In 1983, I didn’t abandon the Los Angeles Dodgers. They abandoned me. That year, the club parted ways with my favorite player, Steve Garvey, allowing him to sign a free agent contract with a team I had never even thought about: the San Diego Padres. I followed Garvey to the Friars, and have been a fan ever since. For most of the those years, my unquestioned sports idol was the Padres’ right fielder, Tony Gwynn.
When I began following Gywnn, he was a lean speedster who could steal bases and blaze in the outfield. By the end of his career, he looked a lot more like I do, but one thing never changed: Gwynn got hits. Day after day, Gwynn stepped up to the plate and drove singles into left field. In a career with over 3,100 hits, Gwynn hit 2,378 singles.
Though he was never the MVP of his league and never really got the media attention that hitters who swung for the fences did, Gwynn became a consensus Hall of Famer because he knew that it was more important to get on base and give his team an opportunity rather than get more attention by trying to hit for more power.
Gwynn’s career offers an instructive model for those who practice political journalism, especially those who do it with limited resources. While a reporter might certainly get more attention for publishing a big, breaking story, most of the work of journalism is coming to work and hitting singles every day.
Take, for instance, the story I posted last week about Greg Gianforte’s past, public support for a sales tax in Montana. It’s not just the story of a venal politician who, now that he is running for office, has abandoned a former belief, but it’s the story of the damage deteriorated journalism is doing to democracy. Print press accounts of Mr. Gianforte’s 4-0-6 tax proposal all dutifully recorded his assertion that he didn’t support a sales tax in Montana, but none mentioned his past support for one. None of the state’s new print journalists had either the background knowledge to know what Gianforte had previously advocated nor the wisdom to simply search the archives of their local papers, it seems, and Gianforte was allowed to say without question or context that he was an opponent of the sales tax.
That failure is an indictment of a political press that is more interested in making flashy plays than in doing the less glamorous work of practicing daily journalism. The reason I know that Greg Gianforte supported a sales tax is because former Lee reporter Chuck Johnson covered it, including attending a legislative interim committee meeting where the matter was discussed. Those meetings, dreadful and endless, are where real news is often made, but that’s not part of the new model.
Remember when Lee pushed Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson out? Part of the rationale offered by the Lee Newspapers chain was that it was time to stop devoting journalistic resources to events like covering meetings in Helena during the interim between legislative sessions.
Attending those meetings and maintaining connections and institutional knowledge are the singles Tony Gwynn hit every day. Just as the national sports scene didn’t fully appreciate Tony Gwynn until he was gone, it seems Montanans may not have fully appreciated the work of journalists toiling through unnumbered, mind numbing meetings to make sure we understood the legislative process and the players who shape our laws.
The best model for journalism isn’t swinging for the fences all the time and desperately hoping to hit a home run. That leads to lengthy, fruitless searches into personal e-mail accounts that find nothing but generate headlines incommensurate with the impact of the story. Have recent stories about airplane use and personal conflicts made a splash? Yes. Have they made good news? Not so much.
When I think about how blogging about Montana politics has changed in the past few years, the answer is easy. Back then, I might pick out one part of a story that didn’t ring true or where I wished the reporter had dug a little deeper. What we rarely had to worry about was the possibility that entire stories would not get covered or that that journalists would not have done the legwork to write the big story. I knew that the reporters writing the story likely knew so much more about the issue or candidate being covered that I’d learn something even if I didn’t agree with the whole story.
And to be clear, this isn’t a categorical condemnation of the work done by the political press in Montana. Good stories are being written and good reporters are working here still. I just wish there was a little more focus on the kind of professional, daily journalism that would keep Montanans better informed than the scandal of the week.
Like all Padres fans must, I’m trying to remain hopeful. I want to believe that press coverage about politics and governance will get better in Montana, but my hope isn’t centered in the big chain that dominates the state; it’s found in the small startups who seem to understand that toiling away through meetings is essential to making—and understanding— the news.