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If You’re Going to Cover a Congressional Debate, You Should Get the Facts Right

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I woke this morning to read the coverage of the first debate between Denise Juneau and Ryan Zinke, expecting the typical debate narrative: heated clashed, quotes from a few zingers deployed in the debate, and commentary from surrogates about how each debater had decisively won the contest. What I didn’t expect was an article with serious proofing issues and some fundamental misrepresentations of what happened during the debate.

In a section about their respective commitment to Indian Country, the Lee story included this passage about Zinke:

“I think my opponent has the same problem Hillary does, the truth. The truth is I support tribes,” Zinke said. He cited the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact, working to recognize the Little Shell Tribe and introducing bills to help pay for water projects.

In his typically modest fashion, Zinke claimed that he “doesn’t think anyone has worked harder at trying to get the Blackfoot (sic)Water Compact done,” a project entirely different from the CSKT Compact, one that Zinke has absolutely not given clear support to. One might also note that Senator Tester has introduced the Blackfeet Compact four times, but that’s a side note.

And had Zinke signaled his support for the CSKT it would have been quite newsworthy, as he has quite carefully refused to commit to getting the deal approved by Congress. When he speaks to native audiences, he claims he supports the treaty, but when he speaks to majority white audiences he says he’s “not comfortable with it.” Even though Senator Tester introduced the CSKT in May, Zinke has not indicated his support, offering bold, clear statements like this:

“I’m going to look at it hard. It was so contentious, and I recognize there were some problems with it as it went forward,” Zinke said April 21. “I had concerns because the process became pitting neighbors against neighbors and it affected off-reservation rights, it affected senior water rights, and it affected the adjudication of water rights.”

It’s a huge error, and one that both seems to reflect an inaccurate transcription of the debate and an incomplete understanding of one of the most contentious issues in Montana politics today.

[Update: This appears to have been corrected in online versions of the story, though none note the actual correction.]

In a section about Zinke’s support of a bill written by a hate group to mandate English-only laws, the piece gets two facts incorrect:

She brought up Zinke’s support of the English Language Unity Act and his appearance with the ProEnglish organization, which has been called a racist group. Zinke said he voted for the act because it was about making certain (my emphasis) U.S. government documents that should be in English are in English.

Zinke did not say that the law he supported would make “certain” government documents English. His words last night reflect the intention of the law, that it would actually prohibit the federal government from delivering services in languages other than English. And the group Zinke took time out of his schedule to record a video with is not a “racist” group, but has been identified by the SPLC as a “hate group.”

There was also an important error of omission in the coverage. Regarding the LCWF, the story claims that neither side said much substantive about the program:

Neither candidate offered up much in the way of specifics when asked about land management issues including bison herds, sage grouse and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Zinke actually offered a very substantive position on the issue, twice saying that he supported “reforming” the program. The only reform program being offered in Congress for the LWCF is that of Utah anti-public lands activist Rob Bishop, who has been pushing “reform” of the LCWF that conservations fear will gut the program which has long been seen as a centerpiece of bipartisan legislation that protects public lands and improves local economies. For Representative Zinke to claim that the program needs reform is hugely newsworthy and demands follow up questioning.

The story also failed to note that Congressman Zinke bizarrely claimed that OPI has “over 1,000 employees,” a number that was only wrong by a little more than 800 staffers.

As Congressman Zinke repeatedly roughly 789 times last night, “truth” matters. I’d argue that he’s hardly the spokesperson for that virtue, but he’s right that a true accounting of events does matter, particularly in news accounts of debates that will help voters decide who to support in an election.

And while it’s petty, and while I certainly make mistakes in my writing on this non-professional site, it’s frustrating that the story contained some serious proofing errors when posted overnight. You can’t blame a reporter for that; a newspaper chain should probably be able to afford a copy editor.

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.

3 Comments

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  • I agree. “If You’re Going to Cover a Congressional Debate, You Should Get the Facts Right.”

    I listened to the entire debate last night and ironically, Don falls victim of the same exact “fundamental misrepresentations,” which he accuses the Lee reporter Holly Michels of doing.

    Check out what Don wrote above about the debate topic regarding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

    “There was also an important error of omission in the coverage. Regarding the LCWF, the story claims that neither side said much substantive about the program:

    ‘Neither candidate offered up much in the way of specifics when asked about land management issues including bison herds, sage grouse and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.’

    Zinke actually offered a very substantive position on the issue, twice saying that he supported “reforming” the program. The only reform program being offered in Congress for the LWCF is that of Utah anti-public lands activist Rob Bishop, who has been pushing “reform” of the LCWF that conservations fear will gut the program which has long been seen as a centerpiece of bipartisan legislation that protects public lands and improves local economies. For Representative Zinke to claim that the program needs reform is hugely newsworthy and demands follow up questioning.”

    Here’s the EXACT, WORD FOR WORD question and response from Rep Zinke on the LWCF. Read it and ask yourself if what’s below matches Don’s account (including “fundamental misrepresentations”) above.

    “Our next panel question comes from Sierra Stone Burkholt (biologist and rancher from southern Valley County) to Congressman Zinke.

    Burkholt: ‘The Land and Water Conservation Fund is used primary for expanding the federal estate, which removes Montanans from Montana, Montana land from Montana tax rolls and increase the 30% of Montana that is already federally controlled, increases the $20 billion federal land management debt and increases our $19.2 trillion national debt. Why are we spending money we don’t have to buy land we can’t afford to take care of?’

    Rep Zinke: ‘Well, actually I’m a great supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Act. I think it needs to be reformed and the state should have a say in where it goes, but overall it’s been enormously successful in providing access. You know Montanans have a different relationship with their public lands than some of our neighbors. You know we revere our public land. We revere having access and being able to use our public land. So you know when you have roads being shut off and a lack of access it affects us all. So the Land and Water Conservation Act has been good for Montana. Does it need to be reformed? Yeah, it does. We need a more collaborative approach. We need to make sure that local voices have a say. But I can tell you in Montana it has been overwhelmingly successful. And I’ve supported it over and over again. In fact, I’m the only candidate out of the three of our representatives that when it was going to leave at least my vote extended it for 3 years, otherwise the Land and Water Conservation Act was going to fail.’”

    While I’m in no way a fan or supporter of Rep Ryan Zinke, the truth and word-for-word account of what he said about the LWCF isn’t anywhere near Don’s “fundamental misrepresentations.” Ironically, the substantive part of Zinke’s response regarding “reform” seemed to be all about “the state should have a say in where [LWCF] it goes” and “We need a more collaborative approach. We need to make sure that local voices have a say. But I can tell you in Montana it has been overwhelmingly successful.”

    If that type of language sounds familiar it’s likely because Montana Democratic politicians like Senator Tester and Gov Bullock have also been tell Montana citizens that the State of Montana needs more of a say in federal public lands management and how we need more ‘collaboration.’

    Finally, it should be pointed out that the Montana Wilderness Association had this to say about Rep Zinke and the LWCF, including calling Zinke “a strident supporter for LWCF.”

    “Sen. Tester, Sen. Daines, and Rep. Zinke all support permanent reauthorization of the [Land and Water Conservation] Fund with a maximum permissible budget of $900 million annually…. Rep. Zinke has also been a strident supporter for LWCF.” (SOURCE: Montana Wilderness Association Blog, January 22, 2016 at http://wildmontana.org/wild-word/whats-next-for-lwcf)

    • I noted that Mr. Zinke twice said LWCF should be reformed. He did. For the story to not note (and develop that) is not great coverage.

      The other points, which you might note came first in my post, a traditional strategy for establishing significance, are indeed fundamental misrepresentations, though one has been fixed w/o a correction notice.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

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