I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the attacks from the Steve Daines camp against Senator John Walsh—and find them more troubling the more I think about them.
The Daines attack machine is directed at Walsh’s military record for one reason: precisely because Senator Walsh has an exemplary record of military service, as Daines himself noted just a year ago. In particular, Senator Walsh was an effective leader for women, offering them advancement opportunities and an atmosphere that treated women with respect.
From Colonel (ret) Nikki Wolfe and Sgt.(ret) Kelly Gallinger of the Montana National Guard:
John was one of the leaders who fought gender discrimination.
He stood up to senior male officers who broke the rules. In one of his first acts as head of the guard, John fired an assistant adjutant general for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.
John also led from the front and put the well-being of the women and men in the Guard above all else.
And that commitment to protecting the rights of women has characterized Walsh’s time in Washington, too. He voted to ensure that those who engage in sexual assault in the military are punished and that victims of sexual assault see their legal rights and health protected.
In contrast with the position of these officers who served under General Walsh and his record in the Senate, Montana got a coordinated rollout of an attack ad and op-ed blitz from former Major Cindy Neely, who leveled some vague claims in the direction of John Walsh to serve the interests of Representative Steve Daines, who has committed early to a relentlessly negative campaign to distract Montana voters from his total lack of achievement.
But it’s not just Daines I take issue with. The media bear some responsibility as well. In the time since the Neely ad ran and the Lee newspapers turned over their editorial pages to Major Neely, there has been no reporting to substantiate her claims, no dissection of her record, and no real analysis of the very serious claims she made in the ad and her editorial piece. Before the op-ed ran, there was no reporting to evaluate her claims or examine the record.
The media have to do better. There’s nothing we can do to prevent a flood of negative attacks filling our airwaves for the next six months, but newspapers can exercise editorial judgment before giving someone a platform from which to attack a person’s integrity and record. Neely’s piece has all the characteristics of a classic smear: she provides no proof to substantiate her claims and neglects to mention that she only left the Guard two and a half years after General Walsh had, suggesting that even if there was a problem with sexism at the Guard, it didn’t happen under Walsh’s watch. Instead of just running it because it will certainly generate some clicks and discussion, shouldn’t the media do some underlying reporting about the claims first?
Let me be clear: I believe that, both in terms of legal protections and societal evolution, we need to do a much better job of ensuring that women are treated fairly in the workplace. The irony of Ms. Neely turning to Steve Daines and the Republican Party because she’s upset about workplace discrimination is astonishing, given that the Party opposes equal pay for equal work, delayed the Violence Against Women Act’s reauthorization, and wants to criminalize health care access by women is astonishing. Perhaps the next indignant editorial should focus on those issues, not unsubstantiated claims.
We’re due for the annual ham-fisted editorial criticism about the “pervasiveness of negative attack ads” in politics, but I’d like to suggest a radical alternative: that the Montana press use its editorial pages and reporting as an antidote to them, not a vector for them. Instead of repeating every attack with nothing more than a story about the attack and instead of letting those same attackers get free editorial coverage, the media should spend its time informing Montana voters. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?