Yesterday, The Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs was body slammed – or choke slammed – by Montana Republican Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte. Frankly, from what I have seen in the Pennsylvania state Capitol over the past six months, I’m surprised an assault on a journalist to this degree hasn’t happened sooner. Yesterday’s assault is a result of two things. First is the
Yesterday’s assault is a result of two things. First is the thirty-year battle conservative radio and conservative media has undergone to delegitimize media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The second is the election of Donald Trump and his usage of “fake news.” This thirty-year battle and the charged rhetoric of “fake news” has planted a seed of paranoia in the minds of the conservative base and conservative politicians and that paranoia is now boiling over.
Let me preface what I am about to say with how I go through the proper credentialing process with the Department of General Services. This is a yearly process and I have gone through it with the Rick Smith Show and Raging Chicken Press. To get official press credentials you have to pass a background check, pay the associated fees, and have the credentials issued by the state. These credentials are for TV reporters, photographers and outside reporters who are not part of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, which includes outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Post Gazette, the Patriot News, the Associated Press, Capitol Wire.
Official credentials get you into press conferences and media designated events; and, they get you in the building without having to wait in long lines at the security gate. This is the standard security process for journalists, legislators, staffers, state employees, and lobbyists.
That being said, I’ve lived in Harrisburg for two and a half years, and I understand that I do not have the institutional knowledge or history that some of the long-time journalists have. But there is one thing that is new to even me over the past six months compared to the previous two years. On multiple occasions over the past six months, I’ve been approached by conservative activists on the street and inside the Capitol questioning who I am and what I am doing when I was covering events. Stuff like “why are you taking pictures of us” or “who are you with and why are you here.” One of these minor confrontations got to the point where another reporter said something along the lines “what does it matter, he’s with the press and this is a public sidewalk.” In that instance, I was photographing activists at a rally supporting Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court outside of the Pennsylvania Manufactures Association building. There was a local business owner there who, in my opinion, was making moves to get involved in local politics. I am tracking that business owner because they’re making themselves more public. The second time this happened to me was at Representative Rick Saccone’s announcement for US Senate inside the Capitol rotunda. Again, I was being questioned to the point where one of his supporters started an argument with me on why I was there and what type of publication I write for.
On the legislative side, things are not much better. When State Representative Daryl Metcalfe said that we – Raging Chicken Press – were not a “legitimate media outlet” at his press conference on stopping “illegal immigration,” he also got into a back and forth with a PennLive journalist and questioning her legitimacy even though she was wearing a blue and gold PA Media Group jacket and press credentials that read “PA Media Group.” Then there’s State Senator John Eichelberger telling a young reporter “alright, I’m done with you” after she asked him legitimate questions on his bill to defund planned parenthood. After that, Eichelberger doubled down on his anti-media crusade by holding a press conference and going on conservative talk radio to rail against the “biased media” who supports planned parenthood or, according to him, is spreading lies in order to support the organization.
Then there’s Pennsylvania Senator Scott Wagner’s recent altercation with a political tracker at a speaking event. Wagner spotted a guy with a camera in the back of the room and then tells the crowd “you’re about to see your Senator in action” and assaults a tracker by ripping the camera out of his hands. The following Monday, I get to a House State Government Committee hearing ten minutes before it starts and I can hear three conservative representatives whispering about me. They were asking each other if I was a political tracker too and why am I showing up to these hearings. They ended their conversation by cracking a joke about getting Senator Wagner over to the hearing to rip my camera out of my hands. As this is going on, I am listening to them and waving my Commonwealth-issued press credentials around. After the hearing was over, they approached a journalist to ask who I was because they seriously believed that I was a political tracker. That journalist explained to them who I am and what I do and I went up to one of those reps a few days later, shook his hand and introduced myself to him even though I’ve been in that building for almost three years now.
These are some of the instances I’ve encountered over the past six months. Do I feel physically threatened by what I’ve seen over the past six months? No, I do not. But it is concerning, to say the least.