An Open Letter to Charles Johnson

Dear Chuck:

Look, I feel badly for Senator Burns, too. No matter how despicable his politics have been and how shamefully he’s conducted himself, both as a Senator and a candidate, he’s probably actually a decent guy, who thinks he’s doing right. It’s got to be hard, watching your political career end before you are willing to give it up. All that being said, don’t you have an obligation to be more critical of a three-term U.S. Senator when he’s clearly out of his depth, if not outright lying, in the course of a debate? If all you are going to do is say that the debate was a heated exchange (again!) and repeat lines from the candidates, wouldn’t a stenographer be more useful?

In your coverage of the last debate between the two candidates, you gave Senator Burns a free pass again. Consider this passage. You wrote:

Burns attacked Tester for running ads saying he supports a 23 percent national sales tax. Burns said he filled out a questionnaire saying he would be willing to look at a national sales tax that would eliminate all other taxes, but had made no commitment to support one until he saw the details.

And yet, that is almost entirely untrue. In the National Taxpayers Union survey, Burns checked the box that said he would support “A national retail sales tax that provides reasonable protection for low-income people, with a U.S. Constitutional Amendment to abolish and prohibit all federal income taxes after a transition period.” Not consider, not look at, but support.

You also included this passage:

“Give me a break,” the three-term senator and former Yellowstone County commissioner said. “I’ve never voted for a tax increase. Don’t intend to start now.”

For what must be the hundredth time, that’s also not true. One of your own papers, the Billings Gazette, reported on May 13th that Senator Burns voted to increase taxes more than 11,000 middle class families in Montana.

And that’s just a start. Burns has learned in the course of these debates that he can say whatever he wants, because coverage of the debates consists of repeating the debates. Even by omission, your article gives Burns the benefit of the doubt. Why no mention of the fact that our three term Senator thinks that:

  • the 1972 terrorist attack in Munich that he has been using as a talking point all year took place in 1964?
  • it is UN, not NATO, troops currently deployed in Afghanistan
  • he has worked to increase Pell Grants, despite voting against increases repeatedly?
  • more students are choosing to stay in Montana after college?

The truth is Burns gets away with it because it’s easier to be megaphone than a reporter. I know that being critical of candidates might your job more difficult. But it’s your job. Both candidates, all campaigns, and all governments officials must be scrutinized by the press if our system is going to work. You might get some angry letters from partisans, and a few politicians might not return your phone calls for awhile, but the truth is that politicians need you more than you need them. They’ll come back–and maybe next time, they’ll tell the truth.


Don Pogreba

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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