There was a moment in Stephen Colbert’s 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner that has stuck with me since. In a speech panned by the media at the time for being too biting, Colbert offered this savage and spot on critique of the press:
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!
All too often, it seemed, during the Bush Administration and still seems today, coverage of policy and politics is dominated by merely transferring what those in power want to be said. Here in Montana, that’s all too often the case, as reporters run to stage political events and treat them as news, or worse yet, become little more than errand boys for the political elite, treating their steaming piles of opposition research as newsworthy for little reason other than that it makes easy to write copy.
In the last week, national and international reporters have broken three stories about Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte:
- As the owner of a software firm, he was sued by a man fired because he had MS. Gianforte later settled the suit.
- Gianforte, though running ads claiming his opponent would create a national gun registry, is actually profiting from a company that is building one of those databases. Even the very conservative, pro-gun Guns.com picked up the story.
- Gianforte is invested in Russian companies that have been sanctioned by the US government. The Hill thinks it’s newsworthy, too.
And none of these stories have been covered by the Montana press.
Instead, readers of the state’s largest newspaper chain were treated to front page coverage of the history of fishing and hunting licenses obtained by the two candidates for office. In my years reading about Montana politics, there has never been a similar story, despite public lands being a central concern in race after race.
What, I wondered, made Gazette reporter and Gianforte errand boy Tom Lutey write the piece? It turns out that, much like I guessed, he was fed another story by Republican operatives and PACs.
A public records request shows that Mr. Lutey requested the hunting and fishing license records of Mr. Quist and Mr. Gianforte on April 26, bizarrely the very same day his story appeared. It turns out, though, that Lutey wasn’t even the first journalist who requested those records. As a reporter at KTVH requested the records on April 25 and another requested them a few hours earlier than Lutey on April 26.
What, I wonder, would prompt those media requests, all within twenty-four hours?
The first requests for the hunting and fishing license records came from Republican operative Scott Yeldell from Marathon Strategic Communications and the America Rising PAC on April 6th, 2017. A brief Google search of Mr. Yeldell would have revealed some of his part work and anyone vaguely familiar with politics knows all about America Rising.
Lutey’s story never indicates that the source of the nakedly political attack was a Republican PAC.
I suppose it’s possible that all of these people had the same idea to cover this “story” at precisely the same time, but it’s certainly much more likely that PACs and people working for Greg Gianforte decided to drop another negative attack, perhaps precisely to divert attention from the latest troubling incident in Mr. Gianforte’s past.
There’s a dangerous precedent here. If Republican operatives know they can wrap up a piece of trivial nonsense into a story and send it to Mr. Lutey to “report” on, why bother with expensive ads? Why not simply use the press as a conduit for partisan attacks if you know that the press won’t thoroughly vet the story nor even evaluate how newsworthy it is?
Think about how bizarre this situation is. Mr. Lutey eagerly ran a story fed to him by partisan operatives with almost no lead time, but refuses to mention or acknowledge work being done by actual reporters writing actual stories across the globe.
I’m not sure what makes Mr. Lutey so eager to carry water for Republicans in this race. It’s hard to say whether it’s personal animus against Democrats, profound laziness, or simply no sense of what makes something news, but the state’s largest newspaper chain probably should start asking itself whether a person who can’t seem to cover this race fairly should be entrusted with leading its coverage.
Being a reporter has to mean more than spell checking a packet of opposition research and slapping a breaking news story on a web page. It has to mean understanding what stories have value, vetting those stories, and doing real reporting on them. It can’t mean simply running errands for the political class and letting them continue to subvert our democracy.