Written by Eric Boehlert
That was an iconic image that emerged from Alaska in the form of a blurry snapshot that captured local online journalist Tony Hopfinger slumped in a chair in the hallway of an Anchorage middle school, with his hands cuffed behind his back. Detained by private security forces hired by Republican candidate, and Tea Party favorite, Joe Miller, Hopfinger was “arrested” after he tried to ask questions to the notoriously press-shy candidate following his appearance at a public forum.
But instead of getting his questions answered, the editor of Alaska Dispatch says he was bullied by Miller’s private security team and then placed under “arrest” until the real police arrived on the scene and released him. (Local prosecutors quickly determined Hopfinger broke no laws while questioning Miller.)
The only real question is, will the image have the same lasting impression on the press corps, which still seems to be blissfully unaware of the dangerous warfare that’s being waged against it by the Tea Party movement.
Please tell me that reporters and pundits realize that it’s not a coincidence that it’s been high-profile Tea Party candidates like Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell who have famously shunned the press and refused to answer reporters’ questions on behalf of voters. Please tell me Beltway media elites aren’t oblivious to the fact that undermining the free press in this country remains a central, unshakable tenet of the Tea Party movement.
I don’t know how many times that painfully obvious declaration has to be delivered before political journalists get the message and begin to understand the extraordinary political push that’s afoot to completely delegitimize what they do in this country. Incredibly, I think lots of pundits and reporters are still brushing off the open, anti-media warfare that’s been raging as just more of the same. Y’know, it’s just conservative activists complaining about press coverage in hopes of getting friendly treatment in the future.
Sorry folks, but we left the working-the-refs realm a long, long time ago. The Tea Party movement, and the press-hating frenzy that’s helping to fuel the uprising, doesn’t want better political coverage. It wants no political press coverage. It wants the Fourth Estate destroyed. And it wants its movement leaders not to be held accountable.
In order to achieve that open playing field, journalists and the idea of journalism has to be completely vilified so right-wing supporters no longer even see the pursuit as a legitimate one. So Tea Party media leaders cheer when reporters are handcuffed and subject to phony citizen “arrests,” and unleash lots of other vile attacks, portraying them as unpatriotic and treasonous.
Two quick examples. First, remember how Andrew Breitbart, who can barely keep his spittle in check when denouncing the press, addressed the media-mad attendees at CPAC last winter?
Kate Zernike of the New York Times, are you in the room? Are you in the room? You’re despicable. You’re a despicable human being.
And the news media’s response to Breitbart and his kind of vicious press attacks? Writers from glossy magazines queue up to interview Breitbart and to announce how charming he is in person.
Um, okay but he still denigrates journalists as enemies of the state. And he still publishes a site that posts a cavalcade of false, name-calling assaults on journalists. But apparently media elites are willing to look past that because Breitbart really is fun to have drinks with.
Second, last summer Sarah Palin didn’t like the fact that award-winning author Joe McGinniss moved in next door to her in Wasilla, Alaska while working on a book about her. So how did Palin respond? She smeared the author as a would-be sexual predator who was trying to sneak peaks at her young daughters while peering through Palin’s windows.
And how did the Beltway press corps respond to Palin’s shameful attacks on the press? Time magazine toasted the Palin smear for being shrewd.
With Breitbart and Palin, those weren’t instances where Tea Party leaders had a legitimate beef with press coverage. Instead, those were instances of high-priced demagogues whipping up a press-hating frenzy on a frighteningly personal level.
What’s the not-very-surprising conclusion of all that? Tony Hopfinger sitting in a school hallway, surrounded by right-wing security forces, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
That’s the logical conclusion.
Because pretty soon, placing journalists under “arrest” didn’t seem so far fetched.
By the way, the Miller campaign’s explanation for handcuffing Hopfinger makes no sense. He was flagged for “assault,” when at best there was a split-second pushing between Hopfinger and some of the security guards who were crowding him the school hallway.
I mean gimme a break. Can you imagine if every bodyguard or bar bouncer who punched the clock for a living whipped out the handcuffs for a citizen’s arrest each time he saw someone get pushed, and then called the cops to come clean up every small-potatoes, fourth-degree assault mess?
Also, note that Hopfinger wasn’t “arrested” just for shoving somebody. He was “arrested” for trespassing at the private Miller event, which of course, was open to the public. (i.e. Names were not checked at the door of the school and reporters did not have to show credentials.) But if Hopfinger was guilty of trespassing while strolling the school hallways, than why weren’t allreporters in attendance arrested that night? Why was only Hopfinger handcuffed?
Answer: Because he was the only one, at that moment, aggressively questioning the candidate, which to me signals the truth of the whole encounter: Hopfinger was “arrested” for practicing journalism. Hopfinger was “arrested” for trying to get answers to questions from a novice candidate that were clearly relevant to his qualifications; questions about disciplinary action that was taken against Miller while he worked as a part-time attorney at the Fairbanks North Star Borough and reportedly used government computers for partisan political purposes.
To me, detaining Hopfinger was a political statement. Just like Miller’s announcement a week earlier that he would no longer answer questions from Alaska reporters was also a political statement: “We’ve drawn a line in the sand. You can ask me about background, you can ask me about personal issues — I’m not going to answer.”
The Tea Party candidate’s ongoing vow of silence is part of the movement’s message to the media: Drop dead.
The Alaska “arrest” sent an even more disturbing message from the Tea Party to the press: We’re coming for you.
The image captured not only so much of the current, at-times hay-wired Tea Party campaign season, but also the deep-seated resentment and outright hatred the conservative movement feels for the press. (aka The “lamestream media.”) The image also captured a rare opportunity for conservatives to put those feelings into action by cheering the “arrest” of a citizen journalist.
So no matter what happens on Nov. 2, for me the surreal image of a stunned Hopfinger handcuffed and guarded by Miller’s security team, charged essentially with asking the candidate too many questions, is the one that’s gong to stay with me long after the campaign season is over.
A senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and a former senior writer for Salon, Boehlert’s first book, “Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush,” was published in May.