The Media

Tom Lutey’s Greatest Hits, Or a Story About the Broken Political Press in Montana

Written by Don Pogreba
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Alright, I’m pissed. And I’m tired of what passes for political coverage in the state’s largest newspaper. Today, readers of the Lee papers in Montana were treated to a BREAKING NEWS story from the Billings Gazette’s Tom Lutey, a story that breathlessly announced that “D.C. press contradicts Tester’s account of meeting with Trump.” There are just a few problems with the story.

{Note: After leaving up the inaccurate headline with a red “Breaking” banner for hours, all of the Lee papers quietly walked back the headline this evening}

  • One, the D.C. press referred to in the piece is a single story in Politico that cites an anonymous, non-qualified source to back its assertion that President Trump had unflattering things to say about Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was not at the meeting.
  • Two, no source in the piece confirms the account nor even suggests that the meeting was anything but cordial, despite the alleged comments about Warren.
  • Three, Lutey turns the piece over to Daines spokesman Jason Thielman, who was not at the meeting, had no firsthand knowledge of what transpired there, and who was, bizarrely allowed to smear Senator Tester because a President Steve Daines has supported might have made a racist remark about Senator Warren.
  • Finally, nothing in the story contradicts how Senator Tester described the meeting, despite the clickbait, inflammatory headline. Tester told the Montana press that the meeting was “just flat non-confrontational,” and there’s nothing in the story to suggest the opposite. Not one word, in either the Politico or Gazette story.

It’s a flaming pile of non-story, and further indictment of a print press in Montana that is almost entirely broken in the state’s largest news chain. There’s apparently little time to cover substantive proposals, no money for a D.C. press office, and no process in place to make sure that a click-generating headline comports with basic standards of journalistic accuracy and newsworthiness.

And a more enterprising reporter might have asked what the consequences of our Senator throwing a tantrum in the face of a juvenile President who has REPEATEDLY made racist slurs about Senator Warren and lied about voter fraud would have been.

In a world where neither the murky financial dealings of our state’s sole Congressman nor his failure to do his job for a month don’t deserve scrutiny from the press, it’s challenging to understand how two somewhat different accounts of a political meeting warrant the kind of cable news promotion and sensationalism that this piece received. It’s even harder to understand why readers are being subjected to stories about the dangerous impact of “fake news” in countless recaps of how the system broke down in the last election and gave us a demagogue for President. Instead of casting about for enemies in social media, isn’t it time for the largest press chain in the state to start asking itself about the role it plays?

Since they won’t, I thought I’d put together a few greatest hits from Mr. Lutey’s political coverage over the past few years, a collection that shows just how damaging and inaccurate the coverage has become.

Media Falls For Republican Bias Claims Again

Lutey got played like the referees get played by Phil Jackson during a playoff series; after so much crying about media bias, he let the Billings Republicans get away with saying whatever they wanted—in the name of “balance.”

Representative Rehberg Draws MASSIVE Crowds, Commensurate Media Response

While I understand the cutbacks that make media coverage more complicated these days, news outlets would do a great deal to enhance both their credibility and the depth of their coverage if they stopped treating these manufactured theatrical productions as if they were worth covering—and spent some real time investigating the records and results from candidates.

No, Tom Lutey. No. Eric Olsen and Patty Lovass Are Not Credible Sources

In his piece, Lutey allowed Eric Olsen (without mentioning his affiliation with the TEA Party) to pass along unsubstantiated, hearsay claims that might have been offered by former Secretary of State candidate Patty Lovaas (without mentioning her frequent, irrational, legally unsustainable challenges) that dead people have been casting ballots in Montana.

Tom Lutey and the Gazette Play News, Not News Again

When I read the headline “Businesses to Daines: Cut government regulations” in my Billings Gazette feed, I confidently predicted two things: that the piece would be a news-free puff piece and that it would have been written by Tom Lutey. Lutey is the Gazette’s sometimes political reporter and tends to follow Republican Senate candidates to PR events with the kind of starry-eyed intensity you’d expect from a new intern at Capitol Hill.

Tom Lutey Goes Reporting Again

I don’t mean to continue to pick on a single reporter, but once again, Billings Gazette reporter Tom Lutey has done an incredibly sloppy job in his reporting, producing a story that is both inaccurate and one-sided in its description of the ongoing fight over Rick Hill’s Wikipedia page.

Judith Miller Award for Sloppy Journalism Winner: Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

Mr. Lutey, in the future, instead of running partisan press releases about natural disasters, perhaps you might consider writing a news piece and doing some research. I hear this story is pretty interesting.

The Billings Gazette and a Broken System of Political Coverage in Montana

Today, the Billings Gazette and reporter Tom Lutey reminded me that my charity might not be warranted. One of the four top stories listed on the Gazette web page today is a non-story called “Conservative Group Demands Government Spending Cuts,” a puff piece about the collection of 500 signatures in four months by an Astroturf organization.

The Gazette Covers Dog-Killing Republican Legislative Candidate Roger Webb. Sort Of.

Now, I am no reporter or anything, but rather than let Mr. Webb simply say that he has a report exonerating himself, I’d think a reporter might want to quote the actual alleged report, the claims of which, absent proof, rely on the word of the kind of person who’d shoot a dog in the back.

It’s not that I am a partisan concerned about one reporter’s dogged quest for the truth, no matter how tempting that story might be for the reporter in question. It’s simpler: in a system where politicians and political hacks lead so many reporters by the nose to meaningless press opportunities and horrible, politically motivated non-stories, the issue isn’t the proliferation of “fake news” or the hyper-partisan world we live in. It’s that reporters need to do their jobs, and when they fail to do so, editors need to direct and improve their coverage.

Today was yet another example of the institutional failures in the state’s largest papers that are keeping either of those things from happening, and it’s a damn shame that the very people entrusted with ensuring that our democratic system works and is accountable can’t spend the time or money to make sure that their reporting is worthy of sacred responsibility they’re charged with.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a sixteen-year teacher of English, 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. 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.

5 Comments

  • So Donny boy either Tester sat there while Trump used racist terms about a fellow senator or he do not–yes or no question! And if he did d not have the backbone to call him on it yes or no. simples questions

    • I’m guessing with the level of education you’ve put on display here that you haven’t been invited to a lot of meetings with the President. There’s a protocol involved. That’s a big word for “rules and expectations of behavior.”

      Just because the new President and his voters are cretins doesn’t mean that our Senator improves our situation by sinking to their level.

    • Not so simple if you or he wants in months ahead to help promote also protect Montana wheat, Sovereign Nations, clean air and water, Public Education and Public Health. Maybe every one of the five Democrat Senators got one shot at open mic. And our Senator focused on do not take medicare away from Montana seniors.

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