Well, it looks like we’ve got our candidates for the House and statewide offices for 2016. It appears the field for the 2016 races is set—and the next 253 days are an opportunity for the political press to help Montana voters make informed choices about the candidates who will represent them in Washington.
Political campaigns in Montana are a mess, as they are across the nation. While a great deal of the problem has certainly been caused by campaign advisors, dark money practitioners, PACs, and the candidates themselves, the political media share a great deal of the blame. You’ve allowed (and even occasionally encouraged) superficial campaigning at the expense of an informed electorate.
And that same media–under-staffed, over-worked, and often criticized–are the group best positioned to improve political discourse and voter-information. Yes, you.
How can you change?
Perhaps most importantly, stop treating the political races like a couple of horse races. While there’s always another poll to write about, another half-informed assessment from Larry Sabato to cite, or another round of speculation about the viability of candidates, none of those stories inform voters about what really matters. There’s nothing wrong with running the occasional story about the polls in these races, but non-stop coverage of internal and external polls and quotes from talking heads handicapping the races cheapens the process without helping voters decide anything. Leave that nonsense to the blogs.
On a related note, stories about the campaign strategies and staff might be interesting to wonks, but do little to help voters make good choices. If we could have an entire election season without a question about campaign strategy or quotes from insiders about the “inner workings” of campaigns, it would be a huge improvement over the current coverage.
Next, avoid the temptation to to attend and write about every politically manufactured event the campaigns send a media advisory about. Look, I get it. It’s easy to attend a “rally” in some small Montana town, collect a few quotes and run some pictures of political involvement. But how often do those events generate real news? How often do they advance the political debate? Given the enormous staffing limitations faced by so many Montana media outlets, it seems awfully hard to justify sending a reporter and a photographer to events that are little more than staged photo opportunities. The spectacle of the press following Greg Gianforte’s “Regulation Roundup” offers an instructive example of just how little news values one will find in these events.
Finally, don’t wait for an opposing candidate to issue a press release before you run a critical story about another candidate. If a candidate engages in shady campaign finance practices, waiting for another candidate or party to raise the issue turns the story into a “he said, she said” spat that obscures factual analysis. The media’s role shouldn’t be to transmit competing claims of veracity, but to evaluate the facts as they exist.
Enough talk about what you’ve done at times in the past. What should or could your coverage of these races look like?
Write deep, researched stories. Dig into candidate records, job experience, and issue positions. The power of the media is that you have both the expertise and resources to offer context and historical analysis. I’d much rather see a well-developed story that puts the skills and expertise of someone who has been covering politics for a generation to use than half a dozen stories about some trivial spat over a candidate’s hurt feelings about a political ad.
Next, focus on the candidates’ positions on critical issues facing Montana and run those stories every week. Voters deserve to hear what the candidates believe about reproductive rights, military intervention, wolves, Social Security, and the whole gamut of political issues facing the state and nation in more depth than 30 second ads allow. Give each candidate a set of specific, detailed questions about their proposals, positions, and likely votes and give them the space to answer each in your papers, with more space to explain their positions online. Ask a new question or two each week and run the answers on Sunday.
Let the candidates use their own ad time to stand earnestly in front of a friend’s ranch in brand new gloves talking about their status as fifth generation Americans; use your coverage to inform voters what those Montanans with such ancient roots here will do if elected.
Take the balanced budget as an example. Every candidate running for Congress over the next year will claim that he/she plans to “balance the budget.” None of them will offer any specifics explaining how s/he plans to do it. Press for the specific cuts they will champion to achieve their stated goal of reducing federal spending.
On abortion, for instance, ask the candidates to answer how they would vote on specific legislation they are likely to address in Congress. An excellent example on reproductive rights would be to ask candidates how they would vote on a bill like the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would prevent “states from passing Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws.” Since that’s a law these candidates will likely have to vote on if elected, why not ask now what they’d do?
Don’t voters deserve to know how the people they vote for or against will vote on specific legislation critical to their interests? These stories won’t end the barrage of dishonest, sophistic ads from candidates and outside groups, but they certainly might mitigate their influence. Both parties like to claim that they lose races because of what they call “low-information” voters. Why not put this to the test?
Critics of my proposal might suggest that it’s naïve to think that candidates will tell the truth and offer actual, specific answers to hard questions, that they will offer pablum like “balancing the budget is critical for Montana’s future” instead of identifying their real positions and their specific positions.
That’s where my final suggestion comes into play: call candidates out for refusing to offer specifics. If a Congressional candidate doesn’t answer the specific question posed, simply don’t run his answer—and tell readers why you didn’t do it. That wouldn’t be an example of bias; it wouldn’t be irresponsible coverage. It would simply be accurate. If the candidates lack the courage of their convictions to answer questions honestly, voters deserve to know that, no matter how much Super PAC money they have to spend misinforming voters. For instance, the state’s largest newspaper should probably stop giving those who hold political office space in their editorial pages when those same candidate won’t answer questions from reporters at that same newspaper.
For some reason, it too often seems that you all in the political media have become so cowed by accusations of media bias that you won’t offer honest, factual assessments of candidate claims—or candidate silence.
Finally, a reminder. The politicians need the media far more than the media need the politicians. Remember that. If candidates for political won’t answer fair, honest questions about what they’d do in Congress, you not only have the right to publicize his refusal, you have an obligation to it. And you have the power here.
Nothing is going to prevent a sea of dishonest television ads and third-party mailers flooding our airwaves and mailboxes in the next year, but naïve though it may be, I believe the media in Montana does have the power to raise the discourse of these races. It’s time for the political media to remember and reclaim its power in a democratic society. It’s time for the media to remember what Walter Lippman said back in 1920, when he wrote, ‘There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”
I know we’ve had our difference over the years, but I’m an optimist. I certain that you have the capacity and the will to improve the tenor of our political campaigns.
We’re all counting on you.