The Plane Truth About the Coverage of Montana’s 2016 Elections: In the Crash Position

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The erosion of quality political coverage in Montana is continuing, with a combination of shoddy journalism and inadequate resources leading to the kind of political coverage that seems to not only under-inform Montana voters, but actually misinform them. With a few notable exceptions, it’s incredibly frustrating that we have such little useful coverage of races that will shape the future of Montana and so much bad coverage of manufactured outrage and theater designed to distract us from the emptiness of some campaigns.

There’s no better example of this than the fact that the Montana press has once again covered the faux scandal that the governor of one of the largest states in the country occasionally, though less often than previous governors, uses a state-owned airplane, to travel the state. I believe this is the third wave of coverage of the critically unimportant issue, though I may have missed one wave during the past month.

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It’s a complete non-story, one with no real budgetary impact and no true significance, but every time the Gianforte campaign comes crying about it, the Montana press seems to follow. For some context, even if the inflated claims the Gianforte campaign was making were true, the annual cost of the governor’s plane is less than one dollar per day for each Montanan.

And this kind of coverage is precisely why Montana voters don’t know much about the candidates running for office. Why do an in-depth investigation into votes cast and policies supported when you run a reporter out and have him/her dutifully repeat pre-packaged material from a staged event, throw in a few quotes from campaign staff on both sides, toss in a comment from a professor of political science and call it a day?

And, hell, let’s not even make sure that the first wave of stories, the ones that will get the most

Two million dollars!
Two million dollars!

attention, are even accurate. While Gianforte was claiming his decision to sell the plane would generate TWO MILLION DOLLARS, even that wasn’t correct, and Gianforte campaign was, once again, lying. Admittedly, Mr. Gianforte lying is hardly news, but news stories generally should be true, and the assertion at various media outlets about the cost of the plane after the press event simply weren’t true.

According to one press account, the Gianforte campaign announced their plane spectacle was a “major policy proposal,” a laughable position for a serious campaign for governor and one ripe for mockery if the media were doing their job.

Mr. Gianforte’s proposal to slash taxes for the wealthiest Montanans and companies, an issue that has received far less attention from the press, would cost the state $125 million annually. Shouldn’t that issue get more attention? More coverage about its impact? More discussion about how the Gianforte campaign would make up the shortfall, especially when they are now claiming, facts to the contrary, that Montana is already facing a budget deficit?

It’s incredibly frustrating. And damaging to the political process.

It’s also why I take some issue with recent posts from Logicosity and Pete, writing here, about the Juneau campaign. I think Juneau has been as energetic and effective a candidate as Democrats have had for Congress in some time, but the press isn’t paying much attention to the race.

The Montana press gave days of coverage to Congressman Zinke’s self-announced consideration for both Speaker of the House and Vice Presidential candidate, but its coverage of his voting record has been thin at best. His association with hate groups, his persistent waffling, his outright dishonesty, and his close association with extremists, just to name a few issues, have received little or no attention.

It’s incredibly challenging to unseat even a one-term incumbent, especially one who has an incredible talent for raising money from gullible out-of-state people. It’s even harder when the press doesn’t cover your race.

And take a look at the race for Superintendent of Public Education. We’ve had a few fluffy biographical pieces, but where has the coverage of policy been? There is a clear difference between Representative Arntzen, who has voted for school privatization, for for-profit charters, against more funding for schools, and Melissa Romano, who opposes her on all of these issues. Maybe the press could beyond single stories in which the women outline their positions and dig into them, have them explain their views.

For instance, months after she’s filed for the race, shouldn’t Montanans know how Arntzen stands on Common Core, educations standards she said she supported in 2012 but voted to repeal in 2015? That seems like an important issue facing the next chief of Montana’s schools, doesn’t it?

And further down the ballot, I suspect most Montanans are only dimly aware that Matt Rosedale and Corey Stapleton are once again trying to TEA Party their way into elected office.

It’s understandable to criticize candidates for failing to find a message that resonates, but for the message to get any attention someone out there has to be listening—and writing the stories that articulate meaningful differences between the candidates.

We’re told that the challenge of press today is decreasing revenue which leads to fewer reporters and less coverage, and I have no doubt that is all true. Given the lack of resources, though, shouldn’t the press prioritize its coverage? Isn’t the answer better coverage of actual news, not repeated coverage of theatrics?

If an airplane was running low on fuel, the last thing passengers would want is for the pilot to waste what remained on a stunt; we’d want her to prioritize what matters. Can’t we ask the same of the people who are entrusted with giving us the coverage we need to select our leaders?

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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.

3 Comments

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  • Phil Drake now walking it back a little on ‘Da Plane, boss, Da Plane’ to bring back memories of Fantasy Island….

    • The sad thing about Drake is that he is SO pathetic and he doesn’t even realize it! Wonder where Ecke dredged this guy up?! I kinda hate to read his stuff any more, for it’s not pleasant to watch a guy make a fool of himself in public every time he writes. It’s embarrassing.

      Geez, we’ve gone from Jon Adams, who really was becoming a good Montana writer, to Mandrake! Like the root itself, he appears to be something he’s not!

      And that’s just real sad for the folks who subscribe to the Spitoon.

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