Michelle Fields, a reporter for the archconservative news outlet Breitbart, was asking Donald Trump a question this past Tuesday when a man, identified by at least one eyewitness as Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, grabbed her arm hard enough to leave a bruise and pulled her forcefully away from the candidate. Since then, pro-Trump reporters, flacks and even Trump himself have attempted to discredit Fields, but the most egregious discrediting efforts have come from Breitbart itself—a cozy, pro-Trump outlet that began gaslighting its own employee almost immediately after the incident, and has not let up since.
Today—the same day Fields filed a criminal battery complaint against Lewandowski—Breitbart published a story by Joel B. Pollack with the headline, “The Scrum: Video Emerges to Suggest WaPo Reporter Ben Terris Misidentifies Lewandowski in Fields Incident,” concluding there was no way Lewandowski could have done it.
Not once in the 743-word analysis of photographs and video from the press conference—none of which show the actual incident—does Pollack quote Fields. Still, Pollack concludes she and Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who witnessed the incident, got it wrong:
Fields was indeed hurt in the altercation, and published a photograph of her bruises. Yet the available evidence from WPTV and ABC suggests that it was unlikely that Lewandowski was the person who caused her injuries.
Given the similarity in appearance between Lewandowski and the security official, and given the fact that Lewandowski was walking on the other side of Trump from where Fields was at the time, the possibility of mistaken identity cannot be ruled out. Indeed, given Lewandowski’s adamant denials (coupled with statements inappropriately impugning Fields’s character), it is the likeliest explanation.
In addition, the injury may have been accidental, owing simply to the chaos of the press scrum. A video filmed by a local CBS reporter earlier in the evening shows Fields standing near Trump and the same security official, with no concern or alarm on the part of Trump campaign staff.
This is, objectively speaking, insane! For Pollack to conclude, without seeing footage of the actual incident, that his own colleague either lied or misrepresented the facts, is insane. For Breitbart to publish the story is insane. For Breitbart to hang its own employee out to dry is insane—even the White House has condemned the Trump campaign over the incident. It makes no sense, until you consider that perhaps the media outlet’s relationship with the Trump campaign is worth more to it than the safety and health—mental and physical—of its own employees.
There’s some evidence to support this theory. Breitbart has been, even for a conservative media outlet, one of Trump’s biggest supporters. So much so, that employees tell BuzzFeed they suspect Trump might be paying for some of the fawning coverage (emphasis ours):
According to four sources with knowledge of the situation, editors and writers at the outlet have privately complained since at least last year that the company’s top management was allowing Trump to turn Breitbart into his own fan website — using it to hype his political prospects and attack his enemies. One current editor called the water-carrying “despicable” and “embarrassing,” and said he was told by an executive last year that the company had a financial arrangement with Trump. A second Breitbart staffer said he had heard a similar description of the site’s relationship with the billionaire but didn’t know the details; and a third source at the company said he knew of several instances when managers had overruled editors at Trump’s behest. Additionally, a conservative communications operative who works closely with Breitbart described conversations in which “multiple writers and editors” said Trump was paying for the ability to shape coverage, and added that one staffer claimed to have seen documentation of the “pay for play.”
Whether Trump is paying the site or not, Breitbart was, from the start, disinclined to defend Fields, whose boyfriend broke the news of the incident on Twitter, calling Trump and Lewandowski “thugs.” Indeed, it was only after a Politico report went live that the website issued a passive, doubting statement that appeared to question Fields’ account:
It’s obviously unacceptable that someone crossed a line and make physical contact with our reporter. What Michelle has told us directly is that someone “grabbed her arm” and while she did not see who it was, Ben Terris of the Washington Post told her that it was Corey Lewandowski. If that’s the case, Corey owes Michelle an immediate apology.
It’s a strange statement for a media outlet to make about an alleged assault on its own reporter, made all the more strange by Breitbart’s decision to pin the accusation on Terris, who was not named in the Politico report. But by blaming the whole thing on the Washington Post, Breitbart managed to avoid formally accusing the Trump campaign of misconduct.
(It also served to burn Terris, who had a scheduled interview with Lewandowski the next day and reportedly planned to ask Lewandowski about the incident. That interview was canceled, due to “scheduling conflicts,” just hours after the Breitbart report was published.)
But that was just the start of Breitbart’s campaign against its own reporter, if an account published yesterday in The Daily Beast is to be believed. According to their sources, Lewandowski that same night openly admitted to Breitbart Washington political editor Matthew Boyle that he had grabbed Fields, claiming he thought she was “an adversarial member of the mainstream media,” rather than a friendly Breitbart reporter.
In the meantime, Breitbart began containing the story. According to The Daily Beast, Breitbar PR consultant Kurt Bardella immediately instructed Fields not to speak publicly about the incident and further ordered her to “get your boyfriend under control.” Her only public comment so far has been in a statement, attributed to her, published on Breitbart. And pretty much the only thing Breitbart has done to support her so far appears to be suspending her colleague, Patrick Howley, who sent a series of now-deleted tweets calling her a liar. (Today he merely linked to the Breitbart story calling her a liar.)
With the current state of political discourse in the GOP, it’s understandable that reporters—even friendly conservative ones—are considered the enemy. But their employers should be the ones protecting them—not vilifying and gaslighting them. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to work for Breitbart, if this is how Breitbart treats its own.