Montana Politics Steve Daines The Media

Steve Daines and the Montana Media Mislead on the Affordable Care Act

Written by Don Pogreba
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A bit over a month ago, I took the Billings Gazette’s Tom Lutey to task for giving Steve Daines news coverage for a staged political event that was limited to those who supported Daines’ position on regulations. It was a terrible piece of stenography that offered little in the way of news and even less in the way of truth.

Yesterday, a large portion of the Montana media fell for the same Daines strategy, writing about a Daines health care meeting in Helena, even though the meeting was only attended by those screened by the Montana Chamber of Commerce and brought to criticize the Affordable Care Act.

A meeting that must have had more Congressional staffers and members of the media than actual constituents led to breathless coverage across the state; in pieces like “Daines gets an earful from Obamacare critics,” “Daines hears about Obamacare uncertainty, ” “More, unseen wrinkles in health care law bugging businesses,” “Business leaders gather to complain about health-care law to Rep. Daines,” “Business leaders gather to vent about Affordable Care Act” the public was exposed to the same litany of complaints conservatives and business leaders have leveled against the ACA since before it was even written. Of all the stories, only the piece by MPR’s Dan Boyce asked why “the roundtable discussion did not include people happy with the Affordable Care Act.”

In a series of quotes whose choreography would do the Bolshoi Ballet proud, one “concerned businessman” after another was quoted, expressing his troubling reservations about the impact of “Obamacare” on his particular business or organization.

Set aside the fact that the Montana Chamber of Commerce is a hyper-partisan advocacy group for the Montana Republican Party. Even set aside the fact that none of the claims of increased costs were investigated nor supported, despite the right’s willingness to distort the law’s mandates and costs. Even concede that some of the concerns raised at the meeting were legitimate, though I have my doubts about many of them.

This wasn’t a news story; it was a propaganda piece, a Potemkin listening session designed to get favorable news coverage.

What’s newsworthy is not that Steve Daines gathered a bunch of ideological cronies for a little spin in his nonsensical war against the Affordable Care Act, but that the one person representing Montana in the House of Representatives will only listen to one side of the debate, and not even engage with constituents who have different views and experiences under the ACA.

The truth is that thousands of Montanans have benefited from the changes in the law brought about by the Obama Administration: young people who can remain on their parents’ insurance plan until they reach 26, people who’ve never been able to afford medical care getting insurance for the first time, and people with pre-existing conditions who were denied access to health insurance with no chance to appeal have all benefited greatly. We probably all know friends, neighbors, and co-workers whose lives have dramatically improved because of the law.

Instead of those stories, we’re treated to an endless echo chamber of Obamacare horror stories from those who have a vested interest in returning to a time when 47 million Americans had no insurance and many who did had coverage that was so bad they might have been better off without any.

It’s one thing for the media to under-inform us. Sadly, we’ve all become accustomed to that in an era of decreasing news coverage and concern about corporate profitability. But when news organizations get led by the nose to easy stories orchestrated by political partisans because it’s easier than doing real reporting, we’re not being under-informed; we’re being actively misinformed.

Daines and his political handlers aren’t going to change what they’re doing, but the media certainly can, if its members simply find the courage to do their jobs. Sadly, that seems less likely every day.

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.

36 Comments

  • I do hope this thread is about news coverage, and not Obamacare.

    News coverage is based on events, and since there aren’t many real ones, events have to be manufactured. Thus the invention of the press conference. Since control of information (spin) is part of politics, there naturally followed the staged press conference. Since access is more important than facts in journalism, reporters are merely stenographers at these staged events, and so keep their privileges of access in place by writing stories that merely repeat the words of the people at the staged press conference. Since publishers of newspapers are right-wing part of the local power structure in our states and communities, there are no filters in place that stop bad reporting from the right.

    That all comes together in the shitstorm of bad reporting that follows a typical press conference. In other words, no news today, dog bites man.

    • There are two ways to look at this. Your position seems to be that it’s inevitable, the result of money and spin. Mine is more optimistic: that reporters actually have the capacity to encourage real news by ignoring these kinds of sideshow events.

      I’m not sure if I’m right, of course, but it can’t hurt to hold them accountable.

      • Take pin, pop bubble. Good journalism is not the same as a good journalism business. Young people are the main consumers of left leaning journalism. They do not like paying for it in print or online. They sure as hell don’t patronize the advertizes.

      • People have to carry out their institutional roles, and so don’t have much leverage. Reporters know, after a couple of years on the job, what gets printed, what does not.

        • I’m not sure that I buy that when it comes to stories like this. I think writing and running stories like this is less about ideology and corporate influence and more about laziness.

          • That is where we would disagree, Don.

            There is a reporter here in town that is capable of some really well written stories, exposing things that should be exposed. After a year of writing about the situation with the City Council – in terms that were less than flattering to our City Administration, he was reigned in… HARD. It wasn’t because he had pissed off the City Administration (he had and Mayor Malesich took a couple of cheap shots at him in Malesich’s final interview before he left office) but it WAS because the paper felt a financial pinch when certain advertisers threated to pull ads in the paper because of it.

            Now I grant you that the Dillon Tribune is not the Billings or Missoula paper and there is a LOT less money involved. That said, corporate interests are just as important in Missoula as they are in Dillon.

          • I doubt laziness is a cause as much as a result – energetic bush-beating offers no rewards or advancement.

            But I don’t know their inner workings either, of course. John Adams is interesting to watch, as he is indeed energetic and independent-minded, but seems to be coming around. Baucus warned him right out of the gate not to be “confrontational,” and his latest big splash story on logging and public lands avoided any currently active environmentalists but was rich with industry spokesman and collaborators like MWA’s Gatchell. It appears that he’s being housebroken.

            And yet, I doubt anyone sat hims down to explain how news is reported in a commercial enterprise. He is intuitively absorbing it, and if he doesn’t, he’ll be self-employed.

  • As I have pointed out before.. Two things –

    Most Montana newspapers are glorified PR agents. They hype the “Montana Lifestyle”, the folksy way of life and the things that bring them the money. There aren’t a lot of “investigative reporters” on salary at these papers. The TV stations do a little better job, but not much. It is a money business and if the money is coming from events like the one (not) reported on, then that is where the focus will be.

    2) Daines will not engage. Period. Rehberg pioneered the art of campaigning without engaging (actually others have done it well too, but Rehberg was known for it) and Daines will perfect it. He is a damn site smarter than Rehberg because he will appear to engage without really engaging. The trick for the Democrats is to get Daines to actually engage and that won’t happen unless one of two things occurs – A) the voters will have to stage an event that is big enough to draw both the news sources and Daines into the open or B) the Democrats will have to front a candidate that has enough appeal to capture the attention of the news source – forcing Daines to actually engage. Neither of these things have proven very easy for the Montana Democrats to do. Tester was able to do it because he is actually a pretty honest, straight forward guy with a lot of presence. Schweitzer did it with his showmanship. Bohlinger probably could have done it just on his laurals as Schweitzer’s Lt Governor if he hadn’t overplayed his hand at the beginning of this campaign and Walsh seems AWOL from his own campaign. I just don’t see Daines engaging in any real debate about any of the current issues unless he is forced to do so.

    The fact that he ran a staged “listening” session is not, in any way surprising and the fact that it was under-reported is even less surprising. Until the electorate is willing to make a controversy over it (Newspapers LOVE controversy because it sells papers), it will remain this way. In short, you will have to sell it to the papers before they will report it. Cash talks and outrage walks.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I despise this state of affairs. I grew up listening to some of the greatest newsmen EVER. I can still hear Walter Cronkite’s voice in my head just thinking about it. The idea that our news sources have become PR people for the moneyed interests disgusts me. That said, it also doesn’t surprise me and I am not going to waste outrage on a situation that can only be changed by shift in how we support our news sources.

    • Maybe I’m a bit dim, but isn’t one of the ways to change the media to write criticism of how they operate?

      I guess I can wait for them to change on their own, but I’d suggest one of the purpose of blogging is to criticize the media and point out its failures.

      • Skating right past your snark, I was not, in any way, saying that you shouldn’t write about it, Don. I was simply pointing out that it won’t have any real effect on the situation. Nor did I say that you “should just wait” on anything. In fact, I said quite the opposite.

        Writing about things that bothers you is all well and good and many of us that blog do so because it feels right to point out what we see as the things that need to be fixed. That said, it doesn’t usually change anything unless we are willing to step away from the computer screen and actually DO something about it. As someone that has faced real life consequences for doing exactly that, I can attest that it is hard, it is often futile and it can have real downsides to your life, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.

        Expecting the situation to change because you write about it, to me, is somewhat naïve. I applaud your writing or I wouldn’t take the time to read your work, but you “propose nothing in the eyes of god” (to quote the bible). If you are seriously outraged by this state of affairs, DO something about it. Organize an event that will draw the attention of the lackluster media. Get together a metric ton of success stories about the ACA and make a big deal about – enough to get at least the media to engage, even if Daines doesn’t.

        Rob is 100% right in his comment. If you can’t appeal to the people you want to vote for you, or you can’t appeal to the people who report the news, it won’t change. Writing a well written blog is a talent many do not have, but it won’t change the world by itself. You may not like me for point that out, but please don’t kill the messenger.

          • Sounds like you have fallen to your knees and are uttering, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” PW can explain it to you.

          • As a person that has written a book on debate, you have a strange way of responding to comments. Did I say that you were “wasting your time”? Did I suggest that you should stop writing?

            I get that you are somehow offended by my response but I really don’t get why.

            In effect, I have pointed out that you have only done half the job you say that you want to accomplish. You want to change the current lackluster reporting in Montana. You do a good job of pointing it out, but then you stop… Let me give you an analogy.

            Up until very recently, we had our daughter and her family living with us – including their four kids. The older boy would do this every night – he would take his dishes into the kitchen, he would rinse off his plate and fork and put them in the dishwasher and then put his milk glass on the counter. I have no idea why he did that, but he did.

            I would point out to him that his glass was left on the counter and he would just look at me like I had grown three heads. It wasn’t until I told him to rinse it out and put it in the dishwasher than he would do it.

            Today’s news sources (with some notable exceptions) do care about reporting the news. They care about selling advertising. If it is in the best interests to ignore things like the obvious news you posted about, they will. It isn’t until they have a reason to change that they will.

            By all means, continue to point out the failures of the Montana News sources. You do a better job of it than anyone else I have read on the internet. I am simply suggesting that if that is all you do, it is unlikely to have much effect. If you were to go beyond that, though – say suggesting some action for your readers, say or organize an event to let people tell success stories about the ACA, that maybe, just maybe, something might change – at least once.

              • I find comments like yours on the last two posts really frustrating. Of course, I don’t imagine that a blog post or hundreds of them are going to change things.

                The best I can do is to make a post and perhaps give a reporter pause the next time he thinks about writing a non-story like this.

            • The only activist values of blogs that I have seen in my years of writing are (1) a forging of connections. I know many people I would not otherwise know, and these people tend to want to do some ground-level organizing, though it is extremely difficult in this deadened land where people rarely meet face to face for anything other than sports and church; and (2) information and opinions normally censored by newspapers now flow freely. There’s a huge undercurrent out there that newspapers cannot report on, since their job was to keep it suppressed. Ergo, the Internet is disdained and sneered at by the comfortable journalist.

              There are other control mechanisms, of course, ridicule and shaming primary, but there is more freedom of thought in this country due to blogs and the internet in general. And lots of porn. Lots of it.

              What I love most is that the internet is not predictable. No one knew blogs would even exist, that newspapers would not know how to monetize the net, or even that people would prefer email over commerce in the early days. BitTorrent is driving people nuts, the music business is unhinged, and even the Seattle uprising some years ago can be credited to the new medium. If information gets out, it cannot be taken back. (Dr. Laura wanted her nude pics back after an ex-boyfriend let them go. She did not understand how many basements and computers and pubescent boys existed.)

              What lay ahead we do not know, but it is a battle between freedom of thought and expression and the authoritarian state, and so far the state has not won.

      • One of the things I really loved about Matt Singer is that he didn’t stop at just writing about stuff. He and I didn’t always agree, but I had to respect his willingness to jump into a conflict or situation with both feet and fight for what he believed in. If he saw something that he could influence, he not only wrote about it, he took action.

        I am not suggesting that you do this, Don. I get the whole “real life” thing and you have made it clear that blogging is kind of secondary when you were discussing your moderation policy. I am, however, pointing out that if really want things to change, you have to do more than express outrage on a blog. I even went so far as to suggest a number of ways to actually effect a change. I have done similar things myself if I felt strongly enough about something – sometimes with good results, sometimes with not so good results.

  • The piece about Daines’ championing businesses that were bugged by the ACA appeared in the local paper. I was bugged by it, but I can’t bring myself to just blame newspapers. They are simply generating what profits they can, like the makers of iceboxes in the electric age. It’s dying out and the editors have mouths to feed. If you grew up in a small town, you’d recognize the worthlessness of the local paper for reporting controversies and its real value for reporting little more than sports, silly social events, and some statistics. In the olden days, for example, you’d see old Mr. Stanislaw passed on. But if he was a mover/shaker for civil rights or the exposure of some longstanding local chicanery, you’d have to get that from talking with folks in the community. Because that wouldn’t make the paper. Like it or not, Don, you’re now a significant part of generating knowledge and analysis. Just because there’s not a big financier behind you doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. I’m seeing strange misinformation about health care and education, particularly. I might not always agree with your POV, but the contrast is appreciated. I’d say thanks, but I don’t want to influence you on any way.

  • Nothing sadder then seeing a once powerful monopoly being reduced to competing in the marketplace.

    Except perhaps their biassed ideologue cohorts shouting into empty auditoriums.

    • The only people I see that have to “compete in the marketplace” are workers, who are daily threatened with market discipline. The idea that there is even a marketplace is a joke, as price competition especially destroys businesses. They also fear regulation by the state and labor unions.

      Consequently, the good conservative, knee-deep in corporate propaganda, is anti-regulation, anti-union, calling it “freedom” when it really only means that large corporations are free from threats to their bottom line.

      • Last time I checked that “bottom line” paid salaries, pension funds and Health Ins. premiums and taxes of all sorts.

        • Hold still, keep one point of view in mind as you write. First you talked about the market, and I said it doesn’t exist. Now you’re saying that corporations who don’t have to compete in the marketplace, since it doesn’t exist anyway, are paying salaries and pensions.

          So are you the guy that believes in markets, or the guy that is happy they aren’t real? I’d like to meow which Swede arrived at this discussion.

          • Only you Mark would see the market place as a black/white issue, free or unfree.

            For years papers enjoyed a less than free market, buying up competitors and signing exclusive advt. contracts. As the sole town criers they took advantage of their power and wielded influence. Progressive influence.

            When the dam broke and their dominance dwindled they found themselves more beholding to their customers wants and wishes. In that they were so slow to respond they’ve whiplashed themselves to the right to save what remains of the local market.

            In a way no different than Microsoft getting ahead of the bemoth IBM.

  • Don, this is a little off topic, but it’s a comment to your Montana Chamber of Commerce comment.

    I 100% agree with you that, “The Montana Chamber of Commerce is a hyper-partisan advocacy group for the Montana Republican Party.”

    It should be pointed out, however, that those pushing Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill (such as the Motnana Wilderness Association) have become active participants in the pro-logging committee of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. This fall, the Montana Wilderness Association even helped organize the Chamber of Commerce’s one-sided “Timber Tour.”

    That “Timber Tour” was so one-sided that some professors in UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation and Biology Department even contacted the Chamber of Commerce to express concern about how one-sided, pro-logging and unscientific the agenda for the Timber Tour was.

    • While I agree that the Chamber of Commerce is “hyper partisan”, I disagree with who they are hyper partisan to. The Chamber is an organization that is completely dependent on and answers to business interests. If those business interests are better served by supporting Republicans (as they seem to now), they will support Republicans. If their business interests are better supported by a Democrat (say Jon Tester), they will support that politician.

      Trying to paint a business dependent on their customer base as any type of political supporter is ignoring the reality. The only thing the Chamber of commerce is partisan to is money.

      The tour you talk about was obviously slanted. This was reported by a number of people. Trying to paint them as “republican” is silly, though. The UM school of Forestry doesn’t contribute money to the Chamber of Commerce. The Logging industry does. I hate using one of Mark’s phrases, but it fits – follow the money. This answers more questions about political subjects than any other question.

    • Likewise, you have to take everything Matthew says with a grain of salt. His bias is at least out in the open and up front. If it was up to him, every single square acre of public land in Montana would be declared a Wilderness area with armed guards around it to keep the great unwashed out. He and I subscribe to a completely different definition of what “public lands” means.

      To understand anyone wading into a political discussion/fight, you have to understand what motivates them. This may surprise Matthew, but in some small respects, I agree about the continued waste and mismanagement of our public lands. As someone that frequently uses public lands, I am constantly amazed at the stupidity that some of my fellow citizens display in their wanton and wasteful abuse of our public lands. That said, I do not agree that a small minority should dictate to the majority on how those lands should be managed. They are public lands and the public – as a body – has the right to determine what happens with them.

      • Kenneth, Matthew’s bias skews toward habitat protection and love of earth rather than to some political bias in drafting policy. My guess is, however, that he goes into his own polling booth, ignores the GOP names on the ballot and votes for the people in my party.

    • Sorry, you and Don are wrong. The Chamber is about business and business only. They give money generously to both sides.

      Levin said:

      “We need to shake up that place like it’s never been shaken before. And the problem with groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce is they’re not conservative, they’re about business. They’re not about capitalism, they’re about cronyism. The reason there is a United States Chamber of Commerce is so they can get Congress to cut deals for them, or the White House to cut deals for them, or the bureaucracy to cut deals for them. That’s what they’re there for.”

      “They’re part of the problem. The idea that big companies are necessarily conservative is absurd. Who do you think funds the left? Who do you think funds the Democrat Party? Or, all their little organizations? Big businesses do. Corporatists do. They’re trying to buy favors. That’s what they do. So, you have to be discerning. There are some good businesses and there’s some bad businesses. Just like there’s some good people and some bad people. Some good politicians and some bad politicians.”

      – See more at: http://cnsnews.com/mrctv-blog/james-beattie/levin-us-chamber-commerce-about-cronyism-not-capitalism#sthash.u2PFcwmL.dpuf

  • (I just tried submitting this comment with a link to the restoration principles. I’ve removed the link, so we’ll see if it now posts.)

    Hello Ken, Take what I say with a grain of whatever you want.

    Regarding your claim that “If it was up to him, every single square acre of public land in Montana would be declared a Wilderness area with armed guards around it to keep the great unwashed out.”

    I actually don’t believe that, have never said anything remotely close to that and it doesn’t even come close to representing what my (and our organization’s) vision is for public lands management actually is. Why would you make this up and put words in my mouth that I never ever said?

    I’d like to direct you to this document, “Citizens’ Call for Ecological Forest Restoration: Forest Restoration Principles and Criteria.”

    These national Restoration Principles, released about ten years ago (and used to create the Montana Restoration Principles, as well as Restoration guidelines elsewhere around the country), were the result of our 4-year bridge building effort between conservation groups and restoration practitioners to develop agreement on a common sense, scientifically-based framework for restoring our nation’s forests.

    Yes, I support Wilderness protection for our remaining roadless wildlands in Montana and elsewhere in the northern Rockies. I also support restoring our forests and watersheds through bona-fide, ecologically-based restoration projects, such as road removal, culvert upgrades and even doing some appropriate ‘thinning’ in places, especially directly adjacent to people’s homes and communities. The Forest Service currently has all the ‘tools in the toolbox’ to complete this work, except Congress (both parties) has been cutting Forest Service budgets for years now. Thanks.

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