Education The Media

Is the Missoulian Covering the University of Montana or Writing PR For it?

Written by Don Pogreba
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There are some serious issues facing the University of Montana: declining enrollment, lingering bad feelings and fears about a climate that seemed to permit sexual assault, budget cuts, and dissatisfaction among some members of the faculty, to name a few. It’s been  a really difficult couple of years for the University, but the coverage of the school has often taken a cheerleading tone that isn’t sufficiently critical.

Often reporting on this news for the Missoulian is higher education reporter Martin Kidston, whose coverage seems awfully deferential to the administration and unfairly critical of those who want change at the university.

Six weeks ago, I was surprised to see that Kidston had written a commentary piece lambasting “naysayers” critical of the University’s management. In language better suited to a University press release, Kidston wrote:

One does not need to agree with the administration every step of the way. After all, there’s nothing wrong with asking tough questions, holding our decisionmakers accountable and engaging in healthy debate.

But at times, the debate this past year has been anything but healthy. If UM is to succeed and grow — and Missoula to progress along with it — one should consider keeping quiet if one has nothing constructive to bring to the table.

It’s easy to be a nasty critic and a constant naysayer, but little good has ever come from that. The burden of building a stronger university and a better Missoula falls on the shoulders of each of us, and a little positivity wouldn’t hurt.

Odd, to say the least, for a reporter covering the university beat to essentially be asking critics of the University to shut up and stop talking unpleasant subjects like sexual assault and budget cuts.

Over the last week, though, Mr. Kidston seems to have upped the ante, offering opinion in news pieces, opinion that should never have made its way past an editor. In a story from today he suggests, without evidence, that critics of the university’s budget cuts are outnumbered by those who are  content with the budget situation. He writes:

Faculty members and department heads at the University of Montana are expressing frustration with a small group of professors who claim that an atmosphere of intimidation exists on campus, and that administrators are balancing the school’s budget on the back of the humanities.

The group, led by history professor and former associate provost of international programs Mehrdad Kia, has been vocal in its criticism of the university over the past year. The group numbered seven at its last meeting, but recently joined forces with another group critical of UM to take the complaints public.

Great lede, but there’s nothing in the piece to substantiate the suggestion that these “other faculty members” represent a significant number of professors. Despite Kidston’s assertion that the critics of the university are a “small group,” there’s no evidence in his piece to support that assertion. In fact, the piece only cites two sources, Chris Comer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Liz Putnam, chair of the faculty Senate. Contrast those 2 with the 27 who signed a public letter critical of the administration last June, and the claim becomes even more questionable.

Near the end, the piece delves into some truly questionable journalistic ethics, trafficking in innuendo and smear quotes. Kidston writes:

Other faculty members say they’re frustrated with the attacks leveled by Kia’s group, calling them “without merit” and “hypocritical.”

Kia resigned as associate provost for UM’s international program in March of 2012, and while the reasons behind that resignation have never been revealed, some faculty members wonder if he has an ax to grind with the administration.

That’s just blatantly unfair to Professor Kia. No one was put on the record to defend the charges of hypocrisy, nor even explain them—and the suggestion of an “ax to grind” without foundation is little more than an ad hominem attack. Surely those defending the position of the administration have no need for anonymity—and even anonymous sources typically need to provide reasons supporting their assertions.

There’s also no indication in the piece that Professor Kia was given the opportunity to respond.

Finally, the detail that caught my eye and generated this post came in the third paragraph, in which Kidston said:

But other faculty members – many who have been reluctant to counter the group publicly – say the group’s criticisms have been high on rhetoric and slim on facts

That line stood out because in his November 14 new story about a protest against the budget cuts, Kidston wrote:

While facts were largely absent from the meeting – as noted by one member of the student senate – the group of faculty members called for administrators to undergo cuts equal to the university’s drop in student enrollment the past two years.

That sounds an awful lot like someone pushing an agenda in a talking point than a reporter objectively covering a dispute. A search of Mr. Kidston’s other pieces on the University doesn’t show that he applies this standard of criticism to claims from administration sources, either.

In a November 17th piece listed as “News” on the Missoulian web site, Kidston offered a defense of the administration’s decision to scale back liberal arts at UM. After quoting UM professor Doug Coffin, a pharmacy professor worried about losing the liberal arts identity of the school, Kidston offered the administration’s rebuttal:

Coffin, like several of his colleagues, believes UM’s administration is directing its cuts toward the very things that make higher education at UM what it has become. Their concerns are understandable, but there also is another side to the story and, one has to admit, it’s equally valid.

It starts at Main Hall, where administrators have the responsibility of balancing the school’s $164 million general fund budget while directing limited resources toward areas showing growth in student demand. Most of the university’s top administrators also served as teachers, and the choices they’re facing are no doubt difficult to make.

And don’t even get me started on this piece from September 21, a glowing review of the good things happening at the university,  or the fact-free assertion Kidston offered on November 9th that UM has “has emerged as a national leader” on the issue of handling sexual assault.

On August 4, Bozeman Magpie contributor Ellie Newell dissected another Kidston piece about sexual assault, arguing that it gave UM President Royce Engstrom a free pass:

While I respect Kidston’s aim as a reporter to just tell the facts, the article reads like an unfiltered PR statement from the UM Office of the President. Kidston challenges neither Engstrom’s professional stake in moving past UM’s sexual-assault scandal nor the president’s dismissive assessment. The absence of a critical review of Engstrom’s statements is simply weak journalism.

On another matter, UM history professor Michael Mayer summed up the problem with this coverage quite nicely. Referring to another Kidston piece, he wrote:

If the Missoulian plans simply to print the talking points of the university’s administration, they may as well dispense with reporters.

I don’t have a vested interest in this fight other than as someone who appreciates the importance of a humanities education, but the people of Missoula and the state deserve critical and unbiased coverage about the University of Montana.  Addressing the enrollment shortages and determining the future direction of UM might just depend on listening to the naysayers and critics who believe in the value of education just as much as those who defend the UM administrative team.

Unfortunately, these stories read less like objective news than sample work for a potential job in public relations at the University. And they’re seemingly always hiring.

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.

11 Comments

  • I largely agree with your analysis of Kidston’s reporting and the disservice it gives to the community, but do want to defend him on one small point. The faction of faculty lead by Professor Kia is genuinely very small (Less than a quarter of one percent of the faculty). This small group of faculty have largely alienated themselves from the rest of the faculty (and the administration) by reflexively criticizing the administration on virtually every issue. Kidston could find evidence to support this side of the story if he dug a little, but lazily just states it as fact without support.

    Disclosure: I’m an adjunct professor at UM in an area of the liberal arts.

    • As someone who’s definitely writing from the outside, that’s really useful information-but not something that’s been supported by the reporting.

      As you say, if Kidston’s stories included some kind of evidence to back his claims, I’d find them a lot more plausible.

  • As one who nips at your heels, I thank you for some fine reporting. Very good piece, Pogie.

    My own confirmation bias will show here, but I regard newspapers as top-down entities that reflect the biases of the local power structure, or in the case of a state-run university, that larger structure. If Kidston does true bottom-up reporting, her words don’t make it to print, and after a short while she’s a barista.

  • Last I had heard of Kidston was when he left the IR to be a PR flack for the state democrats I didn’t realize he had moved onto the missoulian. He seemed decent enough when he wrote for the ir, if anything too preachy about military things. I seem to recall him writing some snotty thing toward Larry Kline regarding not having proper respect for the military.

    • Speaking of which, the GF Spitoon had the editorial page today covered with nonsensical military crap, and two, yes two full-blown articles on the military! I mean, who would PAY good money to read such crap? Who CARES what the military thinks? But this is the Spitoon now. Each new day brings more and more news about the military! Is this part of some bizarre corporate conditioning to get the young readers in the country to view the military industrial complex as the highest good, and endless war for endless profit as the goal of good government? I hate it. The Spitoon should change its name to the GF Stars and Stripes to be more accurate! Disgusting. What an embarrassment this paper has become!

  • It’s always been this way. The Missoulian and increasingly Lee newspapers (and one could argue, most of the state’s media) have become little more than PR and cheerleaders.
    Reminds me of a few years back when Griz players were involved in an altercation and Bobby Hauck refused to even answer questions for a time from Kaimin reporters regarding it because they thought any critical stories were “unfair.” I wondered why it wasn’t the Missoulian pursuing the coach or the University, but then right above the fluff piece the Missoulian had written was a banner ad for Bobby Hauck reading to children and a chance for Griz tickets.
    Unfortunately, when the city of Missoula is so blindly allegiant to a sports team that much of the town’s businesses and newspapers depend on it for revenue, don’t expect anything hard hitting or resembling real journalism to be printed. Furthermore, when you can’t expect the media to do its job of keeping them, or I would argue the local police accountable, you get things like a decade of student athlete arrests and the nickname “Rape Capital.”

  • I’ll toss another ‘great post Don’ into the ring here. Based on my observations, the Missoulian’s previous UM beat reporter, Chelsi Moy, did a pretty good job of asking the UM Administration some tough questions when covering important UM-related issues that impact the whole city.

    Case in point was Moy’s coverage of UM’s failed $16 million (plus another $25 million in extra maintenance costs over 40 years) wood-burning biomass plant they wanted to build right next to the freshman high-rise dorms. I also thought that Moy and Gwen Florio’s dogged coverage of the UM sexual assault scandal helped bring amount some justice and some needed changes.

    But I certainly agree that Mr. Kidston seems to report on UM happens with an eye towards keeping on the good side of UM Administration and maintaining access. That’s never a good thing for the public. Personally, when he arrived at the Missoulian I thought some of his Missoula College/UM Golf Course-Open Space coverage was just plain terrible and openly biased.

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