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The Gianforte “bodyslam” showed how deeply Americans are divided about the media

Conservatives are surprisingly chill about a literal assault on the free press.

GOP Candidate In Montana's Special Congressional Election Greg Gianforte Campaigns In Missoula Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At a gathering last week in Hamilton, Montana, a man told Republican House candidate Greg Gianforte that “our biggest enemy is the news media” and asked him how he would rein in reporters. Gianforte responded with an ominous — and foreshadowing — joke.

He pointed to a reporter in the crowd and said, “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.”

Gianforte later apologized for the comment, but the threat was clear. On Wednesday night, the eve of Montana’s special House election, Gianforte allegedly took a step further: body slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who had been asking him about health care. Authorities charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault — but he still could easily win tonight’s vote.

Both parts of that story are a growing feature in American politics, particularly on the right. Reporters are increasingly facing threats and violence in covering politicians. And many voters, particularly conservatives, do not seem troubled by that.

Anti-media rhetoric has abounded since the election, when Donald Trump rallied his supporters against journalists, calling major news outlets the “Enemy of the American People.” This bitter climate has led to a flurry of physical hostility toward reporters in recent months.

In West Virginia last month, Dan Heyman of Public News Service was handcuffed and arrested at the state capitol building for posing questions to Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services. And in Washington last week, a reporter from CQ Roll Call was pushed against a wall by security guards for asking an FCC commissioner questions in the lobby of a public building.

On Wednesday night, Gianforte felt comfortable enough attacking Jacobs that he did so just a few feet away from a Fox News television crew, which was in the room preparing to interview him.

Gianforte grabbed Jacobs “by the neck, both hands, slid him to the side, body slammed him, and then got on top of him and started punching and yelling at him,” Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna said on television Thursday morning.

According to Acuna, who was standing “about 2 feet” away from the incident, Jacobs had come in to ask a question about the Republican health care bill when Gianforte attacked him, breaking his glasses and punching him repeatedly.

“As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, ‘I'm sick and tired of this!’” Acuna reported in her story on FoxNews.com.

The result: A trip to the emergency room for Jacobs, who needed X-rays — and a misdemeanor charge for Gianforte.

In a bygone era, any such assault — much less an assault on a reporter — would have been political suicide. And indeed, Montana’s top three newspapers promptly rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte. But among much of the right, the response has been a yawn.

When MSNBC asked if Gianforte would still be welcomed by Republicans in Congress, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania replied, after a pause: “Yes, of course.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan called for an apology, but did not ask Gianforte to resign the race. “I'm going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative,” he said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Several politicians suggested that Gianforte may have even been justified in attacking a reporter. “It’s not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it,” Republican California Rep. Duncan Hunter told the AP.

“The left has precipitated this tense confrontational approach throughout the country in recent months,” Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona said to MSNBC Thursday morning.

Gianforte’s own statement, drafted by press secretary Shane Scanlon, cited “aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist.” (Eyewitness accounts said Jacob had been dogged, but hardly aggressive.) The implication was that, by being part of the so-called liberal mainstream media, Jacobs had indeed deserved his pummeling.

It’s tempting to blame Trump for those responses — for normalizing threats toward reporters — but it’s better to blame voters. Politicians, ultimately, are accountable to their constituents, and Gianforte’s mostly-conservative constituents do not seem to like the press much either. Trump, you’ll recall, paid no price in the GOP primaries after his then-campaign manager bruised a Breitbart reporter who was trying to ask Trump a question.

On one hand, Gianforte’s alleged violence was a violation of all kind of American norms — of civility, of respect for the press, and of basic human decency.

On the other hand, it seemed to be very on-brand.

Nothing illustrates this better than Gianforte’s actions in the immediate wake of his alleged attack on Jacobs. He apologized — not to Jacobs, but to the journalists from Fox News.

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