a dose of "Montana justice." Clearly, the assault didn't trouble many of Gianforte's voters and may have energized a few. A voter in Bozeman told an MSNBC journalist earlier today: "I think reporters have it coming."

Which is pretty much the glorious state of affairs that the Trumpists have been going for. Today, media hate -- punctuated by the occasional burst of violence --  isn't just an energizer for the GOP base but an embattled White House's very last line of defense. As long as a majority of Republicans hate the messengers more than the rotten message, Trump can survive in office. These people -- the 30-35 percent of hardcore Trump support -- will never be convinced, because the convincers are their mortal enemy.

But what about the rest of us, the not-silent-but-maybe-also-not-loud-enough majority who do not approve of Trump and desperately want a free and unfettered media to tell us what the president is up to? The bottom line is this: If you're offended by the Trumps and the Gianfortes of the world, show your support for a free press. It can be as simple as a pro-1st Amendment sign at the next anti-Trump march, or it can be more. Some are showing financial support for the Guardian in the wake of Jacobs' arrest, and that's a great way to fight back against intimidation. (So is subscribing to your hometown paper that keeps an eye on the bad guys, the crooked cops and the corrupt pols...just sayin').

A true professional like Ben Jacobs is trained to keep his cool in a situation like this. But you, the public, can fight back against the violence and the nonsense as much and as forcefully as you want to. Please do.


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