Prairie Lights: When ‘taking responsibility’ isn’t enough

If Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte appears in Justice Court in Bozeman this week to enter a plea on a charge of misdemeanor assault, he won’t be able to say anything deliberately untrue without putting himself at risk of being charged with perjury.

So, is there nothing we can do about the deliberate untruth his campaign released in the immediate aftermath of Gianforte’s attack on a newspaper reporter?

In an interview with Montana Television Network, which aired on Friday, Gianforte was asked why his campaign issued a statement that “appeared to blame the reporter.”

Gianforte, according to MTN’s online report, “said he’d rather focus on ‘taking responsibility for my actions, and that’s what I’ve done.’”

Well, yes, he did “take responsibility,” after he’d safely won the election. But that original statement not only blamed reporter Ben Jacobs for provoking the attack, it gave a confusing, untrue explanation of how Gianforte, in trying to get the reporter’s microphone out of his face, supposedly grabbed his wrist, causing both men to fall.

The only member of Gianforte’s campaign who was in the room was Gianforte, so either he formulated that misleading description or allowed an underling to fabricate it from whole cloth.

Gianforte “took responsibility” only after a Fox News reporter who witnessed the event said Gianforte, under no provocation, grabbed Jacobs by the neck, body-slammed him to the ground and begun punching him.

Everybody knows this by now, but it needs to be repeated until Gianforte does something more than “take responsibility.” He has not apologized personally to Jacobs and he has not repudiated the lies released by his campaign.

Meanwhile, the opinions of willfully blind followers of Gianforte, while mildly interesting from a sociological point of view, don’t matter anymore. No thoughtful people, no true patriots, have yet come forward to argue that politicians should be allowed to assault reporters for asking them questions.

In journalism circles, there is a statement by Thomas Jefferson that has been repeated so often that it is almost hackneyed, but it’s worth mentioning again in this context. And please remember that in Jefferson’s time there was really no such thing as an “objective” press. Virtually every newspaper was owned or controlled by a political party or faction.

Jefferson himself endured attacks in the press that even by the standards of, say, Facebook commentary, might be considered extreme, but here is what he said in a letter to a friend: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspaper or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

If the opinion of Jefferson doesn’t carry any weight, consider the National Review, the voice of conservatism for more than 60 years. It did not try to defend Gianforte’s actions, though it did defend Trump against he charge that his hot-blooded rhetoric was somehow responsible for Gianforte’s outburst.

Even the headline on the National Review piece in question shows how it was leaning: “Gianforte Wins, Continuing GOP Stranglehold on Montana House Seat.”

Much of the piece quotes Allahpundit, the anonymous conservative-libertarian blogger, who downplayed the “Trump effect” by saying that “the Gianforte incident is shocking because it’s unusual.” He went on to say that Gianforte’s “whitewash account” of the incident, in other words his lie, proves that he wasn’t thinking he could get away with it just because Trump apparently could.

What Gianforte did, according to Allahpundit, was “Not calculation, not grandstanding for the benefit of media-hating Republican voters. He snapped, and he was sufficiently embarrassed about it afterward to have tried in a half-assed way to cover it up.”

For the rest of us in Montana, the embarrassment over Gianforte’s crude actions, and his half-assed attempt to cover his tracks, is not going to go away. It was reported Friday that four media groups wrote to the House Committee on Ethics and Office of Congressional Ethics, asking for an investigation of the Gianforte-Jacobs incident.

It will be a miracle if the House leadership orders such an investigation. House Republicans already have their hands full trying to get anything done while dealing with a president who can’t take the trouble to actually read a piece of legislation, or even to determine if a piece of legislation exists.

So Gianforte will enter the House under a very dark cloud, and in the annals of history his name will always have an asterisk next to it.

And Ben Jacobs’ glasses—broken in the line of duty, when he had the effrontery to ask Gianforte a question about the GOP healthcare bill—are headed for the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where they will remain as a lasting symbol of contempt for the First Amendment, and a badge of shame for the state of Montana.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.