Ben Jacobs got punched. I got arrested. Times are tough for journalists.
I’ve been a reporter for 30 years. In that time, I’ve covered hurricanes and mine disasters, and interviewed people who were sure they were committing professional suicide by talking to me.
Who knew that asking a technical question about health insurance regulations would be the one to get me in trouble with the police?
West Virginia, my home state, is solid Trump country — Donald Trump won about 75 percent of the vote here. But when it comes to health insurance, our population depends on Obamacare, a policy the Trump administration wants to repeal.
On May 9, I went to the West Virginia Capitol to ask Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price about how the Republican health care bill would affect West Virginians. After asking Price a question in the hallway, I was arrested. The official reason was “causing a disturbance by yelling questions.” The capitol police handcuffed and fingerprinted me and sent me off to jail, where I sat in an orange jumpsuit until I was bailed out by my network, the Public News Service, a member-supported news radio network.
At the time, I assumed my arrest was some kind of aberration.
Then last week, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was “body-slammed” by Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte. His glasses were shattered. Gianforte went on to win the election.
Both of these incidents garnered widespread media attention. To my astonishment, I’ve found myself subject to that most 21st-century phenomenon — becoming a hot topic on the internet and social media.
Within the eight-hour span I was imprisoned after my arrest, #FreeDanHeyman went viral on Twitter. Soon it was joined by #DanHeyman and #StandWithDan. The ACLU of West Virginia called my arrest “a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press,” adding, “This is a dangerous time in our country.” Even conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt weighed in, chastising Price for my arrest: “I know we can be jerks, and I know we can yell, etc., but we shouldn’t be arrested even when we are totally off-the-charts screaming at people."
Much of this reaction seems to be rooted in the fact that Jacobs and I were doing our jobs — trying to get answers from public officials about public policy in a public place. Most people I’ve heard from strongly want us to keep doing that — in the love/hate tug-of-war between the media and public servants, regular folks look likely to side with openness. Our cases seem to have stirred people’s fears about the free press being undermined.
But that’s just one element to this story. There’s something else that connects my arrest and Jacobs’s assault — we both were in deep-red states asking GOP officials about the Republican health care bill.
It’s an issue that politicians in Trump country don’t seem to want to talk about.
The question that led to my arrest
Trump won West Virginia by the second-highest margin in the country, in large part because Democrats are seen as undermining the coal industry. But West Virginia has also really benefited from the Affordable Care Act, more than nearly any other state. Since Obamacare went into effect, the state decided to expand Medicaid. The rate of uninsured here has fallen by 57 percent.
One way the people of West Virginia have benefited from the Affordable Care Act is its elimination of preexisting conditions as a reason for losing or paying a lot more for coverage. I was particularly interested in writing about how that issue would affect domestic violence victims. Before the ACA, some domestic violence victims had trouble getting or being able to afford health insurance because their mental or physical injuries, or the domestic violence itself, were considered a preexisting condition. I wanted to know whether, if AHCA passed the Senate, those days could return.
As I was working on my story, I heard Tom Price would be at the state capitol for an unrelated meeting. It struck me as a perfect opportunity to ask him about preexisting conditions and the American Health Care Act. I figured out when his meeting was, and planted myself inside the entryway to the main hallway of the building. I waited for him to come in, turned my smartphone to record, and tried to buttonhole him.
When I saw him coming, I asked, “Would domestic violence count as a preexisting condition under the AHCA?”
Price didn’t answer. I must have repeated the question four times before the capitol police arrested me. They later told me that the men in suits I assumed were Price’s staff were Secret Service, there to protect Kellyanne Conway. I had no idea Conway was even going to be there, and wasn’t interested in talking to her. I was accused of “aggressively breaching the Secret Service agents.” But I wasn’t trying to breach anybody. I was just trying to get my phone close enough to record a response to my question.
If Price had told me, “No comment,” or, for that matter, if the capitol police had told me to knock it off, you wouldn’t be reading this today. But maybe because someone was afraid of protests against the AHCA, I ended up in an orange jumpsuit.
At least Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter assaulted in Montana, got his broken glasses replaced.
The recent attacks on press reveal a GOP sensitive spot: health care
It might be premature to read a broad political trend into what happened to both Jacobs and me. And there have been other incidents of attacks on the press that have nothing to do with health care. A reporter was roughed up and thrown out of a Federal Communications Commission meeting in May, and a state senator slapped a journalist in the Alaska state capitol a few weeks back. Former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields just recounted for the New York Times how she was manhandled and yanked around during the presidential campaign.
The Committee to Protect Journalists keeps a record of these kinds of incidents. These show that while there are attacks on the press in this country, it is very, very rare for reporters to be assaulted or to get into trouble while asking questions of an official. More common are cases where reporters covering demonstrations get arrested along with the protesters, or where journalists get into trouble with prosecutors and judges for refusing to reveal secret sources to investigators in a criminal case.
The difference now is the raw level of political conflict, and one of the places where that plays out most clearly is in the health care debate in parts of the country that voted for Trump.
A few days after my arrest, Price wrote an op-ed in our local newspaper about the opioid epidemic. There was, of course, no mention of his encounter with me, but there was another topic missing in his article — the American Health Care Act. I believe he was exercising message discipline. He came to Charleston on what his office described as a “listening tour” about the opioid crisis. He only answered four questions while in town, and he only talked about Medicaid in the context of substance abuse treatment, not in the context of what would happen to it if the AHCA passed.
A few weeks later, Jacobs would get body-slammed in Montana for asking about the Congressional Budget Office score showing Trumpcare would cut 23 million more people off from health insurance.
People are scared about losing insurance. They’ve been organizing and showing up in the town halls of GOP representatives across the country. And these politicians don’t want these voices of anger to get out. After a series of ugly town halls during the first congressional recess in February (here’s a list), GOP members of Congress have been refusing to appear in front of their constituents, scheduling fewer town halls. Instead of facing crowds of yelling, booing, and jeering citizens, some have been holding tele-town halls, where the questions can be carefully screened and the mood tends to be more subdued than it would be if the questioners were all in one room.
The old saying goes that the scandal doesn’t get you; the cover-up does. That may or may not be true, but it’s worth keeping an eye on which policy disputes animate the divisions in our fractious politics — where the hot buttons are. Watergate may have been animated by Richard Nixon’s paranoia, but Nixon’s paranoia was animated by his fears about the antiwar movement. And Nixon’s covert crew of operators who orchestrated Watergate was created to deal with information leaks such as the Pentagon Papers, an embarrassing revelation about war. I believe health care is similar for some current Republicans — fear of the unpopularity of their bill is leading them to avoid town halls and refuse to answer reporters’ questions.
Buttonholing is really about geography — it uses public space to break through message discipline. So it’s natural that the during a time when Republicans are trying to control messaging around their health care bill, conflicts would erupt in these uncontrolled public spaces. If message discipline is broken, here is what the constituents of West Virginia, Montana, or these other states will hear — that 23 million more people would be without insurance, largely in the states that voted for Trump. For many in these states, it’s a life-or-death issue.
Dan Heyman is the correspondent for the Public News Service based in Charleston, West Virginia. He's covered that state for 20 years, with bylines in National Public Radio, the Washington Post, and others. He is also a regular stringer for the New York Times.