Burns-Tester Coverage: Why Won’t the Media "Say Anything"?

There’s a great line in the 1989 film “Say Anything,” when the protagonist Lloyd Dobler tells his friends, “If you start out depressed, everything is kind of a pleasant surprise.” It’s a lesson I wish I could learn in the context of the Montana media’s coverage of the Senate race. Every time I read a story or recap of a debate, I let myself feel profoundly disappointed, because I  let myself believe this will be the story that does justice to the race. Tonight, once again, no pleasant surprises.

While Matt Gouras’s piece for the AP does mention that Senator Burns didn’t answer a question about Jack Abramoff, he either gave Burns a free pass on other issues or distorted what happened. Consider these examples. On Jon Tester’s question about Burns’ support for a national sales tax, Gouras writes:

Burns said he would consider it as part of overall tax reform. Tester said he would not.

Sounds straightforward, right? Except that’s not what happened. Burns clearly had no idea what he had supported in the NTU survey, and fumbled for an answer, knowing that support of a sales tax would be politically unwise. Burns was so flummoxed by the question that he  didn’t even say he would support the idea of national sales tax. Gouras’s description of this critical exchange is the equivalent of a sportswriter describing a a game-losing interception as an ‘pass attempt.’ Burns sounded foolish and uninformed about his own position; isn’t that part of the coverage?

Another example is Gouras repeating something that was clearly a prepped line for Burns:

Later in the debate, Burns went after Tester for recently going to Washington, D.C., to raise money.
“Guess what he was doing _ having a fundraiser with those lobbyists. Don’t you find it a little hypocritical?” Burns said.

Great point, other than the fact that Tester answered the criticism, noting that Senator Burns had changed votes after lobbyists had visited him and that Burns had recently tried to block 911 requirements from Vonage, then accepted a charter flight to a fundraiser. Someone who didn’t hear the debate wouldn’t have that context–and the Gouras story makes it appear that Burns actually scored a point with this weak analysis.

At this point Senator Burns could spin about on his heels, crow like a rooster and walk up to a robotic Jack Abramoff, punch in a pin number, and take cash from him onstage, and the coverage would still be nothing more than “There was a heated debate between Senator Burns and Jon Tester Saturday night.”

But the Gouras isn’t the end of it. It’s Sunday, so that means it’s time for Charles Johnson’s Horse Sence–the IR’s spelling, not mine. What’s on Mr. Johnson’s mind? A thought-provoking piece with this controversial thesis: sometimes negative advertising can work by making people dislike a political candidate, and other times, it doesn’t work. Featuring the generic stylings of Larry Sabato and Craig Wilson, Johnson offers a few self-defense tips, like checking up on the veracity of claims made by the candidates.

Isn’t that what newspapers are supposed to do? Sure, voters have an obligation to inform themselves, and there are more tools available to them than ever before, but those tools are also available to reporters. Why, for example, don’t the Lee papers have someone analyze the debates? If amateur bloggers, working in their free time can do it, wouldn’t it be great if trained, non-partisan reporters did the same? Why, for example, doesn’t Mr. Johnson write specifically about the negative advertising in this campaign? It’s apparent to anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex that the Burns campaign has been much more negative, backed by a  great deal of out-of-state funding. Writing a story that suggests negative advertising happens in political campaigns is about as useful as instructing people that coffee is served hot.

There has been some very solid coverage of this race, from Jennifer McKee and Bety Cohen’s work on the INSA scandal to Mike Dennison’s piece on health care  in the Gazette today. Hell, even this story by Charles Johnson is pretty solid, other than the Missoulian’s headline.What distinguishes good coverage from bad is not that it reports what I want to hear; it’s that the coverage says something of substance, drawing meaningful distinctions through analysis and comparison. 

We’re drawing close to the finish line in this election. Despite Lloyd Dobler’s wisdom and my better judgement, I’m going to keep waiting to be pleasantly surprised. There’s a great story to be written about this race–and I think it’s going to come.

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 would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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.


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