Greg Gianforte's defense is as important as his violent actions

Story highlights

  • The alleged attack speaks to something darker than the headline of the day
  • As explanations for punching people go, Gianforte's was a bad one

(CNN)At the very top of the job description for "politician" -- and especially so for "candidate" -- is the requirement to take questions and give answers, either with constituents or reporters. This might sometimes be an uncomfortable practice. Occasionally, the exchanges can be infuriating.

And yet, it is somehow fundamental to the basic practice of democracy. The answers don't necessarily have to be honest. Politicians lie or spin at their own peril. Sometimes officials will ignore or pivot away from even the most basic query. But even with all that gray area, there also exists a certain broad parameter of nonviolent decency. This should not be a challenging standard to keep.
But by allegedly body-slamming a reporter on the eve of Montana's special congressional election, Republican Greg Gianforte tripped over those low hurdles. That The Guardian's Ben Jacobs was, by both his own and the account of the Fox News team present, driven into the ground and punched by a man who is more than semi-likely to be the state's next member of the House of Representatives, is shocking on its face, though almost a secondary issue here.
    Gianforte's alleged attack speaks to something darker than the headline of the day. Those concerns were illustrated not by the candidate, but by the pen (or laptop, or whatever) of his spokesman, Shane Scanlon, who was tasked with defending his boss. It was a job he seemed to relish when he wrote and released the following:
    "Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian's Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg's wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ."
    First, consider the basic questions of fact.
    Not up for debate here: Jacobs had a recording device and sought to question Gianforte on an issue he was not inclined to discuss. Gianforte's aide's telling of what follows disagrees almost entirely with Jacobs' audio of the encounter, which was confirmed in a first person account written by a Fox News reporter who, along with her colleagues, watched it all happen from inside the room.
    Again, Gianforte and co. knew the Fox News group was there. Did they not think their story would be challenged? Did they not care?
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    But is the final sentence of the statement that stands out. If the bulk of Scanlon's release is either misleading or hastily crafted, the finale is what's most genuinely dangerous. First, it suggests that the reporter's question, "badgering" or otherwise, caused or "created" the environment for an altercation. It did not. That was Gianforte, the guy now charged with assault.
    Then there is the "liberal journalist" bit.
    Republican politicians and conservatives have used the phrase as a smear, or means of discrediting an unflattering news story, and its author, for as long as most of us can remember. To cast doubt on the motives of someone you perceive as an impediment to your ambitions is part of the game. It can be part of the fun. But in Montana we saw how it also, over time, be corrosive. As explanations for punching people go, this was a bad one.
    Of course, what makes it all very pertinent now is the context. The "liberal journalist" here isn't being given a verbal smackdown, the kind most decent reporters hear all the time. No -- the term was thrown out as an implicit excuse for the candidate's violent behavior.
    The none-too-subtle message to people reading the statement is that Gianforte didn't strike out against a some guy doing his job, but at an enemy. Framed this way, Gianforte ascends to something between hero and martyr: a real man -- rather than a mouse with impulse control issues -- unafraid to stick his finger in the eye of hostile interests.
    And that, well beyond the resolution of this vote, is a story worth keeping an eye on.