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2017 Special Election Greg Gianforte Montana Politics US Politics

The Montana At-Large Race: A Postmortem of the Press and Blog Coverage

Photo by Don Pogreba

While there will be time for more quantitative analysis of the Montana At-Large race and it’s perhaps as dangerous to make broad conclusions about Montana from one race as it is for national observers to extrapolate from here to the rest of the country, a few thoughts are in mind after last night’s disappointment. Today, a look at the press and blogs. Tomorrow, some initial thoughts for Democrats looking forward.

Lessons for the Press

The Gianforte episode the night before the election reveals a truth that may seem, at first blush, to be incorrect. The local political press needs to be much more aggressive when it comes to demanding answers from candidates seeking higher office. What Ben Jacobs did was not out of line; it was precisely what reporters need to go: try to get candidates on the record about critical issues. Somehow, Greg Gianforte made it through two statewide races without ever really answering real questions about health care, education policy, or his real policy on public lands. Aggressive reporting on those issues needs to be the norm in the state, not the exception—and the way Gianforte has responded every time he’s been pressed on the issues (rudely and dismissively) demonstrates the need for more of it.

On a related note, the state’s press needs to stop giving politicians op-ed space when they won’t answer questions on the issues. When Gazette reporters and editorialists rightly criticized Senator Daines for not taking a stand on the Trump-Russia connection, the paper undermined their own coverage by giving Daines op-ed space to, without question or scrutiny, present his agenda. That’s a dangerous position, too often repeated. The press can’t function as a megaphone but must act as a critical check on the politicians and candidates they cover.

The press also needs to make sure that it chooses reporters with the requisite knowledge and judgment to cover these races. While the coverage of the race did improve once the Legislative session came to an end (other than a truly terrible story about a 45-year-old marijuana arrest), the early coverage set a tone that was personal, negative, and juvenile. Worse yet, the early coverage was very one-sided, seemingly disinterested in covering issues about Mr. Gianforte. As an observer of the press, it’s hard to stomach editorials decrying the lack of substance in political campaigns when the coverage is often even less substantive. We learned far more about personal finances of the two candidates in this past race than we did about how they’d vote on health care for hundreds of thousands of Montanans, and much of the blame for that lies at the feet of the press.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the press needs to confront the reactionary extremism that is more obvious every day in the state. While the press was rightly horrified that a candidate for federal office assaulted a reporter who was merely doing his job, they certainly haven’t done enough to expose its widespread influence in the state. Gianforte’s outburst—and the horrific defense from Republican elected officials and online commenters—didn’t emerge from a vacuum. They are part of a long-term conservative strategy to debase discourse, undermine free speech, and undermine facts. Being balanced does not mean merely presenting the arguments of the two opposing sides, but ensuring that the information presented is factually accurate. The press needs to confront the Jennifer Fielders of Montana, who condone violence, the Theresa Manzellas, who cheer on anti-government violence, and Greg Gianfortes, who associate with racists.

We are in dangerous times for democracy when violent rhetoric and threats are so pervasive that it’s been normalized for a candidate to act so unbelievably.

A Lesson for This Blogger

A little introspection is good, too. As I became increasingly frustrated about the coverage of this race, I was less and less likely to give credit to the good reporting that was being done and focused more on being a media scold. On Twitter, I was likely to give credit for a good piece, but not often enough here. In my future weekly roundups, I’ll try to do more to give credit to the good reporting that is happening in the state, even if it’s from that chain that drives me crazy.

If we’re going to avoid the disaster that seems to be brewing in this country, with our debased political climate and the diminution of the importance of facts, we’re going to need the press, and I’ll try to remember to do a better job of giving credit when it’s due.

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.

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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