It's disappointing, but not surprising when a press flunky for a member of Congress lies to the public. To some extent, a certain level of dishonesty and politicking probably goes with the job. The trade off is that the public tends not to believe most of what these hacks have to say, so when Dennis Rehberg's spokesman Bridger Pierce was quoted in the Lee Newspapers as having said: “Denny’s schedule has always been available. . . . “The public can always stop by any of our five offices, call our 1-800 number, and we can e-mail them or fax them a copy of our schedule,” I was almost certain that he was lying.
And he was. Thirty-five days later, despite repeated calls and office visits by a number of people, the Congressman's schedule is still not available. I suspect it never will be. Why? Bridger Pierce, and by extension, Dennis Rehberg know they can lie with impunity when dealing with the press, because they will almost never be called to account for their dishonesty.Why? Because it's a lot easier to be a "reporter"', if you can rely on prepackaged stories from government officials, and the delivery of those prepackaged stories might be threatened by honest reporting of the facts. If we've learned anything from the Scooter Libby trial, it's that the press in this country would rather be a part of the establishment than challenge it, and even reporters from minor players like Lee Enterprises play the same game.
On February 13th, I contacted Noelle Straub, the Lee reporter who wrote that Rehberg's schedule was, and "always had been" available to the public. I gave her the names and contact information of a number of people who had tried to acquire this schedule. To her credit, she did contact Rehberg's office, and then wrote back a troubling e-mail:
Just between us, Rehberg's office seems to be putting together a distribution system so people can sign up to receive his schedule on a regular basis. We'll all be watching to see how it works. Thanks,
That's a troubling e-mail for a number of reasons.The e-mail tacitly admits that there was no fact-checking on the original piece; the word of spokesman was enough for the reporter, and her paper. It acknowledges the fact that Rehberg's spokesman lied in the initial story, a falsehood never subsequently corrected in any Lee paper. Finally, it's troubling because it may well still be a lie–three weeks later, a Congressional staff of at least ten workers hasn't figured out how to send a mass e-mail, despite bombarding me with postal mailers this fall.Rehberg's staff knows that it's not an issue to be dishonest, because reporters don't really "watch" them at all.
How does Rehberg know this? Because just over two weeks after being informed that Rehberg's office had lied to her, Ms. Straub published a puff piece touting a Rehberg junket to Italy. Without any attempt at balance or even to check the information fed to her by Rehberg's press office, Straub reported a series of unsupported assertions, including the claim that an unnamed Italian company might sign a 10 year deal with an unnamed Montana group for $60 million, a fact that a reporter, not a scribe, might have looked into, rather than repeating as truth.
Straub's article also mentions that:
The Missoula-based companies Milky Whey and ArmorAuto also expect to pick up Italian business as a result of the trip, officials said.
A nice fact, but one lacking appropriate context. Shouldn't a reporter have checked to see why those two companies benefited in particular? Run a google search? That minimal effort would have shown that there was a reason Rehberg singled out these two companies: cash.
The CEO of ArmorAuto? John Ryan, who:
- is on Rehberg's election campaign page with a freaking endorsement letter
- has taken trips to Germany, Asia, and now Italy with the Congressman
- is a campaign contributor
The owner of Milky Whey? Curtis Pijanowski, also a Rehberg campaign donor .
It's reporting, not repeating. Reporters ask questions and look for answers.
Do I think Noelle Straub or Lee Enterprises are biased? I can't know, but I doubt that there is an ideological bias at play here. Instead, it's the more insidious bias that's omnipresent in American media today: the assumption that government officials tell the truth–and that they shouldn't be challenged, even when the information they present is demonstrably false. If a reporter who was lied to by a source turns around and runs another press release from the same source, with checking the facts, how can we assume that the press is really "watching" anyone?
A politician's lie can't hurt us. The media repeating it without critical examination or even logical questions certainly can.