Last night, I posted a little snark about how frustrating it is to see Elsie Arntzen’s total inability to lead Montana’s schools only being exposed after her election. I was surprised this morning to see a response from the editor of the Montana Standard, who replied:
Spare me the potshots taken at journalists from a comfortable position of irrelevancy https://t.co/8bxJrQAa6M
— David McCumber (@dcmccumber) February 20, 2017
Now, given the six minutes it took me to read the Montana Standard (twice) this Saturday, I’m not sure its editor should take anyone to task for his relevance, but Mr. McCumber certainly has the right to question my take on election coverage in Montana.
And I have the right to take his newspaper to task for its coverage of those elections. While there has been some solid reporting about Elsie’s chaotic, disjointed, and frankly unintelligible start as the head of OPI, especially from the Great Falls Tribune, that level of coverage simply didn’t exist before the election—and Mr. McCumber’s newspaper is a perfect illustration of that. I ran a search of the term “Arntzen” from January 1, 2016, to November 7, 2016 on the Standard and came up with four hits: one a story about spending in the race, one about polling in the race, one about Paul Ryan visiting Billings, and one purporting to be an in-depth look at the two candidates running.
That last story, from September 30, was about both the Auditor and Superintendent races and devoted an entire 485 words to the OPI candidates. There was no mention of Graduation Matters, Common Core, nor any specific policy proposals offered by Mrs. Arntzen. Voters were left with the soundbites that characterized her campaign and not one hard question about votes she’d taken in the Montana Legislature was addressed in the coverage.
When I expanded my search to include the term “Romano,” there was one more story about the two candidates, from September 18, in which Mrs. Arntzen failed to answer questions about Common Core, No Child Left Behind, and school choice beyond the most simplistic responses.
Bizarrely, it appears that the Standard didn’t even offer an endorsement in the race, despite endorsing in the race for Congress and Secretary of State. Another opportunity to prove the relevance of the mighty press squandered.
Searches for the candidates running for other Tier B races show the same lack of coverage in the Standard. Voters who relied on the “relevant” coverage from the Montana Standard likely knew little about the positions taking by those candidates on many important issues.
Mr. McCumber is absolutely right. I’m an irrelevancy. I write a blog about Montana politics because I’m frequently frustrated by the focus of coverage and its absence, and I know that I don’t have the importance of the state’s newspapers, especially the ones in the largest chain. But perhaps the lesson for the press from the statewide and national debacle in 2016 is not to attack those who criticize the press, but to ask what can be done to better inform voters and better expose the basic incompetence of those seeking office.
We’re realizing every day of the Trump Regime that the free press is essential to prevent irrational, authoritarian rule, but that vital role is only going to be realized if the press has the courage and the good sense to cover what matters before elections. Mrs. Arntzen’s foibles might make good press now, but the damage she’ll likely do to Montana’s schools and students could have been avoided with a little more relevant, in-depth reporting.
Update: Journalist Derek Brouwer pointed out that I misspelled Mr. McCumber’s name in this piece. My sincere apologies for an error that never appears in the Montana press.