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Maybe the Media Could Cover Some Substance in the Senate Race?

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Elections should be serious business and the media should be in the business of circusensuring that voters are well-informed about the issues that separate candidate and parties. That’s the ideal, anyway. When the media took upon itself the role of the Fourth Estate, the institution that served as the check on government power and agency to inform the public about critical issues facing the states and nation, it took upon itself the responsibility to make sure that our elections were about something more than advertisements and spin. We’re right on the verge of the annual spate of editorials affirming this “sacred” role in fact, but unfortunately the pious intonations about the media’s role are not matched by serious reporting.

Instead, we’re most often given superficial coverage of spectacle and distractions. Robert McChesney, in his excellent book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, describes the coverage that characterizes most elections in the United States today:

Media outlets obsess about misstatements and missteps— few of which ever move poll numbers— not simply on debate nights; they do so every night. Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote that “because of the pace established by Twitter and the Internet, the latest ‘gotcha’ moment snowballs faster than ever . For a reporter pressed to be ahead of the cycle, assuming conscientious-objector status would be suicide. Once one credible journalist takes the bait, everyone takes the bait.” The phenomenon is so common that Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer coined the term “dumbgeist” to refer to the plethora of “manufactured controversies, substance-free media obsessions” in campaign coverage.

We’re certainly seeing that in Montana the past few days, with the media competing with itself to run more trivial and pointless stories about the New York Times story about Senator Walsh’s alleged plagiarism at the Army War College. Again, let me be clear (especially for the literacy-challenged: John Walsh was wrong to plagiarize any portion of his academic work.  And let me be clear on another point: the Montana media should cover the story. It’s certainly important to a political race.  And a third point: not every member of the Montana press has treated this story like it’s the MOST IMPORTANT STORY in the history of journalism.

But there has been absolutely no sense of proportion in the coverage of this story.

Don’t agree? How about these classic pieces of Woodwardian journalism?

Is any voter possibly better informed about the US Senate race because they’ve read or watched one of these stories? Are there any other issues the intrepid reporters in the Montana media could have covered instead, stories that would help Montana voters better understand the choice they’ll face in November?

I think so

Now, if you want to know how Steve Daines and John Walsh will vote on critical issues facing Montana, you probably won’t be covered, because those stories can’t be reduced to 30 second or 600 word pieces—and definitely don’t have great art.

As a Democrat, and a blogger, and a concerned citizen who doesn’t want to see Steve Daines anywhere near the Senate, I’m reduced to hoping that someone will uncover a scandal in his past, because I know with near-certainty that his terrible votes on veterans’ issues, his role in outsourcing American jobs to China, and his commitment to punishing the poorest Montanans will never receive the kind of “in-depth” coverage a scandal would. Hell, the media isn’t even likely to meaningfully discuss the argument (a critical policy question facing the nation) advanced by John Walsh in his recently uncovered paper. 

As an admitted partisan, I’m left to hope that Representative Daines will sue a fire department for saving his property or that he’ll take a boat ride with a drunken state senator, because too many of the professional journalists in this state seem think their job is to cover superficial spectacle stories with even more alacrity than bloggers do.

And win or lose, Walsh or Daines, that’s a damn shame.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we\'d certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-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.

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  • John Walsh needs to remember: he has until Aug. 11 to withdraw.  He should do this as soon as possible, though, to give his replacement time to campaign.

  • Don, you missed a
    few pertinent facts in your analysis of Walsh’s plagiarism.Let me fill in the gaps.
    The reason this
    story has “substance” is because Senator Walsh and the bloggers who have
    desperately tried to give him cover have insisted from the beginning of his campaign
    that voters and the media should look at his “values”, his long military career
    and his “exemplary record of military service” as reasons to re-elect him to
    the US Senate.Unfortunately for Senator
    Walsh, both voters and the media did take a hard look at his record of service
    and found a growing list of well discussed and documented “errors in judgment”,
    poor leadership and poor behavior including his department’s dismal failure of
    its legislative audit, accusations of Walsh’s tolerance and failure to prevent harassment
    of employees under his command in the Montana National Guard, using his
    position to harass subordinates under his command to join a private organization
    for his own personal gain, lying about what college he graduated from http://hoh.rollcall.com/internet-confused-about-john-walsh-the-college-years/
    and, let’s not forget,his memorable “I
    like boobs” episode.

    The story of Walsh’s plagiarism continues to gain traction
    because of the bungling way Wash and his defenders have attempted to excuse and
    dismiss the issue.The best way of
    handling exposed lapses in ethics or morality is to step up to the plate, not
    make excuses, admit you were wrong to both voters and those injured, and
    immediately apologize for the bad behavior.Walsh and his defenders failed to do all of these.

    Instead we saw a bumbling series of denials and excuses that
    only fed the fire.Walsh’s first
    response, when questioned if he did anything wrong, was he didn’t remember
    using those sources followed by “I didn’t do anything intentional here” followed
    by “I don’t believe I did, no” follow by they were just a few missing
    citations.He then released a “fact
    sheet” that said the reason for his plagiarism was “Wash survived hundreds of IED
    explosions while in a Humvee” which he was later forced to change to surviving
    one attack when his “hundreds of IED explosions” was proven to be untrue.He later said he would “consider” apologizing
    to the scholars for stealing their academic work.They are still waiting for his apology.His staff then offered up he was suffering
    from PTSD for which he had never been treated but then Walsh changed that story to
    he was being treated at the time and stated he was and is still suffering from
    PTSD and is still taking anti-depressants. We can let the voters decide if they
    want to elect a person to the US Senate who is currently taking
    antidepressants.

    Walsh is not being
    helped by bloggers who try to pass off his blatant plagiarism as simply the
    result of “someone who probably didn’t entirely understand the conventions of
    attribution in an academic paper”.This
    excuse does not stand under scrutiny and is refuted by Walsh’s Army War College’s
    superior officers, by fellow students and by rules clearly laid out in the Army
    War College’s Student Handbook issued to Walsh:
    “…. Dr. Betros (the War
    College’s provost and retired brigadier general) emphasized that the War
    College’s students were repeatedly reminded about the strict academic integrity
    policy. “We drill that in incessantly,” he said.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/us/politics/montana-senator-john-walsh-plagiarized-thesis.html
    “….former students vividly remembered the
    rigorous, intense procedures regarding academic integrity: classes fully
    dedicated to plagiarism guidelines; PowerPoint presentations outlining rules
    that were routinely passed around; students signing sheets acknowledging that
    they understood the guidelines, and that submitted work was all their own.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/25/us/politics/plagiarism-raises-ethical-alarm-at-military-school.html?_r=0
    The Times points
    out, the War Colleges Handbook clearly points out “….Copying a segment of another’s work word for
    word, then conveniently ‘forgetting’ to include quotation marks, but
    ‘remembering’ to cite the source,” is described as academic fraud in the
    handbook.”
    Take a closer look
    at the analysis provided by the New York Times.It makes clear that very single page of his
    14 page Master’s paper is almost completely composed with either no attribution
    to the true author or is improperly attributed by using other author’s language
    without quotes.
    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/23/us/politics/john-walsh-final-paper-plagiarism.html

    Walsh needs to
    come clean, man up, quit making excuses and take responsibility for his
    actions.He has not done so to
    date.Until he does, the media will
    continue to have a field day with his “exemplary record of military service” he
    so proudly touts.

  • Turner2 
    Yep! And remember, if Gen. Wishy Walshy quits in time, the Max Barufus STILL has time to appoint his replacement!
    What a freakin’ joke walsh is.  But then again, who tol’  ya from the git go?  ME, that’s who.   I smelled a military rat immediately.  The dude is in WAY over his shallow head!

  • @Pogo Possum You know, I don’t disagree with a number of your points, but at the core, I think this is still the kind of low-hanging, substance-free nonsense that passes for political coverage these days. The first story? Over the top, but fair. The first wave of rewrites in the Montana media? Fair.

    The silly season stories about student interviews? Nonsense.

    I don’t know John Walsh, other than by reputation. My defense that his paper was not a deliberate effort to deceive, but the work of someone who wasn’t very good at citation, rests on my experience as a writing teacher. And I think the indignant quotes from supporters of the Army War College need to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, it’s seems hard to reconcile this strict standards of academic instruction with a paper that no one at the AWC noticed was incorrectly cited as badly as this one.

    Thanks for the comment and the point of view.

  • Here’s a letter I WISH John Walsh would write:

    July 27, 2014

    An Open Letter to the People of Montana:

    It is with very deep regrets that I’ve decided to withdraw
    my name from the 2014 Montana senatorial election.I’m thankful for all the support so many of
    you have given me.It was my privilege
    to have gone this far with you in trying, alongside Sen. Jon Tester, to bring
    Montana values to the U.S. Senate.

    I will continue to serve at Montana’s junior senator until
    my term expires in 2015 or until Governor Bullock asks me to stand down.

    I’m withdrawing because it is obvious that an indiscretion of
    mine while I was attending the War College a few years ago is going to be a
    large distraction in the upcoming election.It is no longer possible for me to talk about issues that are important
    to Montanans while constantly having to defend myself against attacks based on
    my indiscretion.

    I hope a replacement for me will be named very soon.We Democrats need to put up someone for
    Senate who will be able to effectively oppose the toxic, backward-looking
    positions of the Republican candidate.

    Highest regards,

    John Walsh, Senator

  • Turner2 Let’s play your scenario out, Turner. Which candidate do the Democrats put in the race who won’t have the exact same thing done to him or her?

  • dpogreba Don, My experience as a writing teacher tells me that some of what Walsh did was just incompetence, but some of it looks like deliberate fraud to me. Lord spare us from Steve Daines, but I cannot vote for Walsh after this.

  • DavidCrisp dpogreba Might I suggest the philosophy I used to use when it came to Senator Baucus? If the race was going to be close, I voted for him. The thought of Senator Rehberg was enough for Baucus to get my vote. If the race won’t be close, go ahead an vote on this issue.

    Utilitarian thinking is certainly a form of ethics. 🙂

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