Polemic: I’m Not a Journalist, But I Know What Journalism Is

Photo by Don Pogreba.

I’m not a journalist. I’ve never pretended to be one. And yet, with a few exceptions, I’ve written about Montana politics longer than most political journalists in the state. I’ve seen the best of what local, professional, political reporting can be, and I’ve seen some of the worst.

Two nights ago, after a full day of teaching and three hours of grading, I got in an argument online with some of the real journalists of Montana, some of whom mocked the idea that a blog could provide news and one who argued that blogs are “deliberately misleading” and not worth reading.

Then I wrote a piece about Elsie Arntzen’s ESSA review from the federal government and another about how Steve Daines will personally benefit from the #CorkerKickback. I mention these only because I spent real time researching, verifying, and writing each piece. While I’m certain I’ve made mistakes, I’ve never deliberately written anything that was false and I’ve never used my small platform as a vehicle for others to report information that was willfully incorrect. Like everyone, we’ve made mistakes here, but I have to admit that the accusation that we’re engaged in deliberate dishonesty stung just a bit. 

When the local newspaper’s website is filled with those mug shots, a slideshow about animals that have been banned from Montana, and historic photos of the governor’s mansion on the very day our junior Senator will vote to line his own pockets with a vote that will inevitably lead to slashed social services and a massive expansion of the debt he has long railed against, the real journalists of Montana who spend their time smugly condescending about blogs may want to look for a different enemy.

I’m not a journalist, but I believe in research and accuracy, even in the context of what is clearly opinion-based writing. That, to the online defenders of real journalism, is an impossibility, it seems. Blogs, they say, are inherently untrustworthy, misleading source of partisan information, the very existence of which somehow seems to challenge the traditional media’s role as the arbiter of truth.

And I wish they were right. I wish that we didn’t need blogs to complete and correct traditional media coverage. I wish that the traditional media in Montana had the time, resources, desire, and perspective to fully cover the damage that is being done to the very bones of this country’s economic strength as the oligarchs demand more and more from the very country that enriched them while they impoverish the very people who made their success possible. I wish that our political coverage was rooted in enterprise journalism that digs deep into the linkages between corporations and government and only blogs had time to write the personality-driven, politically-motivated attacks between the two major parties.

But that simply isn’t the case, as anyone who has picked up a local newspaper or read a newspaper site in Montana could tell you. As I’ve said hundreds of times on this site and other social media, there is some outstanding reporting happening in this state, being done by overworked and underpaid people who believe in the mission of journalism. But that excellent reporting is undermined by a system that seems more interested in generating clicks than in doing in-depth reporting.

Back to the Senate bill for an illustration. The story about the #CorkerKickback is something those of you reading this post were probably aware of. Those of us who get our news from a variety of sources online were reading the original IB Times story and discussion about it all over the Internet for days before the big Senate vote. And even though our own Senator (who initially opposed the Republican tax bill because it didn’t give enough money to passthrough corporations) was set to make hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, from the kickback’s provisions, I didn’t see a single local piece in the traditional media about his position on it. Not one.

I do see a bunch of mug shots, though, and new crime reports about people desperate enough that they were sleeping in stolen cars last night.

I’m not a journalist, but I do know that Republican leaders are already talking about making cuts to the social safety net to pay for the tax cuts they promised would pay for themselves. And those cuts will lead to more people living on the streets and more people living in the kinds of conditions that lead to the mugshots and clickbait stories about desperate people committing desperate acts to survive.

When the local newspaper’s website is filled with those mug shots, a slideshow about animals that have been banned from Montana, and historic photos of the governor’s mansion on the very day our junior Senator will vote to line his own pockets with a vote that will inevitably lead to slashed social services and a massive expansion of the debt he has long railed against, the real journalists of Montana who spend their time smugly condescending about blogs may want to look for a different enemy. Maybe it’s time to stop complaining about how blogs aren’t journalism and start practicing a bit more of it.

I’m not a journalist, but when a Senator from Montana who has significant real estate holdings can demand changes in the tax bill that personally benefit him and then receive an additional kickback in conference negotiations that were never scored for their budget impact nor debated in an open hearing without local press scrutiny or an informed public having the chance to let him know how they feel about it, we’re at a place where elected officials can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

I’m not a journalist, but shouldn’t they make that elected official explain why he demanded a provision that would personally enrich him before he’d vote for a bill he claims will benefit 99% of Montanans?

Today, we finally did get a story about the tax vote from the state’s largest media chain, a story that almost entirely consists of quotes from press releases issued by our Congressional delegation along with a summary of those press releases. While there was still no mention of the #CorkerKickback, Senator Daines was given the opportunity to say this:

“Getting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act across the finish line means families will see bigger paychecks, Main Street businesses will be able to hire more workers, and America will compete and win on the world stage,” said Daines. “Montanans’ hard-earned dollars belong in their pockets, not in Washington, D.C.’s coffers.”

Daines said 99 percent of Montanans will receive a tax cut, though the cuts for individuals expire in 2025.

And that’s just not supported by the data. The most ardent defenders of the Republican tax bill suggest that 80% of taxpayers will receive a tax cut next year;  The Tax Policy Center says 80% of taxpayers will pay less in taxes.  A Washington Post analysis of the Senate bill found that almost 40% of Americans will not receive a tax cut of more than $500 and over half of the working poor will see almost no return.

Two weeks ago, discussing the initial Senate bill (before the Daines passthrough demands were met), Mike Dennison of MTN reported that Montana Department of Revenue officials found that a full third of Montanans would see less than a $50 dollar annual reduction in their taxes.

The analysis, provided to MTN News, says about two-thirds of the 495,000 Montana households filing federal income-tax returns would see a tax cut of more than $50 a year, or at least 2 percent of their tax burden.

About one-third would see minimal changes – less than $50 a year – and only 1 percent would see a tax increase of more than $50 a year, the analysis said.

Worse yet, almost half of the entire federal tax decrease in Montana will go to the top 3% of earners in the state.

I’m not a journalist, but I would assume that, in their rigorous pursuit of truth, newspapers should do better than to reprint press releases from elected officials without checking their work and demanding some analysis justifying how their numbers are at odds with every other analyst of the bill. And, though I’m just a blogger, shouldn’t the story independently verify or refute Senator Tester’s claim (backed up by the CBO) that the bill will add $1.4 trillion to the U.S. debt? Shouldn’t a story ask Representative Gianforte and Senator Daines, both of whom have campaigned on reducing the debt, to explain a vote that will cause it to balloon?

I’m not a journalist, but if we expect the public to be informed about the issues, we need to abandon the idea that it’s objective, accurate reporting merely to convey competing quotes from two sides on an issue and let the readers sort out what’s actually true. While newspapers do not shoulder the majority of the blame for the fact that Americans seem to live in two distinct realities depending on their political affiliation, the practice of letting dueling quotes pass as objectivity certainly doesn’t do anything to help bridge those gaps.

I’d love to live in a world where blogs weren’t necessary to complete the picture when it comes to local and state governance, politics, and education. But we don’t live in that world. As appreciative as I am of the excellent journalism that is being practiced every day in this country, every story about “adventure cats” is another story that needs to be tackled by someone else, and I’m thankful for the bloggers out there who try to fill that void just a little bit and readers who are passionate enough to spend a little bit of their day reading the work they produce.

Update: After the vote took place, a Montana newspaper did run a story that shows how Daines will personally benefit by about $400,000 over the next decade because of the passthrough changes without once mentioning that Daines publicly said his support for the bill depended on the change. It also included this line:

Daines and Gianforte voted for the bill. Tester opposed the legislation, which Democrats say will add at least $1.4 trillion to the national debt or lead to social programs being cut.

That, of course, is not really true. The independent, non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says that the tax bill will add $1.4 trillion to the deficit and PAYGO requires the cuts to social programs.

So even when the story is written, it turns fact into competing versions of the truth when there is real, objective fact to be reported. By framing the deficit issue as a matter of partisan dispute, the story furthers Republican aims by diminishing the impact of the tax bill on the average American.

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.

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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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