Montana Politics Ryan Zinke The Media

Were the Lee Papers Unfair to Ryan Zinke and His Family This Weekend? I Think So.

Written by Don Pogreba
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On Friday night, the Missoulian issued some breaking news, complete with a red banner at the top of their website. Was it that the President of the United States had pardoned, without following established practice, a political ally convicted of civil rights violations? The news that Hurricane Harvey had made landfall at Category 4 strength? An update about the fires raging across Montana?

No. It was that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s step daughter, Jennifer Detlefsen, had written an Instagram post a month ago criticizing President Trump’s decision to ban transgender troops from the military.

Her post was a passionate denunciation of an indefensible policy, laced with just the right about of profanity and personal vitriol against the President to make it both entirely accurate and thoroughly entertaining.

And, three weeks ago, when a friend sent me the post, I passed on writing about it.

I’m certainly not a journalist but had three qualms about posting it. The first and most important was that Mrs. Detlefsen is definitely not a public figure. The second was that, having sent her an e-mail for clarification about the post, I didn’t receive a response. The last was that, in exceptional circumstances, the children, even adult children, of politicians should be off limits unless they make themselves part of the campaign/office in a meaningful way. I hope Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokesperson at Interior, makes note of this one time we’ve agreed with each other.

The post felt like something to be shared with friends on social media, but not something to be broadcast to a broader audience.

It’s certainly possible that I am wrong about this. A lot of friends have happily shared the post, which has vaulted to the top of the “most read” list at the Missoulian. The editor of the Montana Standard suggested that I rethink my standards for news. I could very well have been wrong to pass on this then and wrong to feel uncomfortable about it appearing in the press now.

I have to concede the possibility that I’m wrong that this isn’t a newsworthy story. That being said, choosing to run it as a “breaking news” story is indefensible. What about a months-old Instagram post that had been shopped around the outlets across the country could justify treating it like breaking news? For instance, when the story was published, the reporter noted that Detlefsen “could not immediately be reached for comment Friday night,” meaning that the month-old story was published without affording the central figure reasonable opportunity to comment.

Was this story so urgent that the reporter could not get confirmation (the story notes that the account “appears to be the account” of Mrs. Detlefsen) or comment from the central figure involved? I don’t think any lives would have been threatened by waiting 24 hours for comment before throwing the story on the front of the Missoulian web page and its front page the next day. Again, I’m not a trained journalist, but the standard for “breaking news” should probably be higher than the fear that one might get scooped, especially on a story with absolutely no immediate impact.

And wouldn’t it have been more edifying for readers to get an in-depth look at the viewpoint of current servicemembers and veterans on the transgender ban? It seems awfully unlikely that Ms. Detlefsen will be part of that conversation now.

Finally, I am just very confused about why this example of social media is newsworthy when abuses of it by public officials here in Montana have not been. Why has the press ignored Theresa Manzella’s support for armed insurrection on Facebook? Senator Fielder arguing that Greg Gianforte was right to assault Ben Jacobs? Representative Trebas attacking unions and firefighters? Republican candidates for the Legislature calling for the death of President Obama? Rick Hill calling for an investigation into Ryan Zinke’s financial dealings? All on social media, all from public figures, all ignored.

I guess family drama gets more clicks than calls for assassination or insurrection.

I’m sure that reporters feel like they just can’t win. If they run critical coverage of a Democrat, they get called biased. If they run critical coverage of a Republican, they, usually with an epithet thrown in, get called biased. If they run a story that is damaging to a person I’ve railed against them to cover for years, they get hammered.

Most of the time, I don’t think the failings of the press are about bias. They seem to be about perspective. This story, like the endless coverage of Governor Bullock’s airplane, artificially inflate stories that are almost entirely personal or political over those that are matters of policy. For instance, buried in this piece is an important piece of reporting that actually deserves more attention. While the Missoulian story notes that Detlefsen did work for Zinke’s SuperPAC, it fails to address the fact that a national ethics watchdog called that out as part of a pattern of impermissible self-dealing that characterized Zinke’s efforts to personally and professionally enrich himself through Special Operations for America.

Another story that seems to have slipped while this one jumped to the top of the page.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-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.

6 Comments

  • @Mr Pogreba – I think your standards for news and how it’s reported are in keeping with what is (or should be) taught in journalism courses.

    The current editor at the Standard seems to be willing to take the responsibilities of his position seriously, but there’s an inevitable tendency to grant professional latitude on ambiguous issues to a fellow ink-stained wretch.

    Available space in a news budget cries out to be filled, but that’s no excuse to label as “breaking news” something that is essentially click-bait to generate more page-views.

  • There’s no evidence that Zinke’s daughter was speaking for her father. If she were, her statement would be newsworthy. But she was speaking for herself, and in my book, that’s neither front page nor next to the classifieds news. But Zinke’s wife’s online blessing of Troy Downing was news — she may well have been speaking for her husband — and news stories of her comments were justified.

    My default position at Flathead Memo is that a politician’s family is off-limits except for matters clearly associated with his campaign or office.

  • I did see her comments shared on Facebook in the last few days, but for them to suddenly rise to “Breaking News!” is ridiculous. I have no respect or admiration for Zinke, but the members of his extended family are private citizens, and should be allowed their opinions without being made sensational.

  • Tough call, Don. I believe that writing about family members who have no connection to the politics and policies of their elected parents/siblings/etc. is wrong. However, the opinion of members of the military reacting to this outrageous edict from Trump is newsworthy. Unfortunately, it had to be Zinke’s daughter and not the spineless Commander himself who made the appropriate comment.

    • That’s an aspect I hadn’t considered. I still don’t think the subject matter even remotely qualifies as “breaking news”, but it would certainly be worth an op-ed assessment pointing out that Zinke’s extended family displays more principle and integrity than the highly self-regarded former member of the military has mustered.

    • I think that’s my big problem with the piece. There was no pressure to run it on Friday at all. Instead, writing the piece you suggest would have been an excellent idea.

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