We’re living in a sad time for political reporting here in Montana. It’s not that newspapers like the Great Falls Tribune and Helena Independent Record are abandoning their role to endorse candidates for political office, or that partisan tripe like this is passed off as “news” or even that their aren’t enough reporters to adequately cover political contests and candidates. While all of those certainly matter, it’s more troubling that real political reporters are so afraid of being accused of bias that they don’t even report the news in their stories.
Witness Chuck Johnson’s recent story about the race between Linda McCulloch and Brad Johnson for Secretary of State. In an effort to appear balanced, Chuck Johnson turned a series of factual disputes into a “she said, he said” issues, leaving potential voters no more informed than before they read the story. Along the way, the story manages to ignore contradictions and outright lies by candidate Johnson.
When Johnson left office in 2008, he attempted to give bonuses totaling almost $60,000 to his staff, including current GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood. McCulloch blocked the illegal bonuses almost immediately upon taking office. According to yesterday’s story, though, Brad Johnson didn’t think he did anything wrong.
Johnson, however, said he did nothing wrong, according to his office human resources official.
Interestingly enough, that’s not what Brad Johnson told Chuck Johnson back in 2009, when he acknowledged that he had been wrong:
Johnson said he takes Manion’s opinion "at face value."
"I’m disappointed that I’m not in a position to show more appreciation for the work that that team performed in the office," Johnson said. "But it is what it is."
The story also lets Johnson get away with claims of voter fraud that he will combat as Secretary of State. It’s not just the fact that voter fraud is part of a Republican strategy to disenfranchise voters or that Johnson’s alleged list of voting fraud incidents is laughable, it’s that back in 2006, Johnson’s own chief of staff Bowen Greenwood said it wasn’t a problem here in Montana:
Spokesman Bowen Greenwood said the office has yet to uncover a verified case of voter fraud. But he said the latest verification procedure, required under federal regulations, will help make sure it doesn’t happen.
Johnson’s Tenure as Secretary of State
The article lets McCulloch and Johnson argue about whether or not Johnson mismanaged elections in 2006, but neglects to provide any actual facts. For instance, that Charles Johnson reported that the Bush Department of Justice sent five letters to Montana concerned about our implementation of the Help America Vote Act:
The U.S. Justice Department sent letters to Johnson dated Aug. 25, 2005; Oct. 27, 2005; Jan. 19, 2006; March 31, 2006; and April 23 concerning how the state was complying with
Not bad enough? How about the fact that a Legislative Audit showed massive problems with Johnson’s tenure as Secretary of State, including mismanaging registration, letting felons register, delaying voters through avoidable error, failing to create uniform standards for absentee voting, and failing to work with county election officials.
Seems pertinent to a discussion about qualifications to return to the Secretary’s office, doesn’t it?
Same Day Voting Registration
The story suggests that same day voter registration is an issue of contention between McCulloch and Johnson, but doesn’t mention that Johnson has completely changed his mind on the issue. From the Billings Gazette’s 2008 endorsement of Johnson:
Johnson supported 2005 legislation to allow voter registration up to and on Election Day, but ought to have done more to publicize and promote it before the 2006 elections.
Johnson’s taken more positions on same-day voter registration than elections he’s lost, something else the article neglected to mention.
In the final analysis, I certainly don’t expect news coverage to reflect my partisan viewpoint, but I do expect it to accurately inform the public. When there are factual matters in dispute, it’s not enough to let each side speak his/her mind—the role of news reporters must be to determine the truth and provide adequate context for voters to make informed decisions.
The press certainly does have an obligation to balance coverage of the right and left. It doesn’t, though, need to balance truth and lies.