I’d suggest that it might be time for the Billings Gazette to recognize that someone who has admitted to a long personal relationship with a political candidate might not be able to cover him fairly. A year after running a series of pro-Gianforte attacks in the Gianforte-Quist special election race, including a tax story made up out of whole cloth, Tom Lutey is back writing stories that promote Gianforte’s agenda and don’t even offer the illusion of balance.
Readers of the Gazette will be treated today with a story that implies an endorsement of Greg Gianforte and Matt Rosendale by the Crow government. In a piece that buried the fact that the endorsement was nothing more than the personal endorsement of Crow Tribal chair A.J. Not Afraid until the second half of the sixth paragraph, Lutey repeated the standard Republican talking points about coal and Obama without quoting a single voice in opposition. No tribal members who oppose Not Afraid’s action, no economists on the real issues facing the coal economy, and not even the standard opportunity for Gianforte’s opponent, who is barely mentioned in the piece, to offer her take or what she would offer Indian Country if elected.
And that’s pretty hard to understand. A reporter who lives in Billings surely would have seen the news reports from the day before about tribal members protesting Not Afraid’s endorsement of another Republican earlier in the week, including the claim that Not Afraid “chose to skip the proper process required to bestow an official endorsement from the tribe.”
A reporter who covers politics might have noted that Indianz.com reported of the earlier endorsement that Not Afraid should have talked to other Crow leaders before offering any endorsement:
Critics also say Not Afraid should have talked to other elected Crow leaders before endorsing Rosendale. who called the chairman’s endorsement the “honor of a lifetime” at a campaign event in Lewistown on Sunday. In a follow-up post on Twitter on Tuesday, when he visited the reservation, he implied that the entire tribe is backing him, which protest organizers say is not the case.
“Without consultation with the tribe’s legislature, the endorsement is not representative of other tribal members,” protest organizers, including BethYana Pease and others, said on Wednesday.
A reporter interested in balance might have quoted Crow tribal members who came out to protest the endorsements of Gianforte and Rosendale, but Greg Gianforte’s personal reporter, who it must be noted, didn’t even run this story until it benefited Gianforte, couldn’t seem to make that happen.
(The Gianforte-Rosendale element of this week is a bit confusing. Crow members knew about both endorsements when they protested, as BethYana Pease makes clear).
But the Gazette wasn’t satisfied with one Gianforte puff piece today. In another of their series of Lutey stories about the race in which both candidates are allowed to make unchallenged remarks, Congressman Gianforte was allowed to repeatedly misrepresent the truth.
Gianforte claimed he has never supported discrimination:
Hate, discrimination and harassment have no place in the United States. They are corrosive and un-American, and I condemn them unequivocally. I didn’t tolerate hate, discrimination or harassment in any of the companies I led, and I don’t tolerate them now.
Except everyone in Montana knows that’s not true. Gianforte was the founder and chair of a school that discriminated against children with disabilities, led the fight to allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBTQ community in Bozeman, donated to white supremacists and took money from them, bankrolled groups across the country who promote discrimination, and even donated to groups that support barbaric “gay conversion” therapy for children.
Next, asked to provide an example of heightened political rhetoric from his own party that has damaged civility, Gianforte criticized Maxine Waters and former Attorney General Eric Holder, lying about what both said and did before repeating the same Trump talking point about “mobs of violent activists” the President mentioned repeatedly during the speech in which he praised Gianforte’s unprovoked attack on a reporter.
Once again, the piece let Gianforte claim that he engages with constituents at town halls:
With every public forum I’ve held — whether it’s meeting with Montanans in each of our 56 counties or at public meetings or during a town hall — there have been people who disagree, some more aggressively than others, and I have listened to them.
Even though Mr. Lutey keeps letting Mr. Gianforte say that he holds town halls, he absolutely doesn’t. Reporting by the same newspaper chain reveals that Gianforte only has events with “curated audiences,” limiting the chances that he’ll have to meet with someone who disagrees with him. This strategy of holding invite-only meetings and relying on screened telephone town halls is well-documented, and, as we reported earlier this year, Gianforte is afraid of his own constituents.
Finally, I think Gianforte made up a story in the piece, though I can’t prove it. He claims that he has been harassed in multiple restaurants in Montana by constituents:
In fact, Susan, my wife, and I have been harassed in restaurants in Montana. At one restaurant, a young woman yelled and screamed. The folks I was eating with became uncomfortable. I sat and listened. A friend of hers would come up to us later and apologize.
I’m skeptical. There’s no social media video or photos of this series of events. I monitor Gianforte’s online presence and he’s never mentioned it—on his official, political, or personal—accounts. And we all know how he’d respond if someone did get in his face. It’s the kind of story that a journalist, especially when dealing with someone who lies regularly, might want to confirm before running, but not, apparently, when that reporter puts a personal relationship with a candidate above the interests of informing the public.
The Billings Gazette has done admirable work in their editorial pages calling out Mr. Gianforte for his extremism, his refusal to disavow violence, and his dishonesty, but when they turn their news section over to someone who seems to lack the objectivity necessary to cover Greg Gianforte fairly and the fortitude necessary to challenge his dishonest statements and press him for answers, they undermine our faith in the press.
The press, as I feel the need to say quite often, is not the enemy of the people. They’re vital to our democratic system. They only protect our democracy, though, when reporters challenge politicians to tell the truth and when they tell the full story with proper context and not just letting themselves get handled and managed.
Neither of these pieces meets those requirements, and it’s a damn shame that the Gazette would run them days before an election.