The Media

An Open Letter to Montana’s Political Press

Written by Don Pogreba
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Dear media:

Well, it looks like we’ve got our candidates for the House and Senate in 2014. Champ Edmunds hasn’t decided which race he will lose yet, but for the most part, it looks like the field for the 2014 races is set—and the next 355 days are an opportunity for the political press to help Montana voters make informed choices about the candidates who will represent them in Washington.

Political campaigns in Montana are a mess, as they are across the nation. While a great deal of the problem has certainly been caused by campaign advisors, dark money practitioners, PACs, and the candidates themselves, the political media share a great deal of the blame. You’ve  allowed (and even occasionally encouraged) superficial campaigning at the expense of an informed electorate.

And that same media–under-staffed, over-worked, and often criticized–are the group best positioned to improve political discourse and voter-information. Yes, you.

How can you change?

Perhaps most importantly, stop treating the political races like a couple of horse races. While there’s always another poll to write about, another half-informed assessment from Larry Sabato to cite, or another round of speculation about the viability of candidates, none of those stories inform voters about what really matters. There’s nothing wrong with running the occasional story about the polls in these races, but non-stop coverage of internal and external polls and quotes from talking heads handicapping the races cheapens the process without helping voters decide anything. Leave that nonsense to the blogs.

On a related note, stories about the campaign strategies and staff might be interesting to wonks, but do little to help voters make good choices. For instance, I don’t think hearing John Bohlinger talk about his perceived slight from the DSCC really offers much information a voter needs to choose her preferred candidate. You needed to report it once—now let it go.

Next, avoid the temptation to to attend and write about every politically manufactured event the campaigns send a media advisory about. Look, I get it. It’s easy to attend a “rally” in some small Montana town, collect a few quotes and run some pictures of political involvement. But how often do those events generate real news? How often do they advance the political debate? Given the enormous staffing limitations faced by so many Montana media outlets, it seems awfully hard to justify sending a reporter and a photographer to events that are little more than staged photo opportunities.

Finally, don’t wait for an opposing candidate to issue a press release before you run a critical story about another candidate. If a candidate engages in shady campaign finance practices, waiting for another candidate or party to raise the issue turns the story into a “he said, she said” spat that obscures factual analysis. The media’s role shouldn’t be to transmit competing claims of veracity, but to evaluate the facts as they exist.

Enough talk about what you’ve done at times in the past. What should or could your coverage of these races look like?

Write deep, researched stories. Dig into candidate records, job experience, and issue positions. The power of the media is that you have both the expertise and resources to offer context and historical analysis. I’d much rather see a well-developed story that puts the skills and expertise of someone who has been covering politics for a generation to use than half a dozen stories about some trivial spat over a candidate’s hurt feelings about a political ad.

Next, focus on the candidates’ positions on critical issues facing Montana and run those stories every week. Voters deserve to hear what the candidates believe about reproductive rights, military intervention, wolves, Social Security, and the whole gamut of political issues facing the state and nation in more depth than 30 second ads allow. Give each candidate a set of specific, detailed questions about their proposals, positions, and likely votes and give them the space to answer each in your papers, with more space to explain their positions online. Ask a new question or two each week and run the answers on Sunday.

Let the candidates use their own ad time to stand earnestly in front of a friend’s ranch in brand new gloves talking about their status as fifth generation Americans; use your coverage to inform voters what those Montanans with such ancient roots here will do if elected.

Take the balanced budget as an example. Every candidate running for Congress over the next year will claim that he/she plans to “balance the budget.” None of them will offer any specifics explaining how s/he plans to do it. Press for the specific cuts they will champion to achieve their stated goal of reducing federal spending.

On abortion, for instance, ask the candidates to answer how they would vote on specific legislation they are likely to address in Congress. An excellent example on reproductive rights would be to ask candidates how they would vote on a bill like the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would prevent “states from passing Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws.” Since that’s a law these candidates will likely have to vote on if elected, why not ask now what they’d do?

Don’t voters deserve to know how the people they vote for or against will vote on specific legislation critical to their interests? These stories won’t end the barrage of dishonest, sophistic ads from candidates and outside groups, but they certainly might mitigate their influence. Both parties like to claim that they lose races because of what they call “low-information” voters. Why not put this to the test?

Critics of my proposal might suggest that it’s naïve to think that candidates will tell the truth and offer actual, specific answers to hard questions, that they will offer pablum like “balancing the budget is critical for Montana’s future” instead of identifying their real positions and their specific positions.

That’s where my final suggestion comes into play: call candidates out for refusing to offer specifics. If a Congressional candidate doesn’t answer the specific question posed, simply don’t run his answer—and tell readers why you didn’t do it. That wouldn’t be an example of bias; it wouldn’t be irresponsible coverage. It would simply be accurate. If the candidates lack the courage of their convictions to answer questions honestly, voters deserve to know that, no matter how much Super PAC money they have to spend misinforming voters.

For some reason, it too often seems that you all in the political media have become so cowed by accusations of media bias that you won’t offer honest, factual assessments of candidate claims—or candidate silence.

Finally, a reminder. The politicians need the media far more than the media need the politicians. Remember that. If candidates for political won’t answer fair, honest questions about what they’d do in Congress, you not only have the right to publicize their refusal, you have an obligation to it. And you have the power here.

Nothing is going to prevent a sea of dishonest television ads and third-party mailers flooding our airwaves and mailboxes in the next year, but naïve though it may be, I believe the media in Montana does have the power to raise the discourse of these races. It’s time for the political media to remember and reclaim its power in a democratic society. It’s time for the media to remember what Walter Lippman said back in 1920, when he wrote, ‘There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”

I know we’ve had our difference over the years, but I’m an optimist. I certain that you have the capacity and the will to improve the tenor of our political campaigns.

I’m counting on you.

Sincerely,

Don Pogreba

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.

20 Comments

  • Ditto, and well done but will they read it? Will media believe they need to make the change…..Not sure their pocketbook likes being thinner. not sure they are strong enough to be real news anymore!

    …just saying

  • it certainly can’t hurt to appeal to those left in our dying media outlets to honor the power they still wield by using it in ways Don suggests.

    the most important takeaway for those who do read this: politicians need the media more than the media need the politicians.

  • Great article, Don. What you suggest is the least that the media in Montana should do. But readers/viewers have to demand that our media do a better job. So I hope you submit this to at least all of the daily papers (electronic media is a lost cause because the Fairness Doctrine has been eliminated). Reporters and editors, though they may be reading your blog post, won’t do the job we think they should do until we make them do it. Their customers have to demand better of them. Otherwise, traditional media (and journalism supported by its business model) will just wither away, and have no one to blame but themselves (see http://www.businessinsider.com/google-is-bigger-than-all-magazines-and-newspapers-combined-2013-11).

  • Don, I really must protest too much! Look, do you KNOW what a fifth of Black Velvet actually COSTS now days? And damn near two full SHOTS are all over my computer screen because of you! I HOPE you plan to reimburse me! When you write stuff like the following, my natural reaction is to LAFF MY ASS OFF! And then, the involuntary snarfing of good whiskey all OVER my computer screen follows!

    So, well I take my hat off to you for writing one of the best things I have read in a long, loooong, loooooong time, I must ask you for reimbursement for two shots of BV!

    THIS line is the culprit! THIS is the line that sent the BV spewing from my nose on TO my computer screen! Please cease and desist with the Chump Edmund’s jokes!

    “Champ Edmunds hasn’t decided which race he will lose yet”

    Thanks in advance.

    p.s. Best post I have read in a long time. Geez you’re good, Don. Keep it up.

  • Journalists are “objective,” which I take to mean un-insightful. Get a quote from each side (there are only two in their world, D’s and R’s) and move on.

    “Write deep, researched stories. Dig into candidate records, job experience, and issue positions…”

    How about money, Don? I don’t get how anyone thinks they can understand politics and candidates without following the money! Voters are not the constituency, and will turn off politics right after the election. The people who bribe the candidates want promises made and kept. Do you think for a second that Tester’s last minute dark money came without obligations?

      • We are in total agreement. I’m just curious why, in your long piece above here (a very good piece, IMHO), you don’t mention money.

  • You dont have to mention money in the course of searching for the truth… will maybe the journalist’s salary, but if your job is to “Where, what, when, who, and how” for the american public the least the papers can do is give the full reporters story not some abrided version, where the advertisers who pay for ads aren’t subject to editorial protection if they come out as tainted. Especially politicos.

    • Here’s an example, Norma: When Obama ran for office in 2008, he said that he woudl fight for a public option. If we had followed the money then, we would have seen that he was drawing huge support from AHIP, so that there could be no public option.

      Words yields a lie, money the truth. See how it works?

    • At the risk of fomenting yet another long winded and useless argument, Mark T.’s view of the political situation is not wrong. His delusion only encompasses the views of others and their ideas of possible solutions to our current problems.

      • I’ll deal with you in this,first dealing with the idea that I deal,in “delusions:”

        Iff you have the following then participation in the political system makes sense:

        1: an informed electorate;
        2: a public finance system that gives equal funding to all parties that meet reasonable thresholds;
        3. An open primary system that does not discriminate against smaller parties;
        4. Elimination of content-free advertising, forcing candidates to avoid ad agency psyops like “Hope and change” – I have no answer to this that does not involve tombstone ads in newspapers;
        5. Public debates widely televised and having reasonable thresholds for smaller party participation and which force candidates to answer questions rather than protecting them with professional journalists that moderate based on their submissiveness;
        6. A vote counting system that is transparent, routinely audited, and where there is a paper trial for every election that traces votes back to the voter.

        Right now I don’t see where we have any of this Rob. For sure I like some candidates more than others, but the structure of our current system forces even the good people into serving the bad people once elected. The STSTEM is broken, new people does not fix it.

        All that in mind, voting for D or R is the least of my concerns. It doesn’t matter. I’m not stupid about these matters nor a nihilist, but rather a realist. Right now, we got nothing.

      • PS – I would not mind having a “long-winded” discussion about this, but you’re right that this is not the place. I do bristle a bit at use of the word “delusion,” however. You, Don, PW, your brother, Kelly, Fred who is my personal critic and shadow and so many others have very good insight into politics. If the average voter had even a modicum of that insight, the system could be reformed into something more workable for the mere reason that there would be public debate and ground-level organizing.

        But I don’t think I suffer from delusion so much as mere contrary insight. Where you see solutions in churning this system for better outcomes, I can only see massive and daunting reforms as a means of positive change.

  • Don, I hope you don’t mind, but I reprinted your excellent essay on our county website (www.beaverheaddems.homestead.com). I made a few editorial changes (e.g., fixing the voice-switch problem) but it’s otherwise intact.

    I you want me to, I’ll remove it.

    • Feel free to post it. I meant to go back to fix some of those errors, but I never seem to have time for proofreading, something I share in common with my students. 🙂

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