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On the Death of Political Media

We’re living in a sad time for political reporting here in Montana. It’s not that newspapers like the Great Falls Tribune and Helena Independent Record are abandoning their role to endorse candidates for political office, or that partisan tripe like this is passed off as “news” or even that their aren’t enough reporters to adequately cover political contests and candidates. While all of those certainly matter, it’s more troubling that real political reporters are so afraid of being accused of bias that they don’t even report the news in their stories.

Witness Chuck Johnson’s recent story about the race between Linda McCulloch and Brad Johnson for Secretary of State. In an effort to appear balanced, Chuck Johnson turned a series of factual disputes into a “she said, he said” issues, leaving potential voters no more informed than before they read the story. Along the way, the story manages to ignore contradictions and outright lies by candidate Johnson.


When Johnson left office in 2008, he attempted to give bonuses totaling almost $60,000 to his staff, including current GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood. McCulloch blocked the illegal bonuses almost immediately upon taking office. According to yesterday’s story, though, Brad Johnson didn’t think he did anything wrong.

Johnson, however, said he did nothing wrong, according to his office human resources official.

Interestingly enough, that’s not what Brad Johnson told Chuck Johnson back in 2009, when he acknowledged that he had been wrong:

Johnson said he takes Manion’s opinion "at face value."

"I’m disappointed that I’m not in a position to show more appreciation for the work that that team performed in the office," Johnson said. "But it is what it is."

Voter Fraud

The story also lets Johnson get away with claims of voter fraud that he will combat as Secretary of State. It’s not just the fact that voter fraud is part of a Republican strategy to disenfranchise voters or that Johnson’s alleged list of voting fraud incidents is laughable, it’s that back in 2006, Johnson’s own chief of staff Bowen Greenwood said it wasn’t a problem here in Montana:

Spokesman Bowen Greenwood said the office has yet to uncover a verified case of voter fraud. But he said the latest verification procedure, required under federal regulations, will help make sure it doesn’t happen.

Johnson’s Tenure as Secretary of State

The article lets McCulloch and Johnson argue about whether or not Johnson mismanaged elections in 2006, but neglects to provide any actual facts. For instance, that Charles Johnson reported that the Bush Department of Justice sent five letters to Montana concerned about our implementation of the Help America Vote Act:

The U.S. Justice Department sent letters to Johnson dated Aug. 25, 2005; Oct. 27, 2005; Jan. 19, 2006; March 31, 2006; and April 23 concerning how the state was complying with

Not bad enough? How about the fact that a Legislative Audit showed massive problems with Johnson’s tenure as Secretary of State, including mismanaging registration, letting felons register, delaying voters through avoidable error, failing to create uniform standards for absentee voting, and failing to work with county election officials.

Seems pertinent to a discussion about qualifications to return to the Secretary’s office, doesn’t it?

Same Day Voting Registration

The story suggests that same day voter registration is an issue of contention between McCulloch and Johnson, but doesn’t mention that Johnson has completely changed his mind on the issue. From the Billings Gazette’s 2008 endorsement of Johnson:

Johnson supported 2005 legislation to allow voter registration up to and on Election Day, but ought to have done more to publicize and promote it before the 2006 elections.

Johnson’s taken more positions on same-day voter registration than elections he’s lost, something else the article neglected to mention.

In the final analysis, I certainly don’t expect news coverage to reflect my partisan viewpoint, but I do expect it to accurately inform the public. When there are factual matters in dispute, it’s not enough to let each side speak his/her mind—the role of news reporters must be to determine the truth and provide adequate context for voters to make informed decisions.

The press certainly does have an obligation to balance coverage of the right and left. It doesn’t, though, need to balance truth and lies.

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.

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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  • Speaking of a press that is not worth a crap, a very revealing article in the GF Spitoon today regarding the city’s misadventure into the energy industry. Seems that all of us critics were right. Seems that all of us who were dragged from meetings, threatened with arrest, and actually ARRESTED for trying to ask questions and get some answers at the public meetings were right all along. Seems that there actually WAS a huge amount of secrecy and corruption going on which was never exposed! And why was it never exposed?

    Well, in SPITE of all the evidence suggesting wrong doing, the good ol’ Spitoon never ONCE wrote an article investigating what was happening! So now, here’s the kicker, and WHAT a kicker it is! The City of Great Falls is on the hook for SEVENTY FREAKIN’ MILLION DOLLARS in stranded costs! Wait just a moment and allow that to sink in. Seventy million dollars! Down the crapper! We’re talkin’ REAL money here! And the Spitoon no where to be seen! THIS is our wonderful press in GF. Worthless, nutless wonders!

    And for the record, it must be understood that the folks being dragged from the meetings by the GFPD thugs were NOT wild-eyed radicals, but our most prominent, educated, civic minded community leaders! They were attorneys, doctors, scientists, engineers, retired military officers, etc. Yet they were treated by the local cop thugs as criminals at the behest of the most CORRUPT group of city administrators that I have ever seen!

    So now, we get the privilige of paying for their corruption and incompetence, thanks in LARGE part to the inaction of our fourth estate here in GF. That’s why I say that the Spitoon is WORSE than useless. It’s an accomplice to malfeasance! See the story below.|newswell|text|Frontpage|s

  • Walter Mead nails it.

    Quote: “If George W. Bush were president now, and had ordered the surge and was responsible for the strategic decisions taken and not taken in Afghanistan over the last four years, the mainstream press would be rubbing our noses in his miserable failures and inexcusable blunders 24/7. The New York Times and the Washington Post would be treating us to pictures of every fallen soldier. The PBS Newshour would feature nightly post-mortems on “America’s failed strategies in the Afghan War” and every arm-chair strategist in America would be filling the op-ed pages with the brilliant 20/20 hindsight ideas that our pathetic, clueless, failed president was too dumb and too cocky to have had.

    There would be no end to the woes and the recriminations. There would be the most moving and eloquent examples of hand wringing in the New York Review of Books, elegantly demonstrating that the cretinous assumptions and moral failings that led Bush into his failed Afghan policy weren’t his alone, but reflected broader, deeper failings in America itself. One is almost sorry for the sake of the authors of these diatribes that Bush is gone; the failure of our Afghan strategy is so sweeping, so unavoidable, that it would be the best possible backdrop against which to paint a stirring portrait of a failed president misleading a flawed people. What works of polemical literature have been lost, what inspired jeremiads will never be penned, what scalding portraits of America’s inherent flaws will never see the light of day because W left the White House too soon.”

    While the New York Times is still in denial MT papers are more sensitive to their customers.

    Treat ’em right or they’ll go elsewhere.

    • Ingy –

      1. Where is your evidence that the media was paying any attention at all to Afghanistan during Bush’s last two years, more so than they have been paying attention since the Obama election?
      2. Doesn’t it make sense that the media be a bit harsher on the man who started the war than the man who merely carried it on?

      • Ingy operates in an evidence-free environment, but I compliment you on using the word “evidence” instead of “proof,” as that is evidence that you are not a black/white thinker. This puts you several levels above most on our so-called “right wing.” (You’re all right wingers of various gradations as far as I can tell. Ingly merely travels without intellectual baggage).

        But your second point – again you’ve done the apparatchik task of justifying the razor-thin differences between different administrations as being highly significant. One invades Afghanistan and Pakistan, the next one carries on, and if we have a Preident Romney, he too will carry on as his predecessors. If you simply eliminate the notion of transfer of power, you’ll realize that what goes on goes on as if we did not have elections at all.

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