In Montana, an assault on a reporter and an assault on truth

In Montana on Thursday, Republican Greg Gianforte won election to the U.S. House of Representatives despite the fact that the day before, he body-slammed a reporter for asking a question. As outraged as we are here at The Shinbone Star, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that a significant number of Americans — both in Montana and elsewhere — are just fine with Gianforte, who now faces assault charges.

The man he attacked, after all, was only a journalist.

In his victory speech, Gianforte was apologetic, saying, “I shouldn’t have treated that reporter that way.” Some in the crowd laughed, and when Gianforte went on to say, “I made a mistake,” a supporter shouted, “Not in our minds!”

While Gianforte’s conduct is inexcusable, make no mistake, it trickled down from the top. It was Donald J. Trump and his Goebbels-esque mouthpiece, Stephen Bannon, who made the press Public Enemy #1 throughout the presidential campaign.

Of course media bashing is hardly a new thing here in the Land of the Free. Throughout history, not many people have welcomed a reporter on their doorstep, and maybe that’s understandable. It’s true that those of us in the newspaper business can seem callous, pushy, and sometimes seem to delight in bad news.

“Why can’t you ever print anything positive?” is a common refrain.

In a photo from Minneapolis last November, a man at a Trump rally wears a shirt reading “Rope. Tree. Journalist.”
— © Jonathan Ernst/Reuters via ZUMA Press

Journalists do indeed delight in the big story. It’s true that the worst day in your life can give us a rush of adrenaline, and a reporter following a big a story can be like a dog on a bone. Most of us would plead guilty to such criticisms.

But outright rejection of truth — and contempt for the people bringing it — have reached a dangerous new level in this country. Because truth does not fit with preconceived notions in a new world of “alternative facts,” the assault on a journalist just trying to do his job was cheered, and his attacker elected to Congress.

With the Gianforte situation being just the latest in a pattern that should be alarming to everyone, Shinbone Star staffers talked about what it’s like to do a job that everyone loves to hate:

Gaynell Terrell: “I don’t speak for everyone in Montana. I didn’t vote Donald Trump into office, and I didn’t vote for Greg ‘Rock-em Sock-em’ Gianforte for Congress. But I live in Montana, and as long as I have freedom of speech I am going to defend that other clause in the Constitution, freedom of the press. It is unconscionable that Montana voters would elect a man who put a beat-down on a news reporter for asking a question pertinent to the election. A question Rock-em Sock-em had avoided until he couldn’t. He couldn’t explain that he supports the embarrassment of a health care bill being brewed in the Republican cauldron, and he couldn’t explain how he would not enjoy benefiting by an $800,000 annual tax cut to his personal fortune.

“He’s also avoided explaining why he believes in creationism, why he funds anti-gay rights terrorist groups, why he fired a man asymptomatic of MS (multiple sclerosis), or why the private school he supports won’t enroll disabled children. He will face scrutiny of these issues and many, many more when he goes to Washington. He won’t be on his home turf, like he was when he assaulted the single Guardian reporter. There is a widely held theory out there that Trump and his henchman Steve Bannon have created an environment so hostile to the press that the press cannot function. I agree that’s relevant (but The Washington Post and The New York Times are too busy breaking news to worry about this!). But a large part of the problem is that candidates are displaying so little personal integrity that they have no consideration of anyone but themselves. And voters have so little personal integrity that they champion a rich schoolyard bully. Another reason to avoid electing businessmen to office — they don’t like being questioned. Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten should be required reading for  (1.) voters, and (2.) candidates to elective office.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel: “I once had to cover a speech given by Republican Congressman Tom DeLay. Two of his aides spotted me and came and sat on both sides of me like a pair of bookends, hunched over me and reading my notes the whole time I was writing them. As an intimidation tactic, it was pretty transparent and it underestimated my Sphinx-like ability to tune them out. It wasn’t a body slam, but it was still a nuisance.”

Debbie Dowling: “I once called a company owner who’d filed for bankruptcy. He pleaded with me to wait a day before publishing. We couldn’t do that, of course, but I was empathetic and said here was a chance to give his side of the story. All he could do was beg. Next morning, my phone rang. Caller, in a low voice says, “You c***, ” and slammed phone. Creeped me out more than any bully or snarky PR person ever did. (Nothing happened after that, by the way. I never heard from the guy again.)”

Glenn Redus: “I never worked professionally as a reporter. I went straight from J-school into copy desk work because of one situation when I was a student in a reporting class. There was an on-campus incident where a student committed suicide, and I was assigned to call this guy’s girlfriend and write a story about it. Well, I didn’t feel too good about calling this girl up, but I did it, and her reaction was pretty much what it should have been given the circumstances. But I knew right then that I didn’t want to be put in that spot ever again where I was confronting people directly in their worst possible moments.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel: “I commiserate. Imagine having to interview a grieving father after his 7-year-old daughter was lured out of her own front yard by a child predator while Dad was in the garage a few feet away. Her little body was found about a block away, in the sadistic neighbor’s attic.”

Gaynell Terrell: “It’s not always like that. When a plane went down, I was sent off to talk to the mother of someone who died. There was a small mob of reporters outside her door, and after a while the brother came out and said they would talk to a few of us. The mom was inside, and slowly went into how special her daughter was and she wanted us to know that. We let her talk, show pictures for a long time. She felt better for sharing. I kept the copy desk waiting, and listened. Then I went back to write.”

Glenn Redus: “Just so you know, we were probably cursing you while you waited!”

Gaynell Terrell: 

Deconstructing Doctor: “As you know I’m not a reporter. I’m more of a blogger and a disgruntled healthcare worker, but I once wrote an article for my middle school paper about how the 8th graders should be nicer to the 6th graders and my friend told me her mom said I sounded like a real whine.”

Gaynell Terrell: “You would have fit well at The Houston Post. We were all disgruntled.”

Glenn Redus: “Now my province, the copy desk, was home to some really depraved individuals (many of whom now work for The Shinbone Star), but as I said above, it was sort of once-removed from the front lines. Still, early on I understood that what happened on the copy desk wouldn’t fly in other settings, so I think that’s a big part of why I’m usually rather quiet and withdrawn in social settings, because I know people would look aghast at the things I think are humorous. I’m not quite sure what it is, maybe it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with all the shit we had to deal with. It’s not that we didn’t know that the news was sometimes horrific, but we had to shove all that aside and deal with it somehow, and then maybe after deadline we’d think of things in more human terms.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel: “Conservatives love to perpetuate the myth that journalists are all a bunch of lying heathens sent to destroy their careers and denigrate their family values — when the truth is, they do a pretty good job of that all by themselves. The reporters and editors I have known and worked with have been some of the sanest, smartest, most ethical people around.”

Glenn Redus: “Who thinks journalists would get as big a rush from taking down a crooked liberal politician as taking down a crooked conservative politician?”

Deborah Quinn Hensel: “Crooked is crooked. They need to be exposed regardless of party affiliation. They work for us and spend our tax dollars. They need to be accountable.”

Gaynell Terrell: “David Burgin (the late great curmudgeonly editor in chief of several newspapers) made a comment to the effect that reporters would throw their own newspaper under the bus for the sake of a big story. If someone else knows the exact wording, please remind me.”

Glenn Redus: “How did you feel about Burgin? I know a lot of people hated him. He was probably the scariest guy I ever worked for, but I loved him. It was never dull.”

Gaynell Terrell: “I made it a point to avoid him. Famous story about Burgin choking on his lunch and someone nearby giving him the Heimlich. Afterwards, he told the staff not to give the guy grief for saving his life.”

Lin Lofley: “I loved Burgin. For the paper, he played no favorites. Nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of him, but if he was loyal to the paper, and YOU were loyal to the paper, then I didn’t think anything bad could happen to you.”

Glenn Redus: “Unless you used a semicolon.”

Robin Dalmas: “Dan Heyman, the Public News Service reporter who was arrested on May 9 for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question, is my best friend’s brother. Dan’s question was whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under Trumpcare. When Tom Price didn’t respond to Dan’s question about the American Health Care Act, he asked a few more times and held out his smartphone to record the answer. The West Virginia state Capitol Police responded by taking his phone, handcuffing him, fingerprinting him, and sending him to jail for 7 hours. He was charged with “willful disruption of governmental processes,” which is completely bogus. His news service had to pay $5,000 bail for his release. Dan is a good guy and was simply trying to do his job. While Dan has become somewhat of an instant celebrity with coverage in The New York Times, Washington Post, etc., the ACLU of West Virginia reports that Dan still faces the possibility of 6 months in jail unless the charges are dropped. This is a family friend. This is an outrage.”

Debbie Dowling: “Have you ever noticed that people who shouldn’t be afraid of the press are, and people who should be afraid aren’t?”

Kelly: “I, like Glenn, never worked as a reporter professionally. My anti-journalist experiences have been more personal in nature. For example, my boyfriend’s family is all very conservative and also well aware of what I do for a living. While we get along most of the time, any time there’s some big news about Trump (which I guess is all the time now, so scratch that last part), they make it very clear that they only trust Fox News and the rest of us are ‘fake.’  Also like Glenn, copy desk = twisted sense of humor = social awkwardness.”

Glenn Redus: “It’s interesting to me that your boyfriend’s family feel they can just say that to you, knowing what you do.”

Kelly:I mean, I’ve known them for a long time and maybe they don’t consider me a real ‘journalist’ since I’m just an editor and not a reporter.”

Deconstructing Doctor: “I think the problem is that public opinion is influenced by the glitz and swagger of the Trump TV persona and see the reporter as a troll, a nuisance, getting in the way of the agenda to ‘Make America Great Again.’ The reporter is some creepy guy lurking in the bushes trying to sabotage the good work of our savior in chief. When in reality, he’s the creepy guy lurking in the bushes. It’s easier to demonize the faceless reporter who could stretch and contort the truth. I would also like to point out that the internet, blogs, sensational click-grabbing headlines have undermined the integrity of your field. No one knows what news outlet to trust so everything gets lumped together as ‘fake’ and untrustworthy. Who would ever have imagined that the POTUS could lie so easily! He must be the honest one. Not the newspaper or news blog. Does no one recall Nixon?”

Kelly: “I thought Spicer was the creepy guy lurking in the bushes haha.”

Jerry Fordyce: “The number of complaints and the level of animosity directed at me always paled in comparison to the appreciation of those I helped. But with our industry now so click-driven I don’t know if there is as much focus on old-fashioned reporting.”

Anne-Marie: “The National Governors Association at some point in the 1980s held its annual meeting at Waterloo Village in N.J., hosted by then-Gov. Kean, who was a good friend of Percy Leach, founder of Waterloo. He was also friendly with Star-Ledger editor Mort Pye and his wife, Pearl. I was sent to cover the event, on a freezing cold winter Sunday. There I was in my skirt suit, lugging one of those huge portable computers, and a female Waterloo functionary told me the event was closed to the press and I had to leave. I protested that Mort Pye was there and could vouch for it that I was allowed, but she wouldn’t talk to him or let me talk to him. Instead she summoned two State Troopers to take me out of there! They were very nice and even somewhat apologetic as I allowed them to escort me out — but Pearl Pye noticed. She asked what was going on, and after I told her, she charged right up to Percy and gave him what for, so I got to stay.”

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4 thoughts on “In Montana, an assault on a reporter and an assault on truth

  1. Can’t you say anything positive? ? Maybe some fake news?? 🙂 Kidding.
    Journalists are often compared to cops. The general public is glad they do their jobs, but some individuals wish they wouldn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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