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Greg Gianforte stumps in Hamilton

Perry Beilke of Florence snaps a photograph of congressional candidate Greg Gianforte and the shirt that he had just autographed. Gianforte was in Hamilton for the first of three campaign stops he plans to make in Ravalli County.

Attacking the news media is a tactic straight out of the Donald Trump playbook, and Greg Gianforte, who appears to be adhering to the president’s campaign model as closely as possible, capitalized on an opportunity last week to paint journalists as the enemy, too.

This week, in an interview with the Billings Gazette editorial board, he offered an apology for his comments about the press and said he fully supports the First Amendment. He also said last week’s comments were just a joke.

While his apology is appreciated, Gianforte needs to take pains to set a better example of civility from now on. As a potential federal officeholder, he should embrace all of the Constitution’s amendments – not just the second one – and live by them. That means demonstrating his unequivocal support in both words and deeds, even when his audience might be egging him in a different direction.

Such was the certainly the case last week when Gianforte, the Republican running for the U.S. House seat against Democrat Rob Quist, Libertarian Mark Wicks and write-in candidate Doug Campbell, celebrated his 56th birthday in Hamilton at a meeting hosted by the Advancing Conservatism Society, a local constitutional Christian group. Some 70 people were in attendance, including a Ravalli Republic reporter who was there to cover the event for the newspaper.

And cover it he did. Reporter and Associate Editor Perry Backus wrote about the speech given by a local high school student, about the prayers and birthday cake. He wrote about Gianforte’s speech in depth, including how the candidate echoed President Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” by imposing term limits and making it illegal for members of Congress to become lobbyists after they’ve left office.

And Backus wrote that toward the end of the candidate’s talk, a man in the audience said to Gianforte, “Our biggest enemy is the news media” and asked, “How can we rein in the news media?” The man followed up his question by turning to Backus, who was sitting next to him, and “raised his hands as if he would like to wring his neck.”

Gianforte smiled, pointed at the reporter and said this: “We have someone right here. It seems like there is more of us than there is of him. I don’t have a simple solution for you. I will say that doing town hall meetings and getting out and visiting with people is very important.”

This “joke” made at the reporter’s expense wasn’t funny at all. In fact, on its face, the statement demonstrated Gianforte’s agreement that news media are “the enemy.”

To be clear, the reporter never felt as though he were in danger of physical harm. But it should concern every Montanan when a candidate for Congress singles out any individual in a crowded room to point out that he is outnumbered.

It should also concern voters that Gianforte has only recently become aware of the value of journalism. He was absolutely correct that personal meetings and town halls are “very important” for candidates and elected officials to hear directly from the public they purport to represent. It is even more important that journalists cover the issues and events of importance to voters.

Montana’s journalists will continue covering each candidate as we enter the final month before the May 25 special election. This coverage is absolutely critical to allow Montana’s voters to make an informed choice in the election.

It was disheartening to see contempt for this important work become a central and ongoing issue in the presidential campaign. President Trump has repeatedly criticized individual news organizations and journalists for coverage he considers unfavorable, including Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who was called a “nasty guy” by the president and who recently spoke at the University of Montana about his extensive coverage of the president.

It was sickening to hear this contempt for journalists echoed in our own back yard.

Of course, Gianforte’s visit to Hamilton last week drew more public attention for his remarks about shooting prairie dogs than for his unfunny comments about “outnumbering” a lone journalist. He then spent the next few days fundraising and recreating with President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, which was duly covered by Montana’s news media.

Meanwhile, after their meeting with Gianforte, the Advancing Conservatism Society posted this message on Facebook: “Give credit where credit is due. Perry Backus did a really nice write up of our Gianforte meeting on Monday night.”

This group is based in large part on shared esteem for the Constitution. However, the assumption from one of its members that news media is somehow “our biggest enemy,” and Gianforte’s answer, heavily suggests that they have a lot of work to do educating people about it, particularly the First Amendment.

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