Visiting D.C. this week, I wandered by the Newseum, a half museum, half shrine to the promise of journalism in a democratic society. On its facade, the museum proudly displays the entirety of the First Amendment just blocks from the US Capitol, a reminder that it is the press that has the power to check government abuses and inform the public.
It’s an important mission. A vital mission. And, unfortunately, for too many in Montana’s political press, a failing mission. Instead of in-depth coverage of issues, voters are subjected to trumped up campaign opposition research camouflaged as news reporting. Instead of a look at the demographic trends that are shaping votes, voters are subjected to real-time reporting of the horse race of politics whether the polls being cited have any validity or are even vetted. And instead of critical coverage of candidates, we actually have the state’s largest newspaper running cover for some candidates, criticizing other newspapers outside the state for practicing journalism, and ignoring relevant stories about the positions taken by our political class.
Worse yet, we’re treated to a false equivalency where a story about the tone of a meeting is treated with BREAKING NEWS coverage while substantive concerns about a candidate’s professional past are brushed aside. Lacking the context to report accurately on the history of bonding infrastructure in Montana, for example, readers are being sold a narrative that suggests Democrats and Republicans are equally responsible for the failure to pass critical infrastructure when it’s incontrovertibly true that it’s the Republicans who are acting (and have acted for three sessions) outside the bounds of precedent and logic.
This week, the national press broke two stories about Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte: that he settled a lawsuit filed against him after he fired a man with MS and that he has personally profited from association with Oracle, a company building the kinds of gun registry he rails against in his dishonest ads. The response from the MT press? Silence. Deafening silence. Deafening, “did you not attend journalism school?” silence.
Meanwhile, a reporter at the Billings Gazette felt it was newsworthy enough to report how many hunting licenses the two candidates for Congress have had in the past 14 years. The story, garbled as its syntax and structure were, struggled to make any point other than promoting the agenda of a candidate so out of touch with Montana voters that this is the only kind of news that can help him.
One is tempted to ask the Billings Gazette why this hasn’t been a story in every race for political office in Montana? Will we soon see a hunting license scorecard for every candidate for every office, or was this a one-off for the fragile masculinity and deep pockets of Greg Gianforte?
Bizarrely, as evidenced by this editorial, the Lee newspapers have done a credible job evaluating and critiquing Mr. Gianforte in opinion pieces. Why doesn’t the news coverage measure up?
We live in complex times when it comes to journalism. The Republican Party’s leader and our current President openly jokes about violence against the press. Montana’s Republican candidate jokingly embraced the idea when a member of the crowd mimed violence against reporters, telling the crowd “there are more of us than them.” At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, that’s dangerous talk, the kind of talk one sees in societies where the press is not just threatened by its economic difficulties.
Maybe those strategies are working. So afraid of being called biased by the angry, fake news consuming conservative crowd, perhaps the press has become too afraid to do their job, too afraid to rely on reporting the truth. How else can we explain not only the failure to cover the Republican candidate for Congress but the active effort to aid his campaign?
It’s a dark time for journalism in our state, and a dark time for voters who rely on the press to keep them informed. And it’s getting more difficult every day to see the light. All the shrines to journalism in the world can’t change that.