A local television station in Montana on Friday apologized for not airing audio of Republican congressman-elect Greg Gianforte’s alleged assault on a reporter for The Guardian, Ben Jacobs.
“We clearly made a mistake, it was unintentional and we apologize,” Tamy Wagner, the general manager of Missoula NBC affiliate KECI, said in a statement to TPM.
The Huffington Post was first to note that KECI did not air the audio recording published by The Guardian, even as it went viral Wednesday night and figured prominently in many news outlets’ reports.
In the recording, Jacobs can be heard asking a man who is apparently Gianforte for his thoughts on the Congressional Budget Office score of the House GOP bill to repeal Obamacare. Gianforte can be heard asking Jacobs to ask his question at another time, followed by a crashing noise. Gianforte then can be heard saying, “I’m a sick and tired of you guys,” and telling Jacobs to “get the hell out of here.”
“We did not air the recording however we did report the incident including the press release from the Sheriff in our newscasts from the very beginning,” Wagner told TPM in the statement. “The decision we made to not air the audio tape was made from our commitment to treat everyone, in all circumstances, on all sides fairly and without bias. In retrospect, this event has caused us to pause to review our editorial decision. However, while we do that, we remain committed journalists who believe in reporting without motive, agenda or bias.”
New York Magazine also reported that KECI’s news director, Julie Weindel, had refused to cover the alleged assault when contacted by NBC News, saying she thought that Jacobs “is a reporter for a politically biased publication.” Weindel told New York Magazine that the comment was “taken out of context between numerous phone calls as well with NBC” and that the TV station “aggressively” reported the story once local law enforcement made clear it was investigating.
KECI’s statement did not specifically respond to TPM’s question about the New York Magazine report.
It appears that the news station did not devote much attention to the alleged assault in its online coverage. In an initial story Wednesday night, KECI reported that the county sheriff would investigate an alleged assault, later providing an update noting that Gianforte had been charged with a misdemeanor. That report did not mention the audio recording, corroborating witness accounts, or the Gianforte campaign’s statement asserting that it was Jacobs, who it called a “liberal reporter,” who actually grabbed Gianforte.
KECI’s story included this line: “NBC Montana takes pride in reporting only verifiable facts from independent reliable sources, officials and documents, regardless of what is reported by other media outlets. The only verifiable facts are what is being stated by the Gallatin County sheriff at this time.”
A reporter read a similar statement on-air Wednesday night, per the Huffington Post’s report.
KECI mentioned the alleged assault again in its report on Gianforte’s special election win. That report mentioned that Gianforte was “charged with misdemeanor assault on Wednesday after witnesses said he grabbed a reporter for the Guardian newspaper and slammed him to the ground.”
In between those two reports, KECI’s online coverage relied on wire stories from CNN and the Associated Press, which did incorporate witness accounts and the statement from the Gianforte campaign.
The Huffington Post noted that KECI’s decision not to air the recording of the alleged assault comes after it was purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group, although that sale has not been finalized.
Asked if Sinclair played a role in KECI’s decision not to air the audio, Wagner said in a statement: “Sinclair Media Group had no bearing on this decision, we report to our parent company until the purchase is finalized.”
Sinclair is a right-leading media group and the largest owner of local television stations in the country. During the 2016 campaign, Sinclair reportedly reached an agreement with the Trump campaign to air interviews with Trump without commentary in exchange for access to the campaign. After Trump took office, Sinclair hired former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn as the groups chief political analyst.