The Media

Judith Miller Award for Sloppy Journalism Winner: KECI Missoula


I have had the misfortune of reading some incredibly sloppy journalism in my life, but no story has inspired me so much that I felt the need to create an award for poor journalism. Congratulations, KECI Missoula, for the single worst news story I have read in the past year, a feat you managed to accomplish in 182 words.

KECI reported that Representative Rehberg was taken out of context when he called Pell Grants Welfare:

Denny Rehberg is firing back after a Facebook campaign accused him of calling pell grants welfare.
Representative Rehberg says he was taken out of context in saying that the program is expanding so quickly, it’s moving beyond the Federal Government’s ability, similar to the welfare program.

Out of context? Here’s what he said:

In a radio interview on Friday, he compared Pell Grants to “welfare” and decried the fact that students who receive them don’t have any sort of graduation requirement and could go straight from the education grant to “food stamps.”

“So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century,” said Rehberg in an interview with Blog Talk Radio. “You can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people that don’t have to graduate from college. And there ought to be some kind of commitment and endgame.”

So, KECI let Rehberg respond to an allegation without even reporting on the actual allegation. That’s standard press release journalism, nothing special there, just typical sloth. The news report leapt into Miller territory when it found a student for a man on the street quote in support Rehberg:

Austin James is a Pell Grant Student at the University of Montana and agrees the program has lost it’s focus of helping those who need it most and in a snowball effect, pushes up the price of tuition for everybody. “It started out being a great idea, pell grants, to make tuition more affordable to those who need it, but it actually brought tuition up because whenever more money was needed, it was added through the pell grant system, simply subsidizing the tuition costs and that’s why it’s gone up at three times the cost of inflation.

Who is Austin James, this random student on the streets of Missoula?

A former intern for Representative Rehberg, a conservative blogger attacking Jon Tester, leader of the Montana College Republicans and someone who has misrepresented himself as non-partisan when working for Rehberg before. None of that invalidates Mr. James’s opinion, but one had to wonder how KECI happened to get in contact with this single student on a campus of over 10,000 students.

Finally, it’s probably worth noting that, when Mr. James was being interviewed by the Independent Record, he told them he was receiving the maximum Pell Grant:

Austin James, a Butte native who is a junior at the University of Montana studying political science and economics, receives the maximum Pell Grant amount. He says the government needs to make a budget and operate as efficiently as possible, just as he must. James said reducing the federal debt is just as important as reducing his own personal debt and admits that he could probably get by at school with less grant money available.

I’d say those might have been relevant details for KECI to include, although it did take me almost 14 seconds to find that information on Google. To recap, KECI didn’t report on the newsworthy allegation, allowed Representative to distort the truth, probably let the Rehberg staff pick a student to support his claim, and didn’t check to see that “Pell Grant” is capitalized. Well done!

Congratulations, KECI, for your inaugural win of the Judith Miller Award. And congratulations, US Treasury, as you will no doubt soon be receiving a check for the full amount of Pell Grants Mr. James has received.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


  • Local television isn’t really in the business of serious news. It’s good for presenting immediate action footage: forest and house fires, floods, train and car wrecks, etc. — political pieces, researched news stories and in depth analysis, not so much. And weather and sports are as big a draws as the news.

    Local news is the biggest money maker the station has. The revenue from all those 30-second spots stays at the station. Keeping overhead down is important and only the anchors, if their ratings are good, get a decent wage.

    I started my career shooting film for a local news station, making 25 cents over minimum wage. I shudder to think about some of the lame stories I helped produce. Any reporter worth their salt moved on to a bigger market as soon as they could.

    I’m not making any excuses for the medium, just giving some background. Keep those awards coming, Pogie. I’m sure you’ll have ample opportunities

  • Yeah, I think that you make good points, Pete. This was just a little too nakedly a Rehberg press release for my taste.

    I can’t even imagine how someone could have felt good about getting used for such a nakedly political and dishonest story.

  • I do not really see how there is much different between the Daily News publishing this or some online site. Material like this needs to be released out more frequently. I wish that others in America would stand up for peoples rights like this.

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