When people ask me to explain why I am so frustrated about the last election cycle, both nationally and here at home in Montana, they’re surprised to learn that I am not most frustrated and alarmed by the results, but the coverage of the races. As dangerous and threatening as the prospect of Donald Trump being President is, that’s a temporary harm. The long-term threat we face is much more profound, a media environment in which candidates can get elected to office without the public knowing anything about their views on critically important issues. Trump is unlikely to last even four years in the White House, but the future of media coverage is a more enduring concern, one that shows little sign of improvement.
Here in Montana, that lack of coverage was nowhere more evident than in the coverage of the Tier B races. Other than random stories about legislators who kill dogs or poach game, the media has largely given up on coverage of the Legislature, even when white supremacists are running with the financial support and endorsement of the state’s leading GOP officials, but there has always been some coverage of the Tier B races beyond self-serving candidate profiles and endorsements. In this cycle, that simply wasn’t the case, as Montana voters went to the polls and voted in those races with less information than they have ever been provided for these critical offices.
The latest news from the Superintendent of Public Instruction underscores that concern. She announced over the weekend that she is likely to phase out one of Denise Juneau’s signature programs, the Graduation Matters initiative. The release from her office offered little explanation for the change, other than to, without evidence, assert that “the program had very few strings or accountability measures tied to the money to begin with.”
One of the best measures of accountability is success, and the truth is that Graduation Matters has been an unqualified success. Since its inception, graduation rates in Montana have increased 6%, which means that 500 students a year have an opportunity to not only be productive members of the economy, but better-developed humans, with more potential to achieve their dreams. It leveraged private dollars, engaged communities and schools, and showed students the importance of working to get their diplomas.
And that’s why the press matters—and largely failed to do their jobs in this cycle. Given the importance of graduation rates, its central role at OPI, and Melissa Romano’s support for the program, voters should have been informed about Ms. Arntzen’s views and her plans, just as they should have been informed about her position on the Common Core and other critical issues her office will deal with.
The media seems, almost collectively, to have decided that the lesson to be learned from the last election is the danger of “fake news” but I think that’s too simplistic a narrative. The deeper problem isn’t the kind of terrible news that gets shared on social media, but the absence of deep, critical coverage in our local papers and the fake news of candidate questionnaires masquerading as coverage.
The voters who decided in November to put Ms. Arntzen in office were never told what she intended to do in office, just as they weren’t really informed in the other Tier B races. That’s a damn shame for the kids who Ms. Arntzen will oversee in her new job and for the future of an informed electorate, and there’s nothing “fake” about that news.