Given the state of print journalism in the U.S. today, with over half of newspaper jobs in the U.S. lost since 2001, it’s ever more important that the work reporters do is important. Given that there simply aren’t enough bodies to cover the stories that need to be covered, journalists and their editors need to exercise judgment about the stories they write and promote in their papers. While I’m sympathetic to reporters being asked to do more with less all the time, I’m often frustrated by the choices they make with those limited resources. Lately, there’s been no paper in Montana as bad as the Billings Gazette when it comes to exercising judgment about what constitutes an important story and what is just filler.
So, let’s play another round of News, Not News? with the Billings Gazette.
According to the editorial judgment of the Gazette’s primary political reporter and editor, it’s Not News that Senator Steve Daines cast a deciding vote to allow Internet Service Providers to sell the private information of consumers or just how much money he’s received from the very industry to which he gave that incredible gift. While this has been a huge national story, there’s been no mention in the Gazette, no demand for comment on an issue important to almost every household in the state. Daines, who has been positioned by his staff and the press as some kind of technology expert, should be held to a higher standard to explain this vote than he has been.
According to the Gazette, it’s also not news that Senator Daines cast a deciding vote to allow states to withhold critical Title X funding from Planned Parenthood. Daines’s vote on this issue was even more critical, as the Republicans who rammed it through needed to wheel in a Senator recovering from back surgery and call on Vice President Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote.
Actual votes on actual issues that will affect Montanans? Clearly not news and not covered at all.
So, what is News?
According to today’s Gazette, it’s critically important news that Senator Daines issued a press release about a bill he’d like to get passed regarding the fate of abandoned federal buildings. While that’s certainly potentially news, it’s hard to understand why the Gazette gave it greater importance than the two critical votes Daines cast last week. It’s especially difficult when one looks at the bill on the Senate web site itself. A careful observer or seasoned journalist might note that the link to the bill on Daines’s site is a template that isn’t even complete. The bill, according to Congress.Gov, doesn’t have a hearing date or a single cosponsor.
A little more context shows how unimportant this press release that became news was. The likelihood of Daines getting something passed is very low.
According to the Huffington Post, about four percent of bills introduced in Congress become law. Given that the Senate works fewer than 120 days a year, there’s precious little time to get bills passed, so the odds of the Daines proposal going anywhere aren’t great. A look at Govtrack shows that Senator Daines is even less effective than most members of the Senate, with zero laws enacted in 2015, 0 bills co-sponsored by a chair or ranking member, and one of the worst “leadership scores” in the entire body.
Until the bill starts moving through Congress, something Senator Daines has not been effective at in the past, it’s hard to understand how this feel-good story is newsworthy. Members of Congress introduce bills all the time. Most of them are much better at it than Senator Daines.
I absolutely understand that it’s easier to rewrite a press release and call up a few quotes to punch out a story, but it’s this kind of journalism (and the absence of it) that’s doing real harm to the democratic process. Printing this press release and not covering vital votes gives readers the impression that Senator Daines is a moderate voice working for Montanans and ignores the corporate giveaways and threats to women his actual votes have led to.
The Gazette simply needs to get better at News, Not News? for all our sake.
As an addendum, they probably need to get a bit better at proofing stories, too. This is part of the version that is still posted online at the Montana Standard (my highlights in yellow).