Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte have failed in their jobs to represent the people of Montana. Both eschew the time-honored tradition of facing Montana constituents in town halls and, instead, rely on appearances in right-wing media and scripted, pre-screened telephone town halls where they are lobbed softball after softball by pre-selected audience members. Rather than standing with Montanans against President Trump’s disastrous foreign policy, trade deals, or violation of the norms that hold the republic together, both have put what’s left of their reputations on the line to defend every abuse, every misstep by the criminal President and his underlings.
They’re bad for Montana, and they’re bad for the country. But they get away with it, in part, because the Montana press so often lets them.
A couple of stories from the past week illustrate how.
On Thursday, the Great Falls Tribune ran a story headlined “Daines joins GOP in condemning impeachment inquiry. The story wasn’t a comprehensive look at the reasons President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry; nor was it an analysis of why Daines believes the inquiry is improper. No, it was based on a tweet.
“Precedent, transparency & due process — all still important in America,” Daines tweeted. “Proud to join @LindseyGrahamSC in a resolution to stop House Dems from their sham impeachment process.”
I’m no expert on impeachment, but I have been reading a lot of archived stories about the Nixon impeachment process. While many Republicans then were quick to defend Nixon and eager to criticize the investigation into his abuses of the office of the Presidency, news stories back then required more than a tweet. Members of Congress had to offer substantive reasons why investigations should be rejected, and the stories included both sides. While this Tribune story does mention why the House is investigating Trump, it doesn’t include a single quote from a Democrat or Independent who favors the investigation; it just contains quotes by Daines and Gianforte seeking to delegitimize the effort.
Was it too much to ask for the reporter to demand that Daines explain why the process was a sham? Rather than just running his Tweet as if it was a news story?
Putting aside the lack of balance in the piece, the more significant issue is that Daines and Gianforte are furthering Trump’s aim of delegitimizing the function of government and oversight. For Daines to assert that the House investigation is “secretive” and a “sham” might play well on Fox News, but it’s factually inaccurate, as the hearings are being conducted with both Democrats and Republican committee members. It’s irresponsible for a newspaper to give Daines and Gianforte free rein to spread misinformation.
What would be responsible? For the press to demand that Gianforte and Daines answer some real questions. For instance:
- Do they have comment on the testimony of long-time diplomat Bill Taylor, who told a House Committee that President Trump’s political agenda was driving Ukraine arms sales?
- Do they have comment on the relationship between Rudy Giuliani and elements of the Turkish and Ukrainian government? His relationship to the President? His work to conduct American foreign policy despite having no role in government?
- Do they approve of members of Congress storming a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities room with their cellphones, undermining intelligence work at the Capitol?
And then the hard part for the press comes into play: if Daines and Gianforte won’t answer real questions, stop running their dishonest op-ed pieces and stopping giving them space in the newspaper for with talking points that add nothing to the public’s understanding of news issues and only serve to further divide the country.
Being fair to politicians doesn’t mean giving them unfettered access to broadcast nonsense; it means holding them accountable and giving them the chance to explain the positions they’ve taken. And if they refuse to answer real questions like the ones I listed above, the newspaper can keep printing “Daines and Gianforte refused to respond” all damn day long.
A brief comment on another piece demonstrates how Gianforte and Daines get away with misinforming people. While this story in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle rightly notes in its opening that there is “scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is human-caused,” its survey of our Congressional delegation’s attitudes about climate change both gives the Republicans the chance to spread disinformation and fails to demand that they provide evidence for their claims.
For instance, Daines claims that it’s somehow inaccurate science to pin climate change on human activity:
Daines, also a Bozeman Republican, shares many of Gianforte’s views. He too said climate change is happening and humans are one contributing factor.
“To suggest that it’s human-caused is not a sound scientific conclusion,” he said. “There is a human component, here, but I think it’s important to recognize there are also natural trends, given the climate is always changing, it’s never static, it’s always increasing or decreasing.”
And Gianforte, who believes that the planet is only 6,000 years old? His science tells him we need to cut down more trees to solve climate change:
Gianforte, a Bozeman Republican, views human activity as one of several factors — including unhealthy forests that absorb carbon inefficiently — contributing to climate change.
While the single line disclaimer at the top of the piece is a step in the right direction, it’s undermined by paragraph after paragraph of Daines and Gianforte just not telling the truth—about the science of climate change, the details of the New Green Deal, the provisions of the Paris Climate Accords—making the piece serve their political interests and personal agenda better than it serves the public’s ability to understand complex issues.
And that failure to press for proof and explain the state of the science is one of the most important reasons Americans who rely on print media seem not to understand the nature of the climate crisis.
Railing on the press serves little purpose. I know that. But it’s hard not to wonder if some members of the press haven’t forgotten that they hold the power in our system still. Politicians can hide in their silos of right-wing media outlets and social media all they want, but for a non-trivial number of voters, the newspaper is the place where they get the news. If we want to preserve the ideal of an informed public demanding accountability from our elected officials, we need those reporters to flex their muscles again.
They need to remember they are more than megaphones for irresponsible political rhetoric; they are the people entrusted with digging for the truth. They need to take more than tentative first steps—like noting the scientific consensus about climate change—and pushing our leaders to provide evidence for absurd claims like cutting down trees will slow global warming.
The press is reeling. Our institutions are wobbling. And our norms are crumbling.
It’s time to fight back with the best weapon we have: the truth.