The Gazette’s Troubling False Equivalency About Senator Daines and Senator Tester

Dempsey and Firpo (1924) by George Bellows. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Awhile back, the Billings Gazette’s editorial board offered up some “dangerous” and “overheated” language in response to the detestable David Clarke’s call for violence against members of the media, language one could easily call out given our current “firebomb exchange culture.”

They wrote:

We don’t know how things go in America’s Dairyland, but here in Montana, if you punch anyone in the face — lying liberal media or otherwise — you’re could be looking back at the business end of a gun barrel.

I imagine anyone who wasn’t educated at a homeschool run by a Montana Republican legislator quickly understood that that the Gazette did not mean to threaten actual violence with the comment. It was a rhetorical flourish, perhaps a bit heavy-handed on the suggestion that Montanans are tougher than the people of the Midwest, and nothing more.

But a year and a half later, the Gazette seemed to ignore its own violent rhetoric and, it seems, the purpose of metaphor. In a truly bizarre editorial condemning Senator Jon Tester, the Gazette called on Tester to apologize, and in a tone that I recognize from first grade, argued that it “is simply not acceptable” to suggest we punch someone in the face:

In context, Tester was speaking metaphorically about the need to stand up boldly to Trump, and be just as adamant and vehement as Trump can be. Regardless, meeting Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric with equally bluster only continues to up the ante. In the firebomb exchange culture and overheated political rhetoric of Washington D.C., politicians of all political parties engage in a fight-fire-with-fire mindset. That’s disappointing, wrong, and dangerous. Suggesting that we punch anyone in the face, president or otherwise, is simply not acceptable.

Which Tester, as the editorial notes, did not.

Because it was a metaphor.

It’s not just that the Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick had to badly distort Tester’s clear meaning or even that the Gazette itself has used more violent rhetoric to convey a point. It’s also hard to overlook the simple fact that we all use the punching metaphor to cover politics. A three minute search last night (slowed for two minutes by excluding Greg Gianforte’s actual assault) showed repeated uses of the punching metaphor from national and local media outlets covering Montana politics in just the past year.

It was an absurd piece, and I didn’t even get to the most surreal part in which Ehrlick seemed to suggest that Senator Tester bore some extra responsibility because he had to be aware of the violent tendencies of our Congressman.

So how does an editorial like this make the paper? I can easily imagine how, after a week of terrible coverage of Senator Daines, Ehrlick felt the need to throw a bone to conservative readers who howl about the “liberal media” after any critical, honest coverage of Republicans, but this false equivalency between Senator Daines supporting and fundraising off of racist remarks by the President of the United States and Senator Tester using a metaphor reveals the real bind the media faces today. Many outlets just seem not to have learned how to deal with the new Republican Party and its adherents and bend over backwards to address their concerns.

That could easily explain the thinking that the Gazette had to write a critical editorial—about anything—about Tester.

When Republicans have doubled down on support for a dangerous, bigoted crackpot who is letting children die in cages, denigrating great American cities because he is a racist, and undermining our nation’s fiscal and military security every day, we don’t need editorials about a damn metaphor. We need coverage and editorials about the erosion of the norms that have kept this country secure and relatively free, not false equivalency in the name of balance.

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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