A group of media organizations is asking Congress to investigate Montana Republican Greg Gianforte, its newest member, after he was cited for assault against a reporter on the eve of his election.
The group is also calling out President Donald J. Trump for his caustic comments about the press, saying the president created an environment where violence against journalists is more acceptable.
PEN American, the Free Press Action Fund, the Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters Without Borders sent letters to Trump, the House Committee on Ethics and Office of Congressional Ethics on Friday.
The letters say that by rule the House Committee on Ethics is obligated to investigate within 30 days any member charged of a crime or submit a report to the full House explaining why it had not taken action. They also called for an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“It is hard to imagine a crime that would reflect greater discredit on the House of Representatives than an unprovoked physical assault on a journalist who was simply doing his job, posing a question about a policy matter of pressing significance to the American people,” the letter to the House committee read. “Inaction by the Ethics Committee would send a devastating signal that such conduct is acceptable, a message that would reverberate in every level of government here in the United States as well as around the world, and particularly in places that previously regarded the United States as a global standard-bearer for press freedom.”
On May 24 at a campaign event in Bozeman, Gianforte is accused of assaulting Ben Jacobs, a reporter with the Guardian. Jacobs entered a room where the then-candidate was preparing to give another interview and tried to ask Gianforte about a recently released report detailing the potential impacts of the Republican health care bill.
Audio recorded by Jacobs details what sounds like an altercation, followed by Jacobs saying saying Gianforte “body-slammed” him and broke his glasses. Gianforte can be heard yelling “Get the hell out of here.”
Late that night, a little less than 24 hours before polls closed, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office cited Gianforte with misdemeanor assault. Gianforte has two chances left to appear in Justice Court, which is in session Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and admit or deny the assault. A member of his staff did not return a message Friday asking if Gianforte planned to ask for an extension of his June 7 deadline. Jacobs' injuries were not severe enough to support a charge of felony assault.
The letters sent Friday referenced a press release sent out by Giafnorte’s campaign after the event that provided a narrative of events that did not match up with what was described by witnesses. The release placed blame on Jacobs, saying he grabbed Gianforte’s wrist and brought both men to the ground. It also called Jacobs a “liberal journalist” with “aggressive behavior.”
“Moreover, following the assault, Rep. Gianforte released a statement blaming Jacobs for the confrontation and referring to him in politically tinged terms. Rep. Gianforte’s self-serving account was quickly proved false by an audio recording of the incident and an eyewitness report by a crew from Fox News who were present for the encounter,” the letter states.
The letter says “precedent for discipline in the Gianforte case is scant, but only because criminal physical assaults by members of Congress are historically rare, and virtually unheard of in the modern era.”
Attacking the media with claims of bias is nothing new, but under Trump it has taken on a decidedly more aggressive tone. Since early in his campaign, the now-president dismissed coverage he did not like as “fake news."
The president’s approach has struck a chord with his supporters both nationally and in Montana. At Gianforte rallies with Donald Trump Jr. before the election, many in the crowd told journalists that they felt coverage of the president was unfair or inaccurate. At Gianforte’s election watch party, after he apologized to Jacobs, some members of the media reported attendees calling journalists present “snowflakes.”
The letter sent to Trump says his actions have played a role in increased apathy toward the press.
“We fear that the rhetoric employed during your campaign and by the White House — such as referring to the press as the ‘enemy of the people’ and the ‘opposition party’ — is increasingly being translated into aggressive action by public officials against journalists.”
It calls on Trump to “denounce acts of violence, especially by government officials, against members of the news media.”
The letter also cites the arrest of Dan Heyman, a reporter with Public news Service, at the West Virginia State Capitol on May 9 after trying to ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway whether domestic violence is considered a pre-existing condition under the new Republican health care plan. A reporter with CQ Roll Call was also held against a wall by security at the Federal Communications Commission and then kicked out of the building for trying to talk to a commissioner.
“A formal statement by the president denouncing political violence of any sort, including against members of the press, and an affirmation of our shared values would, we believe, significantly dampen any license public officials may currently harbor to strike a reporter merely for asking a question,” the letter says. “A clear and unequivocal rejection of attacks on the press would be welcomed by political officials on both sides of the aisle, and is a necessary corrective to the corrosive atmosphere created by your earlier rhetoric.”
It is unclear when Gianforte will be seated in Congress, which is on recess until June 6. Election results will not be formally certified by the Montana Secretary of State until June 15.
Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon declined to comment.