Politics: Don't Tread on Me

Gianforte clobbers reporter isn’t the story

If I don’t catch heat for this one, I don’t know why. And I’m not even trolling here. I’ve been thinking about this throughout the day, and I’m not easily led to the conclusions I’m supposed to accept. Eventually, maybe, with caveats, but not easily.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Gianforte clobbered a reporter from The Guardian. If you haven’t, it’s a thing. There’s the link. Knock yourself out. Thinking people everywhere know that it’s a bad thing. It shouldn’t even be a question.

On the other hand, Laura Ingraham, professional political goblin, apparently has an online trash site purporting to be “media” with the not even a little arrogant slogan “Life. Explained.” Said site, which I won’t even link to or name, runs a bullshit headline making something sound like wayyyyy more than it is, and manages to somehow create the impression of defending Gianforte.

Twisting headlines for that purpose is bad when they do it. Bad website! Bad goblin! And we would be right for shaking our fists, but for our selective fist shaking. All too often we have a blind spot just about big enough to hide most of our own team’s sins.

There’s things I want to know before I come down with both feet on this issue.

Paparazzi. Have you ever noticed how much derision they get? Oh, I get it. Aside from being a bunch of vultures with cameras who couldn’t find anything productive to do for a living, are they even really journalists? I guess that depends on who you ask.

“”It is a fine line,” says Sweets. “There are those, like some of the paparazzi, who just pick up a camera and catch people in an inappropriate situation. We don’t hound celebrities for the sake of hounding them. There has to be a valid news story. Our goal is to deliver visual information to help people understand a news story. But we don’t violate people’s privacy.”

He cautions, however, that even professional photojournalists sometimes cross the line. “Take the case of O.J. Simpson,” Sweets says. “O.J. got chased in much the same way as Lady Diana. There were excesses.””

I go with “no,” at least as they’re described in the American Journalism Review article I just quoted. It turns out there’s this thing called ethics. Real photojournalists have them. The worst of the paparazzi? Maybe not. Not knowing anything about photojournalistic ethics myself, I looked ’em up. If you think the NPPA is a good source for such a code, you’re in luck. They have one.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about paparazzi when the reporter thrown to the ground by Gianforte was actually a reporter from The Guardian. It would be hard to argue that he isn’t a journalist, quality be damned. There’s some question as to whether just any goon with a camera is a journalist, especially when they’re not on a definitely journalistic payroll. So what is it we don’t like about paparazzi? Pretty much…shitty tactics. Behavior unbecoming to a person with photojournalistic ethics.

For that matter, why am I comparing photojournalists to journalists not using cameras? Jacobs, the reporter who felt the floor meet him suddenly, wasn’t using a camera. He had a voice recorder. Well, if it had been a camera, we might expect Jacobs to be “[b]e accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects,” according to NPPA.

But we don’t. He said as much himself. ““I decided there was no harm in asking one question, and the worst thing that could happen was they would tell me to go to hell,” Jacobs said.” Just how accurate and comprehensive could he have hoped to be?

For that matter, are we to believe Jacobs was hoping for anything other than a gotcha? How does that gel with NPPA (yeah, yeah, apples-oranges, potato, po-TAH-to, and yeah, yeah, to that, too)? “Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.”

Or how about, “[t]reat all subjects with respect and dignity?”

Or maybe, “[w]hile photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events?” See, there’s a reason reporters do what they do with the confrontational questions, the mics shoved in faces. Forget the sense of urgency that comes with knowing you’ve got the tiniest window of opportunity to get a question answered. Forget the thrill of the chase, the hope that of all the journos, you’ll be the one who gets the killer response. If you turn up the pressure, maybe, just maybe, a creature known best for lies and ethical malfeasance generally, by which I mean a politician, will actually crack and accidentally tell a truth. Just turn. Up. The. Pressure.

How is that not seeking to alter or influence an event?

We’re not talking about a perp walk, figurative or otherwise. We’re not talking about a presser. What we know is that the event happened at GG’s campaign headquarters at an event where there was other press. As evidenced by the fact that Jacobs wasn’t blocked at the entrance, or asked to leave prior to the event, Jacobs was “welcome.” We also have reason to believe that welcome was probably limited to the cheese and crackers and get the hell out soon, please.

I want to know, however, what signage was on that little side room where truly welcome “reporters” (ahem) were setting up for a planned interview with the candidate? Was there anything saying to keep out? I figure if there were such signage, it would have been mentioned. Jacobs knew enough to know he’d not be welcomed welcomed into that room, but there was nothing precluding his entrance.

Was GG himself authorized to tell anyone to leave the room? It’s campaign HQ. Who pays for that? Is GG the person with his name on the dotted line? Is he an agent or assign of whoever pays the bills there? Is it just tacitly assumed he had a legal right to tell anyone to leave, reporter or otherwise? How much control over the space did GG have?

See, I’m trying like hell to find some way to justify GG here. Spoiler: I can’t. But I owe this exercise the effort. Up to the point of the confrontation, Jacobs presumably had varying degrees of welcome. Something happened. GG flipped his shit and assaulted a journalist. About the only thing I could think of that would excuse the behavior would be if, at some point, Jacobs had crossed a line from journalist to trespasser. At what point does a person lose their welcome? How long do they have to comply with rightful demands to leave? What rights does a person have to enforce an unwanted person’s departure? If I’m in your office against your will and you tell me to leave and I give no sign of leaving, or worse, I give further signs of staying, what can you do about it?

If I’m prone to being reasonable, maybe I’m calling the police. Maybe just picking up the phone is enough to cause the now-trespasser to leave. Maybe yelling, “Security!” But honestly, on this one tiny point, I understand GG. I understand the desire to bodyslam the offender. My space, and you defy me?! But ultimately, no, because assault is a thing. It’s enough of a thing that his political supporter cited him for misdemeanor assault.

So on the one hand, I get where the majority crowd is coming from on this issue. It’s the press. He’s just doing his job. He’s holding power to account. And all through this clamor what I see is a sacred cow that must not be challenged, and that’s where I’m going to part ways at least a little. Yes, GG was wrong for assaulting a reporter, but no more wrong for that than if he had assaulted a mere mortal like me. Assault is assault.

But here’s the thing. Jacobs, and reporters like him, know the only way they’re getting a story is if they harass the subject, put the subject under some degree of duress. Call it pressure all you will, but there’s a line between a solid line of questioning and the stunt Jacobs pulled. He knew he was poorly received. He knew he’d get no real chance at a question, much less an interview. He knew he’d be lucky to get that one question in if he could just intrude within reason. And I’ve seen nothing to suggest he didn’t do the aggressive mic-in-the-face ploy.

Yes, journalism is important. Yes, the fourth estate has a duty to hold power to account. And yes, politically, GG is a turd. I’m not making any attempt to polish him. But to what other professions do we afford harassment and duress as valid approaches to achieving their goals? Where do we draw the line? What makes Jacobs any better than paparazzi?

Personally, I think the better story to be had is the one where Jacobs is refused even so much as a single question and reports that. I think the better story, when stonewalled, is to report on the stonewalling without reference to the subject’s misdirections. I think the better story, when lied to, is to repeat back to the subject, “let’s get this straight…you’re repeating the lie that…” and reporting on the outcome. There’s a million better stories, waiting to be written by real journalists, and those stories can be deafeningly short if we just let them be. We don’t need to badger, to harass, to put under duress, in order to truthfully write the compelling narrative that power is unresponsive.

Now, thanks to Jacob’s unethical stretch for a gotcha moment, we get to lose sight, once again, of the big picture. We could have been trumpeting Jacob’s previous reportage on GG’s cashflow issues when it comes to sanctioned Russian companies.

“On 28 April, Jacobs reported on Gianforte’s financial ties to Russian companies that have been sanctioned by the US. Gianforte’s wealth is estimated at between $65m and $315m.”

But we lost that moment to a jackass who commits assault and a jackass that was assaulted in a Montana race between the candidate who isn’t Gianforte and the candidate who isn’t Quist. Hell, I wouldn’t even have known of Jacob’s prior reportage but for this sideshow, which is a real pity, because really, the pressure is on us to demand better.

We don’t. Instead, even quality sites like The Guardian, blinded by the specialness of journalism, buried the Russian lede in this sordid tale.

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