The Billings Gazette and a Broken System of Political Coverage in Montana

Having spoken to a number of people who worked for the Lee newspapers in Montana, I found myself being a little less critical of their coverage and a bit more charitable, because reporters talked about staffing shortages and stretched news budgets. I tried to see it from the point of view of reporters who were stretched to the limit.

And then I read nonsense like this.  It’s not that Lee reporters lack the resources to cover important political news; it seems to be they have no idea what really matters.

Today, the Billings Gazette and reporter Tom Lutey reminded me that my charity might not be warranted. One of the four top stories listed on the Gazette web page today is a non-story called “Conservative Group Demands Government Spending Cuts,” a puff piece about the collection of 500 signatures in four months by an Astroturf organization.

AFP began gathering petition signatures in July. Through Tuesday, the group has dropped off 550 petitions to congressional offices in Montana.

I’m just an English teacher, but I think that means Americans for Prosperity has gathered fewer than 140 signatures a month in a state of over one million people. For a little context, there were 491,966 voters in the 2012 election in Montana, meaning that Americans for Prosperity collected signatures from .0011% of them.

Not only did the Gazette devote prime web space to this piece, it sent out a reporter to write it and a photographer to capture a picture more choreographed than a Kanye West wedding proposal.

A few details the piece failed to mention include the fact that Americans for Prosperity:

  • is deeply funded by the Koch Brothers;
  • had a budget of over $40 million dollars in 2010 and planned to spend $125 million in the 2012 Presidential election;
  • has been repeatedly charged with violating campaign finance laws;
  • received a two (out of four) rating from the Charity Navigator site for accountability and transparency;
  • is a “dark money” operation that does not disclose its sources of funding.

It seems like that context might have made the story, such as it was, a bit more newsworthy.

We deserve better political coverage than this in Montana. We deserve reporters who don’t show up for staged political events from Astroturf organizations who can’t even, despite paid staff and four months to organize, collect more than a handful of signatures.

This was neither news nor a story. Instead, it was just another example of a compliant media acquiescing to the agenda of yet another right-wing front group.

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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  • You’ll find, I think that American political news reporting has no party bias and a strong right-wing ideological bias. So long as they stay within the two-party he-said-she-said framework, they are safe.

    The ideological bias, as I have seen it, works like this: Any right-wing group, no matter how extreme, receives coverage. This is why the Tea Party had its own network, Fox, while the Green Party in 2000 was sued for running a paid ad, and was otherwise ignored. You can see it in newspaper op-eds … Any right winger allowed, and only “reasonable” (bland) liberals allowed. Think: Ellen Goodman. Is she still around?

    That is the framework. What you write about here is not at all out of the ordinary.

      • Catharsis is good! Isn’t that why we blog?

        I think reporters want to do good work, like all of us, and are constrained by the system in which newspapers exist, owned by shareholders, run by executives who appoint publishers who hires the editor. The flow of news is through them, so it is filtered. The reporters intuitively know what will be printed, what not.

  • A really disturbing trend here in GF is that the GF Spitoon now includes a freakin’ daily, yes DAILY, obligatory article on the military. It’s truly bizarre. Think I’m kidding? Check it out. Every single day now we’re treated to some kind of military/industrial bullcrap. Yesterday’s outstanding feature was a front page story of how many fat bastards in the military are struggling to stay in while meeting the weight requirements that they NOT be fat bastards! Wow. How exciting and relevant to we denizens of GF. Now that’s some hard hitting news!

    I quit the Spitoon some three years ago. I couldn’t take it any longer, for even I do have standards. I refuse to pay to be insulted, and I refuse to contribute to the decline of a once great newspaper. The Spitoon needs to just go bye bye. The perps working there now are just sleepwalking through their jobs, picking up a paycheck, and trying like hell not to ruffle any corporate feathers until retirement. And that’s a helluva way to go through your working career.

    And to the editorial page they have added some truly oidious, reprehensible creatures who should NEVER be allowed off the rightwing hate sites. The Spitoon has become a great disservice to the people of GF. The Funnies and the Sports section are all that’s left to read! Sad, so sad.

  • “The perps working {at the GFT] now are just sleepwalking through their jobs, picking up a paycheck, and trying like hell not to ruffle any corporate feathers until retirement.”

    Really, Larry? Perhaps you’ve never read any of John S. Adams’ investigative reporting.

    • Yeah, that Walt Schweitzer story really had legs, din’it? Sorry, but just because he’s your homeboy don’t make him much to shout about. He has yet to impress me with his brilliance.

      • Wow, Larry, you’re still hung up on one article from 7 years Adams wrote while at the Missoula Indy about your homeboy BS’s brother? Anyway, seems like that story did have legs, even if you didn’t like it.

        I’d think people like Montana’s Chief Judge Richard Cebull, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, Bruce Norum, Montana’s GOP Senate leadership, MT GOP Senate President Jeff Essmann and his “kill list” and Barry Beach, as well as organizations such as American Tradition Partnership could speak of Adams’ reporting acumen. But really, whatever Larry.

        • Larry also didn’t appreciate his story about the “nut cutters” in the Political Practices Commission who sent Dave Gallik packing. Isnt that right Larry?

          • Yep! Nutcutters should never get above their raisin’!

            Again, that’s another case where a Wisconsin transplant to Montana just don’t unnerstan who we do things here.

            He slandered a good man in STEAD of goin’ after the real bad guys. But you see, Jack, in the Rangers, we call that goin’ after soft targets. They’re easy. Hard targets shoot back! And adams has yet to go after any hard targets! For the record, just HOW many threats and death threats has the dude had? Any? Any?? Any??? Try harder, jonny. Try harder!

            • p.s. Sally mockery of kufm outta Mizoola does the same thing. MAN! It nearly made me vomit to hear her interviewing a sh*tbag like Bob Gannon of Montana Power. She did everything but lick his toes on air! Sally is the master of the softball to hard targets!, so much so that she must have a toe fetish! She’s just GOTTA lick their toes for’em! Well sir, TOE jam is NOT good reporting in my humble estimation!

        • His what, Matthew? Sorry, but not very memorable nor important stuff. Look, here’s the deal. I have read both the Spitoon and the Billings Gazoo for nearly forty years, daily. And my point is that they have both gone to shit. They are NOT the papers that they used to be. In order to understand that, you need some perspective that comes with time. That is something that both you and adams are lacking. Perspective. It really is important if one is to understand and have a sense of place. Otherwise, you’re just a tourist.

          I’m not saying that to be mean, but simply remarking on the TRVTH. The reason that adams went to Schwietzer enemies and detractors is because he simply didn’t know them. And that’s bad. It leads to pisspoor reporting.

          The GF Spitoon has NOT written a decent, real editorial since they fired their Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Eric Newhouse. And the Gazoo went straight to shit when they fired Gary Svee for his “endorsement” (non-endorsement) of sen. cornhole burns. But you see, you weren’t here for all that. You wouldn’t know.

          A sense of place is important. And it don’t come easy. One must invest a whole lot of one’s self in a place with blood, sweat, and tears. One must marry, bury, be born and die to have that sense of place. It’s in the blood. For example, I would make a lousy southerner for no one in my family is inbred, nor do I even know what a chitlin is. It’s all about place. How does one get it? I dunno. I dunno. I can only observe it.

          It’s great that you guys want to come here and save Montana, and your efforts are appreciated, but it will never be your place. You best make arrangements to have your ashes carried back home! Your ashes should be where your history is.

          Now, carry on, Matthew Kohler. You’ve definitely got the narlies and intellect to do some great work. Use it to protect this part of the earth, to honor all those who came before that paid a high price for what you enjoy.

          • Here, Matthew. THIS is our history, our tradition, our place! What is the Wisconsin equivalent? It sure as hell ain’t adams! Some day, maybe, but I doubt it. The really great journalists went to war first! And that gave them the fire in the belly necessary to fight. ie. Blumberg.


    • Scoop sold out. He has the talent, he has the brains, but he don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing. Hell, all the great ones get fired! Eric Newhouse, Gary Svee, etc. You see, Jack, if you HAVEN’T been fired at least once for doing the right, thing, you’re a wussy! I’ve been fired more times than I can remember. But you know what? THAT only made me more determined! Hell, that’s the way we Bohunks are!

  • I try not to read any of them but the Montana Standard and Missoulian, and even that, at times is rather depressing…. I cut my chops on better news sources growing up, like the Democrat out of Santa Rosa, the Guardian and Chronicle out of the Bay Area and the Sacramento Bee. All these papers in Montana, are bought up here by the Lee Paper group. So reading two here, are about as much Lee incorporated as I can take. Its all basically the same news.

    • We used to have good newspapers too, Norma. I still have some of their great investigative reporting stuffed away in boxes. Seems that every time a reporter did his job and did a great story, they were fired!, just like Richard Manning outta Mizoola! When will jonny adams do the story that will get him fired? Never I’m guessin’. He likes to eat too much! Guess I can’t says that I blame him. We all like to eat, but the truly exceptional reporter says to HELL with food, for the TRVTH is more important than a growly stomach! Man does write on food alone! Starvation is the mother of inspiration! The muses love a thin man!

      • That truly is the difference between a good paper and a bad Larry. Its Pretty Sad that none of the papers here spend the time to even tell people what their representitives are doing.

        And the afternoon papers, of which there is still a few left in the states back east and west coast used to just be there for Breaking news, commentary, opinion, leaving the morning news for impartial reporting, just the facts…. allowing the public to decide. Miss that living here, truly miss the pro/con columns

  • Larry, I agree with you that “a sense of place is important.” And for me, that sense of place is Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (pop. 972), a tranquil village on the shores of one of the deepest and clearest spring-fed lakes in Wisconsin in the heart of the Northern Kettle Moraine. The human history of the immediate area goes back to 8000 BC and includes an amazing collection of artifacts, burial mounds and other sacred places.

    My families direct history in Elkhart Lake goes back 6 generations, including my great-great grandfather, who was the village blacksmith for 50 years, and my great grandfather, who served as the postie for the village and surrounding area with his horse and buggy. My great grandma served as the village semesters and organist at the village church and to this day some of the oldest women in the village tell me how beautiful they looked on their wedding day in a gown made by my great grandma. My dad, who was the village house painter for 40 years, even quite literally met my mom, one of the local RN’s, in the late 60s while swimming in the healing waters of Elkhart Lake.

    I’m glad that you appreciate my efforts to protect some of the wildness and wildlife in Montana. I moved out to Montana in January of 1996, but you are right, this will never be my place. My heart will always be in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. That is where my people and my tribe are. No matter where I am, when I close my eyes, I see the sky filled with 200 turkey vultures soaring on the thermals, or hear the prehistoric calls of the sandhill cranes from the meadows surrounding my childhood home.

    I have long ago planned on having my ashes scattered around Elkhart Lake, in the lake and in the deep woods and marshes that surround the village. I’ve also been taking elk hearts from my Montana hunting trips and bringing them back to Elkhart Lake for ceremonies, to hopefully someday bring back the elk to that area and also pay respect for the people and creatures that have come before us.

    The most touching and powerful of these ceremonies occurred this past summer. My dear childhood friend (our family ties go back generations in Elkhart Lake) died at 41 of a heart attack while playing basketball, leaving his wife and two young girls behind. Before he died he bought and preserved a remarkable 20 acre forest on the shores of Elkhart Lake, in Turtle Bay.

    With his young daughters wrapped in a huge elk hide, we buried a big bull elk heart along the shores of Elkhart Lake under a cedar tree, full of huge holes from the pileated woodpeckers, which have recently returned to the area. As I put that elk heart into the Earth, lightening filed the sky. We poured the last of his ashes on top of the elk heart and one of his daughters walked out, over the water, on a huge cedar tree which protrudes nearly horizontal to gather some cedar boughs from “my daddy’s favorite tree” (a tree that my friend and I would play on as children). As the girls placed the cedar boughs on top of the elk heart and their dad’s ashes, a great horned owl let out its tell tale hoot. And the youngest daughter, only 5, said, “My daddy would really love this.” Yes he would, and did….I’m quite sure of it.

    So, yes, Larry, I agree. Your ashes should be where your history is.

    • Wow. Sounds like a wonderful place. Thank you for sharing, Matthew. But the TRVTH be known, I suspect and fully believe that this entire country was a thing of wonder and beauty at one time before the arrival of the white man. And I mean EVERY place, even Texas with its chaparral and wild flowers, the east with its hardwood trees, the Chesapeake Bay with its amazing fishery, and Appalachians with its endless hardwood forests! Such sacredness! And no, I’m not denigrating in any way the white race, but simply the greed that despoiled such a wonderful place, for we are all Native Americans. Thanks again. I can actually visualize your homeland in my mind, even though I regret to say that I have never been east of the Montana line. Sidney, Montana is my only experience back east. Yes, I’m quite provincial. My roots are in the west. It’s all I know, but I love it.

      Peace, brother.


  • Newspapers were good until ten years ago? Nonsense! Newspapers have always reflected the bias of owners and advertisers. I found on microfische some political reporting from the Gazette back when the copper collar boys allowed a DC reporter. It was fawning and cheerleading stuff. The reporter referred to Jim Batten, the House Member from Eastern MT as “Big Jim.”

    • Who said newspapers were good? Jesus, tokarski, you’re raving again!

      The list of really, really good people pushed out by the newspapers in Montana is long, or don’t you remember any of them?

      Pat Dawson, Billings Gazoo
      Richard Manning, Mizoolian
      Gary Svee, Billings Gazoo
      Eric Newhouse, GF Spitoon
      George Ochenski , Mizoo Indy Fox Dependent

      and on and on. Many I’ve forgotten. I’d have to go back and research. I’m sure that David Crisp could provide a good list AND some excellent commentary on what transpired at the Billings Gazoo.

      Bottom line? If you pay for postage and copy fees, I’ll SEND you some really good reporting from the past years, especially on the mining issues! Sorry, but I KNOW more than you’ve forgotten, and I’ve got the proof in boxes in the garage!

      • All the way back to Joseph Kinsey Howard. And before.

        Good reporters have always worked the margins. That’s why we remember them. Think of all the ones who pass without notice. I’m just saying that this notion that things were OK until ten years ago is bunk. Things are always like they are now.

        Even the early episodes of Saturday Night Live were not that great. We only remember the good skits. You’re slipping I to melancholy, the good old days. No such animal.

        Settle down.

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