I don’t know Betsy Baumgart. I don’t know what kind of work she did promoting tourism in Montana and I don’t know what might have led to her termination. Neither, apparently, does the Independent Record, but that didn’t stop them from offering one of the sloppiest editorials I have had the misfortune of reading. The core of the editorial can be found in these three paragraphs, a series of unsupported and unsubstantiated questions:
Is there a connection between these personnel changes? Is there move afoot to shake up the Commerce Department? Or are the ousters acts of simple vindictiveness, rooted in differences of opinion or partisan politics?
There is one answer to all these questions: Who knows? And that’s the problem.
Hiding behind a claim of privacy to withhold information about highly visible public officials in a critical state department simply doesn’t pass muster.
Do the nature and circumstances of these personnel moves create a potential financial liability for Montana taxpayers in the form of potential wrongful discharge actions? Were any of these moves accompanied by severance payments? If so, shouldn’t those payments be a matter of public record?
“Who knows?” is exactly the problem. An indignant editorial that cavalierly dismisses the importance of protecting the privacy of a terminated employee is no substitute for journalism; it’s sloppy and it’s unprofessional. There may well be a story worth writing about this firing, but not without laying the groundwork and doing some investigation. It’s tremendously easy to ask leading questions and cast aspersions against government and public officials, but it’s not the role of journalists, who should be writing stinging editorials after they’ve written the news story, not the other way around.
The editorial also offers an instructive insight into how the news gets framed. Consider this section from a news story in the Great Falls Tribune by John Adams:
Baumgart declined to say what reason Schwinden and Roos gave for the termination because she is considering challenging the decision. She said she has discussed the matter with an attorney.
Or the story in Independent Record itself by Mike Dennison:
Baumgart also declined to say what reason she was given for her dismissal, which occurred Aug. 20 in a meeting with Commerce Director Dore Schwinden. She said she’s consulting with an attorney about a potential lawsuit.
How did today’s editorial frame that?
But neither Baumgart nor Schwinden have shared any reasons for the firing. Baumgart said she may challenge the dismissal and is working with an attorney.
It seems like the IR decided to leave out a causal connection that might just undermine the narrative they’re spinning. It seems Ms. Baumgart was given a reason for her termination and has chosen not to share it, seemingly an important detail.
I know times are tough for newspapers, but that doesn’t excuse this kind of “journalism.” Looking over today’s top news in the IR, one could make the case for realigned priorities focused on news. Then, instead of asking questions, the Independent Record might start providing us all some answers.