The Gazette’s Latest Embarrassing Editorial

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Does anyone else remember when Montana’s largest newspaper chain had an experienced political press corps? And actually could write editorials supported by their own reporting? I certainly didn’t always agree with the editorial positions the papers took, but you could almost always count on them being supported by actual reporting, not the conjecture of editorialists whose pieces underscore just how terrible the reporting at their papers have become.

Another exhibit in this sad spectacle is today’s opinion piece in the Billings Gazette  who perhaps wounded that his paper chain got scooped last Friday by the political reporter it let go to save money, is really mad at Steve Bullock.

Let’s take a peek at what the Gazette offered.

He writes:

When media (including The Billings Gazette) chided the governor for his closed-door, darkhorse pick, Bullock insisted Walsh was a great choice.

To begin with, I’d probably suggest that someone writing editorials about politics actually know what the term “dark horse” means, but we’re well past that point with the Gazette. The Gazette’s bizarre contention that Bullock did something wrong by appointing Lt. Governor Walsh because it was behind closed doors verges on the idiotic. They’ve never offered a compelling alternative scenario for a governor making such a pick, so I assume that they still endorse a reality show format for all appointments in state government. Given their love of transparency, too, one wonders whether the Lee papers won’t make their decision to force out experienced reporters all over the state a bit more public in the future.

And let’s talk about John Walsh for a minute. Since the Lee papers find his student plagiarism so objectionable that they bring it up repeatedly, why don’t they mention something else? That, easy as it would have been for Governor Bullock to have uncovered it, somehow the mighty Lee Newspapers didn’t find themselves. Not only did they not uncover it in the 2012 gubernatorial election; they didn’t uncover it in the 2014 Senate race. That was the New York Times, when a reporter was fed opposition research about the candidate by a Republican operative.

The Gazette continues:

when pressed more than a week ago for documents about the abrupt departure, Bullock’s office couldn’t produce the public records for some media organizations, but gave them to another Friday.

What the Gazette doesn’t mention is that the news organization that did receive the documents was led by Mike Dennison, the veteran political reporter his news chain let go precisely because it wanted to save money and shift coverage from “coverage of officials mired in government process.” Perhaps the experienced, veteran reporter well-versed in coverage of the government process was more effective in getting the records than the Lee team for something related to that decision, rather than because of some effort to spite the Billings Gazette. Perhaps in the interest of transparency, the Gazette can make public the request it submitted to the Governor’s office, too.

The Gazette writes:

In the case of Walsh, Bullock insisted that concerns about Walsh’s past and his ability to fill former Sen. Max Baucus’ seat were poo-poohed.

This is a less substantive critique, perhaps, but what in the hell does this sentence mean? Bullock insisted that other people must poo-pooh? Bullock insisted that other people had poo-poohed? Jesus.

The Gazette continues:

Folks wanted a more public, open process. Citizens were concerned that an appointment to the U.S. Senate, while Bullock’s to make, needed voter confidence. Bullock insisted he knew better, but it was obvious he didn’t know enough when plagiarism cost Bullock credibility and his party a Senate seat.

It’s usually not a great sign for the development of your argument when you’re repeating yourself as proof of your claim. I guess it’s a chance to take another shot at John Walsh, but it’s not support for the central claim of the piece. And it’s such a tiresome cliché to rely on what “folks” and “citizens” wanted, especially when the Gazette has no reporting to back that assertion. Most people understand that the Governor exercised his legal authority to appoint a replacement Senator, and most people understand that choosing the leading candidate for the office within your party is what governors do.

The Gazette continues:

The Gazette was part of the media gaggle trying to peer deeper into what is an odd, troubling pattern of folks exiting the Bullock administration. You’d think Bullock and his administration would understand: The more they fight and stonewall public information, the more headlines, stories and prolonged attention there will be.

He seems to be continuing the honed strategy of making something true by saying it twice in one editorial here. One assumes this piece will be further proof of what “folks want” the next time the Gazette writes another lazy editorial piece. More importantly, though, the piece lacks a little something folks like to see in their newspapers: reporting. For instance, what evidence does the Gazette provide that there is a “troubling pattern of folks exiting the Bullock administration”? A reporter with some experience would probably note that the rate of turnover for Bullock’s staff has been pretty low, but who needs facts? And putting aside the fact that one cannot stonewall public information, how does the editorial credibly claim that happened when the Bullock administration turned over the requested e-mails quite rapidly?

Finally, the Gazette writes:

Why? The answer to that may suggest there’s plenty of rumors, speculation and discord. In other words, where there’s smoke, there’s almost always fire.

That’s perhaps the most singularly idiotic contention in the piece, which is an achievement. In politics, there’s always smoke. Republicans have jumped on the McLean departure just as Democrats would have if the governor were a Republican, but there’s no fire here. Lee’s own “reporting” of the story has echoed what the Dennison piece found: that, in the end, the Governor and Lt. Governor did not end up working well together, for whatever reason. To assert that there must be something more to do the story without actually reporting something more to the story is a cheap shot of the lowest order, and part of the reason that people are so tired of the press.

If something illegal or unethical took place in the Bullock administration, I’d want the press to cover it and editorials to condemn it, even though I’d be quite disappointed. But that simply isn’t what has happened here, and for the Gazette, a newspaper that prints press releases disguised as news stories and which prints editorials by Republican candidates for governor which contain verifiable lies, to present itself as the voice of common “folks” looking for answers would be laughable were it not so offensive.

We need more critical press in this state, something I’ve written about for over a decade here, but that criticism needs to be based on factual reporting, not indignation and speculation. Of course, that’s asking a lot from a newspaper editorial staff that thinks replacing a lieutenant governor is worse than accepting a secret, illegal campaign donation and that reporters should feel ashamed to cover a Congressional candidate who jokes about having tortured people, so my expectations are quite low.

Update: While the initial online story seemed to give credit to an author, that does not appear to be the case any more. I’ve changed the story to reflect that change.

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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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