As anyone who has read this blog knows, I’ve called out some truly excremental political writing from the Montana press over the years, but if someone asked me to list the absolute worst, I’d be tempted to include today’s “expose”in the Lee Newspapers about the manufactured controversy of a sitting governor using his state plane to travel to events across the state. Under the pretense of investigative journalism, the Lee newspapers ran a steaming pile of partisan bullshit that was neither supported by actual reporting nor justified by actual events.
The story is incredibly thin: a handful of Republican legislators are upset that Governor Bullock used his official plane on days when he both attended official functions and campaign events. That’s it. No smoking gun, no independent sources, no analysis to suggest that anything the governor has done is different than anything any other governor in Montana has ever done. It’s a non-story, splashed across the front page of the state’s papers as if it’s a story of any real significance.
What did the reporter of the story not do in his front page story? He didn’t research the actual cost of flights from Helena to the locations listed. Instead, he relied on estimates from the very partisan critics who were the source of the story. He didn’t provide budgetary analysis comparing the number of and cost of flights during the Bullock Administration to that of previous governors. He didn’t even provide the total annual cost of Bullock’s flights, instead letting a paid staffer for the Montana Republican Party suggest with overheated rhetoric that something scandalous was happening. For a news story, it was awfully short on news, and long on the kind of partisan whining and posturing that so often characterizes the Montana GOP and their enablers in the media.
In short, he didn’t do any reporting. He let the Republican Party cry foul in a partisan attack, used those people for his sources, and then ran their criticism as if it were some kind of scandal. That a governor would combine campaign and official events on the same day is a some sort of scandal worthy of front page coverage only in the minds of Republican operatives and credulous, inexperienced political reporters 1 who don’t have the background to understand the issues they’re covering.
Even the rationale for the story is suspect. The justification for the story, introduced in its third paragraph, is that there was buzz on “social media” about the issue following a Bullock campaign event that coincided with a flight on official business. That social media attention came from the same sources quoted in the story, partisan Republican operatives, completing the circle.
Update: It gets worse. Although the story claims “criticism of the flights surfaced on social media…” it doesn’t mention the origin of that criticism: the Twitter accounts of two paid communication staffers for the Gianforte campaign, Aaron Flint and Ron Catlett, as well as the Twitter account of the Montana GOP.
So not only did the Lee Newspapers run a political hit piece against Governor Bullock, they didn’t even report that the source of the attack was his likely November Republican opponent.
While the Lee Papers are diverting attention to this issue, it’s interesting to think about the issues they’ve not seen fit to cover. There’s been a great deal more social media attention about the fact that the Republican candidate for governor, Greg Gianforte, was recorded telling an audience that he wouldn’t express his real opinion on right to work laws because he was afraid of being recorded. Did the Lee papers even run a story on that, much less splash it across the front page? Not a chance.
Even more significantly, a few Lee papers have run an analysis opinion piece by economist and legislator Dick Barrett about the impact of Mr. Gianforte’s budget proposals for the state. Barrett, a professor of economics, concludes that, if enacted, Gianforte’s plan would eliminate Montana’s budget surplus and put the state in the red. Did the Lee papers even run a story on that, much less splash it across the front page? Not a chance.
The press should have a powerful role to play in helping the public select the next governor—and they should be aggressive investigators when they do that. That power, though, comes with profound responsibilities, though: to ensure that the stories they cover are actually important ones and not merely to serve as a conduit for partisan attacks that lack substance. Once again, though, the Lee newspapers have manufactured controversies not supported by solid reporting in yet another attack against Governor Bullock. A hard-hitting press is good for elections and democracy; one driven by animus and sloppy reporting is anything but—and the Lee newspapers need to take a hard look at how they’re covering the governor and this race.
Right now, the coverage isn’t just unfair. It’s embarrassingly bad.
- Following a Twitter discussion, I should point out that I am referring to relative inexperience covering politics, not reporting in general. ↩