Fox News and The ‘Body Slam’ Heard ‘Round the World

Greg Gianforte | Credit: Jim Winstead/Flickr.com
It is futile, while gasping into this year’s firehose spew of major news stories, to conjecture about how we’ll remember May such-and-such, 2017. Take today, for example: At around 9 this morning, I was sure it would be The Day Britain Responded to its Tragic Terror Attack. By 11, it was almost certainly The Day We Learned About the ‘Dubious Russian Document. By five o’clock this evening? Gotta be The Body Slam Heard Round the World.
But at this very moment — 11:01 p.m. PDT on May 24, 2017 — I’m thinking it’ll be something else entirely: The Day Fox News Was Forced to Make Up Its Mind.
First though, a bit about the “body slam.” What we know is that Greg Gianforte, a Republican Congressional hopeful from Montana (and now alleged slammer), was conducting an interview in a private office when Ben Jacobs (Guardian reporter and purported slammee) entered and asked him for a comment about the Republicans’ proposed healthcare bill. Gianforte tried to shoo Jacobs away; Jacobs wouldn’t budge. Then things escalated. In an audio recording of the confrontation, we hear a loud crash, followed by what sounds like Gianforte exclaiming, “I’m sick and tired of you guys! The last time you came in here you did the same thing!” Gianforte demands to know if Jacobs is with The Guardian. Jacobs says that he is, and adds, “you just broke my glasses.” It all takes about 17 seconds.
In a deadpan tweet moments after the confrontation, Jacobs announced that he’d just been pancaked and de-spectacled by a politician who tomorrow will compete for a House seat in a high-stakes election. Meanwhile, Gianforte’s hastily prepared public statement claimed that Jacobs “aggressively shoved a recorder” in his face, then added, “It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign BBQ.”
Surreal.
Anyways, the most interesting story came next, in the form of a written, firsthand account of the incident from Fox News’ Alicia Acuna. It is remarkable in its dry candidness; if it reads like a police statement, that’s likely because it’s similar to the one Acuna was inevitably asked to give.
“To be clear,” Acuna wrote, “at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression towards Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff’s deputies.”
This obviously contradicts Gianforte’s claims.
So here, I’d like to argue, is where things get really interesting. Here is why today ought to be remembered not for the slam per se, but rather for Fox News’ measured response in the face of near-nuclear political scandal. It says something about Fox, journalism, and 2017. It says a couple things, actually:
Fox had no choice but to play it straight. It’s not hard to imagine Fox executives sending each other harried emails about what Acuna saw, what implications it might have on tomorrow’s election (in beet-red Montana), and how much credence to give Gianforte’s account. But the truth is, if Acuna wasn’t allowed by superiors to describe exactly what transpired, her statement to police would have contradicted it. And if higher-ups from Fox’s beleaguered HQ had explicitly instructed her to soften the account (thus preserving Gianforte’s reputation ahead of tomorrow’s election), she could have easily taken the story elsewhere — this time, with an even juicier angle: I saw the Gianforte attack, then my editors tried to silence me.
Fox Newsers are journalists, too. A network such as Fox can be stubbornly biased (and sometimes downright irresponsible) yet still have a sense of journalistic identity — and responsibility. Even though Fox has expressed support for President Donald Trump (who makes a habit of publicly deriding the media), there are some lines that you just don’t cross. Maybe — just maybe — seeing a fellow reporter power-bombed four feet away is one of them. I think it’s possible that Fox, for all of its on-air puffery and trumpeting of conservative causes, took one look at this incident and made a call: We don’t want to be the reporters who condone theatrically harming other journalists.
This is not an apologia for Fox News — not even close. But as the network tumbles through a massive identity crisis (the firing of Bill O’Reilly, the death of Roger Ailes, the sexual harassment lawsuits, the looming ouster of Sean Hannity), it’s worth wondering whether they’ll increasingly seek some refuge in a time-tested and sometimes inconvenient realm: The realm of facts.