On Sunday, “unreleased” audio from a 2016 Greg Gianforte interview with Missoulian editor Kathy Best, city editor Gwen Florio and Lee state reporter Jayme Fraser surfaced in a Medium post titled “Gianforte violent and aggressive toward female journalists.” It made the rounds after the Democratic blog The Montana Post reposted it on July 3. The audio portrays a man who is combative, peevish and agitated under questioning. The “violence” sounded like it was done to a tabletop when Gianforte pounded his fist.

The clip isn’t exactly new. The Missoulian originally posted the audio along with a story drawn from the interview, only to later pull it down because, according to an editor’s note, the paper had told the Gianforte campaign the recording would only be used internally. Presumably, a Democratic operative downloaded the file while it was live and held on to it until the day it might come in handy.

That day has apparently come.

The Post called for anyone who has witnessed Gianforte being verbally or physically assaultive to come forward. More likely, the audio will inspire a dark-money ad against the Republican incumbent. The clip, as well as the infamous audio of Gianforte actually assaulting a Guardian reporter, point to an anger issue that’s clearly relevant to his job performance.

In this “fake news” environment, Democrats are understandably tempted to position themselves as champions of a free (and free-from-assault) press. And it’s true that only one party openly deploys a rhetoric of violence against the media — a dangerous rhetoric that, obviously, we staunchly oppose.

But Montana Democrats should think twice before anointing themselves defenders of the press as a campaign strategy. In doing so, they’re taking the Republican bait and accepting Republican terms that define the media as a wedge issue. November’s election shouldn’t be a referendum on voter attitudes toward the press. That’s a cynical — and, again, dangerous — distraction.

Gianforte challenger Kathleen Williams seems to sense this. In her cheeky first campaign ad, Williams is offered boxing gloves to defend a reporter, an acknowledgement of the dumbed-down and divisive terms on which Republicans and Democrats alike will be tempted to run this race. She smartly declines, and we thank her.

Because the press — as every journalist sooner or later learns — is not the story.

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