Montana Politics The Media

Failure to Endorse Candidates Represents a Fundamental Failure at IR, Tribune

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While I was out enjoying a couple of Helena High soccer wins this afternoon, on what might have been the first and last day of fall, I found myself thinking more about the decision some Montana papers have made to give up endorsing candidates in political contests.  Both the Independent Record and Great Falls Tribune have announced plans to replace endorsements, the IR with puff pieces from the candidates about themselves and the Tribune with enhanced voter guides.

In the current election season, Montana Republicans are likely to be offended by meaningful editorial endorsements, but that’s a problem of their own making. They’ve nominated a slate of statewide candidates who have either demonstrated a total incapacity to perform the duties of the office they seek or an absolute dearth of knowledge and experience necessary to fill those roles.

What’s most troubling is the reason the Tribune offered for its decision. According to Publisher and Editor Jim Strauss, the Tribune decided to abandon endorsements because readers couldn’t believe that the same newspaper could run and editorial endorsement and fair news coverage of political candidates. As he put it, “we don’t want to undermine the hard work of our reporters covering the races.”

That’s simply an entirely fatuous argument. To suggest that editorial endorsements compromise the appearance of news fairness at the same time we’re asked to believe that advertising doesn’t compromise coverage of any number of stories is absolutely absurd. Taken to its logical endpoint, how can Strauss defend running advertisements from Benefis Hospital in Great Falls while there’s an ongoing dispute about Board compensation and ER practices raging in the community?

Either the newspaper editors have the fortitude to offer uncompromised news judgment or they do not—and as a subscriber to the Tribune and frequent reader of the Independent Record, it’s troubling that both papers seem to be suggesting they lack the integrity to separate fair news coverage from outside influence.

It’s evident that the decisions to end endorsements actually have little to do with concern about editorial interference and everything to do with lacking the courage to potentially offend a reader or advertiser. But that is precisely the role of the editorial writer: to use facts to challenge readers to see issues in another light, instruct, and even offend.

In the current election season, Montana Republicans are likely to be offended by meaningful editorial endorsements, but that’s a problem of their own making. They’ve nominated a slate of statewide candidates who have either demonstrated a total incapacity to perform the duties of the office they seek or an absolute dearth of knowledge and experience necessary to fill those roles. Could any serious endorsement really defend giving Colonel Skees a platform from which to spew his secessionist nonsense in the Auditor’s office, a position for which he has no relevant experience? Or providing Sandy Welch the power to reform Montana schools without any understanding of the complexity of the job?

Of course not—and no editorial board worthy of the name could defend those picks. The failure of the Republicans to choose qualified candidates not only doesn’t excuse the decision to end endorsements, but it mandates a strong editorial response.

The races that actually feature two qualified candidates even better demonstrate the need for newspaper endorsements. An editorial board could come to the (mistaken, in my view) opinion that Rick Hill would be a better governor than Steve Bullock. Such an endorsement would be dissected by blogs like this one, critiqued in comments and letters to the editor, and debated by the public—as any important question should be.

It would do what newspapers are supposed to do: generate the kind of political dialogue necessary for democratic institutions to flourish. Far from closing off debate, it would open one up.

Abandoning the critical role newspapers play as generators of discussion in small communities like Helena and Great Falls will impoverish our political discourse and solidify the role of the empty sophistry and virulent bile that characterizes so much of today’s political landscape.

Want an antidote to the sea of inane and misleading ads? It’s a well-informed board of community members forcing candidates to answer hard questions before carefully deciding which candidate to endorse.

A future in which newspapers lack the courage to take controversial editorial stands means far worse than being subjected to vacuous pieces like Sometimes Social Media Mistakes Are Just Mistakes and We hope BCBS deal is good for Montana. It means newspapers abandoning an essential First Amendment role, a role that helped end acceptance of slavery, discrimination against women, and even misguided wars. It means a future in which controversial commentary and intellectual risk taking leave the daily reading lives of thousands of Montanans.

It’s a tragedy—for the political process and for the diminishing integrity of our press. I can only hope that these Montana newspapers, these Montana institutions, reconsider—and realize just how important endorsements (and challenging opinions) are.

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.

9 Comments

  • I call’em Straussballs, like mouse balls on smaller! The Spitoon has hit bottom. With the addition of gubmint sucking retired lifer Snuffy smith, the Spitoon stopped pretending to be a newspaper any longer and simply became fox news!

  • Actually, given the bizarre nature of some of the IR’s editorials, Montana may be better off without any of that paper’s wisdom. In the case of the local county commission race, maybe the words of the Republican candidate will be more enlightening than anything the IR woul manage to say about him.
    As for Mr. Kralj, commenting on this and everything else— man, it’s getting harder and harder to figure out even what the hell you’re talking about. Are you just trying to mimic Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, or are you a Republican operative trying to make environmentalists look bad?

    • BINGO! Trying my darndest to make you look bad, dude! Not really, I’m just not brain dead! You see, dude, I have watched the Spitoon now for some twenty years descend into a crap paper, and it saddens me terribly. And since jimmy strauss has taken over, the descent is even faster. There is NO ONE of courage left in any newspapers in Montana. When the Billings Gazoo fired Gary Svee, that was the day the news died! The last real editorial in the state was the hilarious one that the Missoulian did on Judy Mars. The Spitoon has NOT done a real editorial (except for that recent one by Richard Ecke) ever since Eric Newhouse got the ax.

      And therein lies the problem. Without people of courage, the state is doomed to be steamrolled by the nazis and the Bick Kockh brothers. If we had even ONE real newspaper, things would be different. If we had ANY lefty billionaires who would fund even ONE real, independent newspaper, we would have a chance. Cathy Siegner’s Helena Handbasket was the closest thing we had to a real newspaper, but ya can’t live on the TRVTH alone. (and BTW, Cathy, along with Dave Crisp at the Billings Outpost, are two of the most courageous folks I know who are out there actually DOING it right!)

      You see, folks like you who criticize me I consider to be very uniformed, and I really have to wonder where you’ve BEEN for the last forty years or so! Have you no sense of history?! You see, I’ve been here, invovled in all that’s going on, watching everything go to shit. And I have actually given UP on people, for there really is no hope any longer. If you’re waiting for the cavalry, forget it! But even so, I feel obligated to fight to the bitter end. Sorry that you and other lefties lack the narlies to do so. You see, I rarely criticize the writing of another lefty. Just allow free speech and don’t worry about what others are saying, for just like me, they might have some insight into things that I don’t have. Makes you wonder, huh? You see, dude, I’ve LIVED it! And many of you other folks haven’t I guess.

      BTW, I consider Pogie to be one of the best writers in the state. He should be writing for a newspaper.

  • The “wall” between editorial and advertising that has been crumbling in national journalism for 30 years has been non-existent in Montana even longer. About 100 years ago Butte had several English language papers plus some others in other languages. That was the last time there was any real competition among news organizations, which insured no Montana story remained unreported.
    Anaconda’s domination of Montana media was replaced by Lee Enterprises, Gannett in Great Falls and Pioneer Newspapers, along with non-local corporate control of radio and TV.
    For generations, complacent Montana publishers hired complacent editors who hired (mostly) complacent reporters, and anyone who rocked the boat was thrown overboard.
    It was the goal to keep the ad revenue rolling in and to keep the advertisers happy by endorsing those candidates who were uncritically viewed as “good for business.” The impact of power deregulation went under-reported (as did the aftermath, the destruction of Montana Power) and stories like the fact scores of people in Libby were dying were consciously covered up.
    When the Internet dried up ad revenue, media managers who generally come from advertising and business departments didn’t think of new ad and business initiatives, they decided to give news away for free and then made their budget cuts in news departments, which were always seen as a drain on the operations budget. The result is the downward spiral we see today with less news reported, fewer readers and advertisers getting more bang for their bucks elsewhere.
    Today, smart voters have to do their own research. Publishers could prompt community dialog with political endorsements, but shaking in fear of offending anyone, they don’t even do that anymore.

  • The trend of newspapers not endorsing has increased dramatically over the last decade. I think the Billings Gazette is the only metropolitan daily in the state that still makes endorsements. The Missoulian quit doing it a few years ago — not sure about the other larger dailies: Bozeman Chronicle, Montana Standard (Butte), Daily Interlake (Kalispell area) but ‘m guessing they don’t endorse anymore. Any controversial editorials are now penned by guest columnists.

    I’m not quite as cynical as Mr. Johnson, however. There are still some good reporters and editors out there. I think Mike Dennison’s coverage of health care issues has been superb. Gwen Florio’s coverage of the rape scandals at UM showed some real courage. There are other examples. It’s just that newsrooms are getting stretched so thin that reporters can’t do many in depth stories or take the time to do much research. Then there’s the buyout of older, seasoned reporters to be replaced by much lower-priced pups fresh out of J-school.

    It isn’t just Montana. I recently returned from a trip to Portland and the venerable Oregonian is about the size of UM’s student newspaper, The Kaimin. It breaks my heart but then I’m an old fart who likes nothing better than to sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and read the paper cover-to-cover. My kids get all their news from their smart phones.

    • The Bozeman Chronicle still does endorsements, but they are extremely spotty and selective, maybe -maybe- one or two a cycle, and never that I remember for local races. For a remarkably conservative newspaper, they do tend to be fair and fact-based when they endorse. If memory serves (always a valid question) they endorsed Tester over Burns based in part on the fact that Burns was running a big-money campaign for his fourth term having promised to serve only two.

      The problem with the Chronicle, as with most papers, is the tacit endorsement. If Steve Daines farts and it doesn’t smell, they print it, ’cause he’s the local boy done good. The headline for first quarter fundraising was something like ‘Rehberg raises $500,000’, for an article showing Tester outstripping Dennis by a factor of two to one. The articles concerning Koopman’s professional malfeasance were all buried inside a subsection of the paper.

      Still, though it is only my opinion, I find the Chronicle to be less biased in actual reporting than most Lee newspapers. Their editorial decisions, not so much.

      • Rob, I’m on my way to the Gallatin right now. Saw a bunch of Koopman signs, ala Burma Shave signage, along the way (that dates me, but you know, a serious of signs in a row). One of them read, near the Golden Sunlight Mine, basically, “mine, baby, mine.” I can’t think of a worse commissioner on the PSC.

        • Neither can I. But you know what this race is boiling down to? Attendance. No kidding. There are letters to the Ed daily about whether John Vincent has gone to Helena ‘enough’ to meet with the other commissioners.

          Somewhere along the line, Koopman got a hardon for defeating John Vincent, no matter what position he holds. The rest of us tend to suffer for that vendetta.

  • Republicans aren’t likely to be offended by this “. . . meaningful editorial endorsement”:

    Gazette opinion: Hill best prepared to serve as governor

    Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/news/opinion/editorial/gazette-opinion/gazette-opinion-hill-best-prepared-to-serve-as-governor/article_139c15e5-204b-5b83-a675-eb82000747a6.html#ixzz29IVp4vTc

    In the race for governor, Montanans have a choice of Republican and Democratic candidates with starkly different views on how to move our great state forward.

    Steve Bullock has done a good job as attorney general in his first term. He worked with lawmakers of both parties to successfully enact his proposals for curbing drunken driving and prescription drug abuse. It is, therefore, disappointing that Bullock hasn’t brought the same passion, specifics and organization to his campaign for governor.

    Rick Hill, whom Montanans elected to two terms in the U.S. House, and who served as Gov. Marc Racicot’s legislative liaison, has hit the gubernatorial campaign trail with a load of proposals for moving Montana forward.

    In Congress more than a dozen years ago, Hill pushed for the deal that helped Montana obtain the Otter Creek coal tracts from the federal government — and he supports leasing the coal.

    Hill puts his focus on creating more high-paying jobs in the state. Montana must raise per-capita earnings, which are among the lowest in the 50 states. He would bring business experience to the office.

    Hill is a proponent of priority based budgeting, which could help the state make smarter choices about allocating limited dollars.

    Hill has proposed shifting revenue from our natural resources — specifically, oil and gas — to provide tax relief for property owners. Hill’s plan is reasonable and worth exploring. Permanent tax relief is preferable to one-time payments, such as the $400 per homeowner credit Bullock has proposed.

    Hill supports using coal-tax revenue to help Eastern Montana communities improve their infrastructure and seems to be very knowledgeable about the infrastructure needs of the areas most affected by the Bakken oil boom.

    Hill says school funding would grow as natural resource revenue grows. At the debate in Billings last week, he said “education is always a priority.” We call on him to make K-16 education his top priority if he is elected. Montana public schools, colleges and universities need the resources — staff, facilities and sufficient funding — to educate all our children and train all our residents for work and life in a competitive, changing market. Montana K-12 schools today already are held accountable by a battery of standardized tests and outcomes measures. They need support to educate students who will graduate ready for college and careers. Public schools need support to fix identified problems.

    If elected, Hill plans to meet regularly with legislative leaders to build relationships between the governor’s office and members of both parties. He would work more effectively with lawmakers than his predecessor has.

    Hill is acquainted with just about every problem Montana has had. He comes across as the candidate best prepared to make all the decisions a governor must make.

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