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The Billings Gazette Owes an Apology to Its Readers and Governor Bullock: Observation on the Perils of Inexperience

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I assume this will be the last time I write about this subject, barring another ill-considered editorial by a Lee paper about this issue. The reality is that Montana still has an excellent, highly-qualified lieutenant governor and OCHE has an excellent, highly-qualified leader working to increase high school achievement and enrollment in college.

But we have the same media. And the way they choose to frame politics in the state of Montana will have a huge impact on the 2016 elections. When it comes to Governor Bullock, they simply haven’t played fair—and in their editorial coverage of the Bullock/McLean split, the Billings Gazette misled Montana voters into believing that the Governor’s office was not providing the information the Gazette asked for.

A public records request for e-mails between the Bullock administration and the media shows that any delay in information provided to the Gazette and other Lee papers was caused by their failure to request the information.

In their editorial on December 15, the Gazette peevishly suggested that the Governor’s office had withheld information from their news chain, writing:

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.

They doubled down on that claim, suggesting that the Governor’s office “stonewalled” the Gazette and Lee papers:

What’s worse is that his office couldn’t even be transparent about emails and documents which media throughout the state had requested (more about that in a moment). 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.

The truth, though, is that the Gazette newspapers received the e-mails they sought later than other news organizations not because of any effort to stonewall their reporters or mislead the public, but because the Lee State Bureau asked for the e-mails SIX DAYS after Mike Dennison from MTN asked for them.

A public records request shows that the Lee State Bureau was days behind other reporters in asking for the public records they wanted.

  • The news broke on November 30 that Lt. Governor McLean was stepping down from her role to take the job at OCHE.
  • The next day, MTN’s Mike Dennison requested a series of e-mails between Governor Bullock, McClean, and other high-ranking administration officials. He clarified that request on December 2 at 9:22 a.m.
  • The first request from a Lee paper, from its State Bureau, came on Monday, December 7 at 11:21 a.m., almost a full week after Dennison’s request. (More on this request later)
  • On Friday, December 11, after Mike Dennison had written about the e-mails he requested on December 1, the Lee State Bureau asked for those records at nearly four o’clock on a Friday afternoon—and were given the records the following Monday.

It’s not been lost on anyone who follows Montana politics that the Lee Papers lost a great deal of experience and institutional knowledge when Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson were forced out, and this story is a telling example of that loss. Requesting those e-mails was an obvious step for an experienced political reporter to take, just as Dennison did. That the new Lee State Bureau took so long to make the request reflects incredible inexperience, a lack of institutional knowledge, and/or a poor allocation of resources.

What’s certain, though, is that there is no way the Gazette could justify claiming their reporters had been stonewalled or denied information. It’s incredibly unreasonable to blame the Governor’s office for their failure, but that’s just what the Gazette did, in an editorial that was repeated across the state.

I reached out to the Gazette for comment, and to his credit, editor Darrell Ehrlick responded to me via-email over the weekend:

The law doesn’t give public officials – regardless of their position – the ability to withhold a record based on when the request was submitted. If we request information that an agency has, it must turn it over for inspection immediately (unless it is under review by an attorney for withholding or redacting protected private information as defined by state law). Time is not a factor in requests.  It cannot give to one and not the other, if the requests are the same, regardless of time.

Having reviewed the two requests, though, Ehrlick’s defense rings hollow. The two requests were not identical, and each required review to ensure that no information that should not be released was. In fact, I made a public records request for this information on December 21, and received documentation in response on December 31, which seemed entirely reasonable. The position Ehrlick is taking seems to suggest that I could write a state agency every day and ask for electronic copies of all the information gleaned by media requests that day—and then be outraged when I don’t get it.

Ehrlick’s point also raises another issue from the Lee State Bureau request. In its request, which came six days after Dennison’s request, the Lee reporter issued a blanket request for all the other information from any other requests made by media:

I also request the documents produced by any other requests made by others involving the e-mails of one or all of these parties within the last two months.

That’s seems like a request that lacks professional courtesy at best and is pretty damn unethical at worst. While it’s legal to ask for the information from a public request, journalistic ethics would suggest that it’s far more appropriate to develop your own questions and do your own research into the story. One reporter from out of state I spoke to compared the request to stealing the work of the reporter who first developed the story. Another former reporter told me that here in Montana there has been a longstanding agreement that reporters who first pose questions get the information first, especially when the story is investigative.

And that makes sense. The reporters who develop investigations, do the leg work, and make the public records requests deserve to get that information first.

We need a combative press that questions government officials, and we need sharp editorials that call those officials out when they step out of line. Sharp editorials, though, need to be based on reported fact and accurate claims about coverage and information provided to the press. The Gazette failed that test here, lashing out at the Bullock Administration because their new State Bureau got out-reported and scooped by a former Lee reporter, one who has treated his former chain with nothing but public respect, even as new editors in the Montana Lee chain have been claiming their coverage has improved.

The Gazette should tell its readers the truth and apologize for misleading them. I suspect they won’t, but one can hope they’ll both better cover and editorialize in the future.

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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