Vice President Mike Pence, once a self-proclaimed supporter of press-freedom legislation, has stayed quiet after a Montana congressional candidate he endorsed was issued a citation for allegedly body slamming a reporter Wednesday night.
Many Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, called on Greg Gianforte to apologize to the reporter, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs. But Pence has not weighed in, even though he had traveled to Montana to campaign with Gianforte in early May and recorded a robocall on his behalf.
Pence’s office said he doesn’t plan to say anything Thursday, the day of the Montana special election in which Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist are vying for an open House of Representatives seat.
“We aren’t going to comment,” Pence’s press secretary Marc Lotter said, the office’s first statement nearly a day after the incident occurred.
Pence finds himself in an awkward spot as someone who once fought for a national shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to divulge their sources. But media watchdogs criticized him more recently when, as governor of Indiana, he attempted to start a state-run news service, and he has picked up President Donald Trump’s favorite phrase for unfavorable coverage: “fake news.”
Other Republicans were quick to say Wednesday night’s incident in Montana, which was caught on audio and corroborated by a Fox News crew that witnessed it, crossed a line.
“If the First Amendment means anything,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote on Twitter, “it means you can’t body-slam a journalist.”
Joel Simon, the executive director of the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, told POLITICO Thursday morning that he hoped politicians of all stripes would call out the alleged assault “sooner rather than later.” He sees it as part of a troubling trend.
"We’re seeing systematic attacks, verbal attacks against the media,” he said. His group is used to dealing with journalists working in “violent and repressive societies,” he added, but is focusing increasingly on the United States.
Trump has done battle with the press for more than a year as a first-time politician. At his rallies during the 2016 campaign, crowds would sometimes chant “CNN Sucks!” As president, he reportedly asked his FBI director if it was possible to jail journalists, and he has met with world leaders known for imprisoning reporters such as Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.
Pence, though, has never had the kind of bruising relationship with the press that Trump has. Pence lifted the so-called “blacklist” barring certain news outlets from campaign events before Trump did, and he enjoyed a generally warm relationship with his traveling press corps, even offering to pose for pictures with reporters’ family members who attended rallies. Pence once personally called and apologized to a Washington Post reporter who was blocked from a campaign event and searched by police. Unlike Trump, he flew on the same plane as his traveling press and would mingle with reporters more than either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.
His silence on violence against a reporter could be harmful, said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has written for years about changes in the Republican Party. He said the notion that the press is the “enemy” is toxic.
“What we’ve seen is a systematic war on the press and this notion that the mainstream media are tools of the liberal establishment and purveyors of fake news that goes way back before Trump but that no one has exploited or incited like Trump has,” Ornstein said.
“It’s rooted in the idea that if they’re the enemy, you can’t do anything that gives them traction or justifies their existence,” Ornstein said. “You want to do nothing that gives aid and comfort to the enemy.”