WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Physical Assaults on Reporters Are Not Acceptable

May 30, 2017

The National Press Club, the RTDNA, the Society of Professional Journalists, and nine other journalism groups say it's time to tone down the anti-news media rhetoric.  In particular they're calling out those in public office.

Their plea apparently fell on deaf ears in Montana.  Shortly after that call went out, Republican Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body slammed reporter Ben Jacobs, whose questions he did not like.  Gianforte’s campaign initially tried to blame the reporter. Gianforte eventually apologized – after he won the special election for the state’s only seat in the U.S. House.

Shop Talk panelist Will Buss said those in public office should expect to be questioned by reporters.  He said politicians can decline to comment but it’s never acceptable to respond by assaulting a journalist.

Buss said it’s a reporter’s job to be persistent and seek information of interest to the public.  He said politicians need to respond with answers, not physical violence.

Panelist Jasmine Crighton said audio of the incident clearly demonstrates Jacobs was simply asking questions and Gianforte turned it into a physical confrontation.  She feels Gianforte’s apology was insincere.

Panelist Rich Egger finds it hard to believe it’s come to this – that journalists are being physically assaulted in the U.S.  He blames Roger Ailes, Fox News, and others in the right wing media who’ve spent decades portraying reporters as liars and enemies.

Jasmine Crighton is News Director of NEWS3 at Western Illinois University and Will Buss is the Director of Student Publications at WIU.

Here is the full statement from the journalism groups:

Our organizations, all of which advocate for journalists in the U.S. and across the globe, believe we must sound the alarm about what happened this week to veteran Washington reporter John M. Donnelly. While covering a meeting of the Federal Communications Commission for his employer, CQ Roll Call, Donnelly was pinned against a wall by security forces when he tried to ask a post-press conference question of departing commissioners. He later was forcibly evicted from the public building — despite clearly identifying himself as a member of the press and displaying the Capitol Hill press credential that is widely acknowledged by security forces throughout Washington.  The security guard who ejected Donnelly challenged him because he did not believe Donnelly should be asking questions after the official press conference has concluded.

We cannot dismiss this as a random case of over-zealous security because of the context in which it occurred. 

Reckless statements by politicians, most notably the president of the United States, have given forces who don't understand or don't like a free press permission to harass, threaten and even physically harm reporters. A credentialed journalist in West Virginia now faces criminal charges for his efforts to question a member of President Trump's cabinet while he walked through the state capitol building.  There, too, the cabinet member excused the actions of law enforcement because the reporter was "not in a press conference."  The Radio Television Digital News Association is reporting increased acts of hostility against reporters and camera people, both by security personnel and members of the public. 

We acknowledge that many public figures have legitimate security concerns (in part because of the polarization created or exacerbated by the toxic rhetoric that all too many of them employ). But this should never be used at an excuse to restrain or muzzle credentialed members of the media, or restrict their access to people in power.  The First Amendment is not limited to official press conferences, and public officials may not use law enforcement to shield themselves from tough questions in public places.  Such restrictions are anathema to a free press and the public it serves. 

At a National Press Club appearance Thursday, the distinguished Venezuelan journalist Marcel Granier described his troubled country as "without institutions." Ominously, he dated the beginning of Venezuela's downward spiral to the late President Hugo Chavez's steady, insidious stream of attacks on the press. 

Secrecy by security cannot become the new norm of civil society. We call on public figures to recognize the dangerous path we are on and to reverse course. Democracy depends upon it. 

Barbara Cochran, president 
National Press Club Journalism Institute 

Jeff Ballou, president 
National Press Club 

Sandra Fish, president 
Journalism and Women's Symposium 

Mike Cavender, executive director 
Radio Television Digital News Association 

Melissa Lyttle, president 
National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) 

Craig Aaron, president & CEO 
Free Press 

Bryan Pollard, president 
Native American Journalists Association 

Lynn Walsh, national president 
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) 

Mark Hamrick, president 
Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) 

George Freeman, executive director 
Media Law Resource Center, Inc. 

Josh Hatch, president 
Online News Association 

Delphine Halgand, North America director 
Reporters Without Borders