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2020 Governor Featured Montana Politics Ryan Zinke The Media

Please, Montana Media. Don’t Let Ryan Zinke Rewrite History Again

Photo from Secretary of Interior's Facebook page. The hat was not digitally altered. He wears it like that.

While some relatively friendly coverage in the Billings Gazette this weekend let Ryan Zinke spin the details of his removal as Secretary of the Interior as a resignation, most of the national reporting makes it clear that Zinke was forced out. The Washington Post reports that, in fact, Zinke was told either he going to resign or get fired:

White House had been pushing Zinke for weeks to resign, administration officials said. Last month, the officials said, Zinke was told he had until the end of the year to leave or be fired.

In fact, Zinke refused to resign until he could have one last meeting with the lobbyists he’s grown so comfortable with:

The secretary’s final public appearance was Thursday night at his office Christmas party, which he told White House staffers he wanted to have before his dismissal. He invited lobbyists and conservative activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee.

It’s classic Zinke: when threatened by no fewer than seventeen ethics investigations, at least one of which could come with criminal charges and many of which are centered on his cozy, inappropriate relationships with the business interests he was supposed to help regulate, what did Zinke do? Throw one more party to bolster his standing with the kind of people he believes can vault him towards the next step in his political career. 

Just as the national press has struggled with how to cover a President and candidate who won’t tell the truth, maybe the Montana press wasn’t sure how to deal with Zinke, a fabulist of epic proportions.

And it’s classic Montana media as well. Looking back on his rise from a state Senator to the Department of the Interior, Zinke has been treated with kid gloves by the Montana press almost every step of the journey.

There’s perhaps no better example than the media’s coverage of his ethical breaches while in the Navy. While Zinke slowly dropped parts of his service record, he never released the full report on the travel indiscretions that ended his path of promotion in the Navy. Instead, he claimed they were minor indiscretions. As we learned during his confirmation hearings for the Interior post, that just wasn’t true. Those indiscretions kept him from ever achieving command rank. And the Naval officers who oversaw his punishment intended it to be harsh:

Another retired vice admiral, Sean A. Pybus, who was Mr. Zinke’s boss after he left SEAL Team 6, said that Admiral Calland’s decision to cite Mr. Zinke for “lapses in judgment” in failing to set a proper example was a red flag for boards screening officers for coveted command jobs.

Even if a fitness report — essentially a performance evaluation — gives top marks in other areas, as Mr. Zinke’s did, “language there like ‘hey, this officer has questionable judgment,’ that would keep him from being selected for a command position,” Admiral Pybus said. “And I think that’s exactly what happened.”

For his part, Zinke called those who said the ethical lapses prevented his promotion liars, claiming of a former commanding officer that the attacks were “unwarranted and shameful.”

The Montana media never pursued Zinke’s connection with the birther movement, his connections to a retired general who called for an armed insurrection against President Obama, or his drunken meeting with a hate group while a member of Congress.

They never even reported that he sued a church he rented a house from after they were forced to sue him to collect rent.

And, to my never-ending annoyance, they refused to cover the scandal that vaulted Zinke to national prominence: Zinke outed the members of Navy SEAL Team 6 after the bin Laden raid for personal gain BEFORE raising money claiming that others had done it.

Even when the Montana press covered shady business like Zinke’s transparent effort to develop a personal SuperPAC for political gain, his residency status during the 2016 campaign when he was nowhere to be seen in Montana, or his absurd flip-flops on abortion, the press in Montana has simply been too willing to let Zinke promote Zinke, even if what he’s saying is demonstrably untrue.

And it’s driven me crazy, but maybe I finally understand why they let it happen. For all the talk about how working in the Trump administration corrupted Ryan Zinke, maybe the story is a bit more complicated: Ryan Zinke was Trump before Trump. Since he began his political rise, Zinke has been using the two strategies Trump has used so successfully: smearing critics with accusations that they are lying, shameful, or treacherous and sticking to a narrative even when it’s easily disproven.

Just as the national press has struggled with how to cover a President and candidate who won’t tell the truth, maybe the Montana press wasn’t sure how to deal with Zinke, a fabulist of epic proportions.

I certainly hope the media figure it out before Zinke’s outsized ambitions having him eyeing another office in Montana, before this latest series of scandals sinks into the graveyard of old Zinke scandals, and before he starts lying to us again.

A good start would be to report the truth: he was forced out because he was too corrupt to serve in the most corrupt Administration in recent memory. Let’s hope the press remembers that before Zinke gets away with reinventing his story one more time.

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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