Every few months, I find myself wondering what it is about Ryan Zinke that makes the press in Montana so reticent to cover him with the kind of critical attention that candidates have traditionally received. He’s a candidate who, by many accounts, is a persona non grata among some Navy SEALS for his shameless self-promotion, an inveterate flip flopper of the first order, a farcical violator of campaign finance laws, a supporter of an anti-woman, xenophobic racist, and the person who outed Navy SEAL Team Six after the Osama bin Laden raid.
He’s the kind of candidate an enterprising reporter would love to cover, but unfortunately, he’s treated with softer gloves than the ones Greg Gianforte wears when he pretends to work on a farm.
And he’s the kind of candidate who deserves more scrutiny than others, given his repeated assertions about aspirations for higher office and his tendency to make incredibly inflammatory remarks only to later try to pass them off as jokes. Despite this, his coverage from much of the Montana press has been so deferential that, at times, rather than covering him, it seems the press spend more time lauding him.
The latest, and perhaps most egregious example of this tendency is on display in the latest Lee story about Congressman Zinke, headlined in the Missoulian as “Zinke decries attacks on his Montana residency,” a story that seems far less interested in determining the truth about the Congressman’s residency status than in defending him.
The entire framework of the story is absurd. While the story is presented as Zinke’s defense against Democratic attacks, it doesn’t reference a single quote from a Democratic Party official or candidate, other than to suggest that the Montana Democratic Party has been “sending out tweets questioning where Zinke lives.”
A search of the Montana Democrats Twitter feed, though, doesn’t show any such tweets, making me wonder why the reporters chose to frame their piece that way.
The Lee piece doesn’t even mention my October 4 post, which lays out all of the evidence for Zinke’s California residency and more they chose to ignore.
Instead, the story offers a platform for Congressman Zinke to insult his opponent and for his campaign spokeswoman to dissemble on the issue.
In the piece, Zinke had this to say about his opponent:
“Is it 54 generations?” Zinke said. “Born in Oakland. I don’t think that counts as 54 generations. And why 54 or 52 or 51?
That’s not only incredibly insulting, both suggesting that Superintendent Juneau’s genealogy is somehow less legitimate because of her Native heritage, and ignorantly discounting the impact of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which led to thousands of American Indians leaving their homes as the government tried to mandate a failed assimilation policy. One would think a member of Congress from Montana would know that legacy and its devastating impact on Indian peoples.
A pair of reporters interested in the facts might have researched that, and then followed up with Zinke’s own biographical claims. Surely, the Congressman has uncovered an explanation for why his official campaign material listed him as a third-generation Montanan in 2014, but mysteriously shifted to fifth-generation sometime after the 2014 campaign. Unless Congressman Zinke counts moving to California and back, that’s not how generations work.
The story also fails to dig into the fundamental questions that remain about where Congressman Zinke actually lives:
- Just how much time has the Congressman spent in California in the past four years?
- Why, if he is not a resident of California, have a local paper, a Congressional candidate he supports, and even his own wife described the two as California residents?
- Why did Congressman Zinke’s staff tell a member of the media that he did not have a Whitefish residence?
- If the Snowfrog Inn never operated as a business, did the Zinkes claim their property taxes as a loss on the business? Why is their private home still not listed in tax forms under their own names?
- Why did the web site for the Snowfrog Inn only come down a week after my first story calling his residency into question?
- Given the claim that the Zinkes claim they planned to live in the Whitefish address while it operated as an inn, just how many bedrooms does the place have?
The story also seems to miss the broader point about Zinke’s financial dealings. It describes the business in charge of his failed bed and breakfast as “Continental Divide International, a trust of sorts created by Zinke.” What is a “trust of sorts” and why has Congressman Zinke shifted ownership of his “home” from his own name to CDI and back multiple times. Why did Congressman Zinke collect nearly $40,000 from his Super PAC, paid to Continental Divide International, despite claiming that he wouldn’t take a cent for his work?
Back in 2014, Republican Congressman Rick Hill said that Zinke needed to make his records from CDI public to ensure that he was not improperly receiving benefits:
Zinke needs to make public the financial records of Continental Divide International. We need to know if he had used it to improperly funnel money from SOFA and other entities for personal gain.
That Congressman Zinke is relying on the same shell company he’s relied on to justify getting paid by his Super PAC is hardly evidence that he lives in Montana, but it’s certainly evidence that the press needs to investigate his financial dealings.
It’s just incredibly disappointing that the major papers of this state seem so unwilling to confront our Congressman, whether it’s investigating his shady campaign finance practices or his residency status. Instead of a story allowing the Congressman to feign outrage that questions are being asked, why isn’t there a front page headline story about his historic rate of out-of-state campaign contributions?
The one thing we’ve learned about Congressman Zinke over the past few years is that he’s brave man. Surely, he has the bravery to answer some hard questions from political reporters, if those reporters find the courage to start asking them.
Update: When I researched for this story, I only searched the Twitter feed for the Montana Democratic Party because I assumed that there must have been some new information leading to the publication of this story in a newspaper. It turns out the tweets in question, according to one of the reporters, were from October 4. I apologize for the error, though that seems like a pertinent bit of information to have included in the story, especially when the original Lee story claims the Montana Democratic Party has been attacking Congressman Zinke “in recent days.”