Montana: Dark money versus a dwindling local news landscape

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

Montana is a state of 147,040 square miles, and just over a million people. We get two senators like every other state, but just one congressional representative. In theory, that should make it easier for the local press to report on the federal races. This year, there are two: for the senate, a close battle between two-term senate incumbent Jon Tester (D) and Matt Rosendale (R); for Congress, an unpredictable race between Democrat Kathleen Williams, the surprise winner of a closely contested primary, and Greg Gianforte, who won a special election for the seat last May, just 24 hours after bodyslamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. (Gianforte, who initially denied Jacobs’ account, eventually pled guilty to assault, for which he was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger management, a 180-day deferred sentence, and ordered to pay a $300 fine. He also donated an additional $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists, who characterized their meeting with him as “disappointingly brief.”)

The Gianforte race presents some unprecedented tensions. How do you cover a candidate whose antagonism towards the press includes physical abuse? How should reporters respond when the president jokes that Gianforte “has fought in more ways than one”? (Asked by the Billings Gazette to condemn Trump’s press-as-enemy rhetoric, Gianforte instead touted the president’s unique communication style.)

The local press has attempted to cover Gianforte as best they can. The editor of the Billings Gazette, which serves the largest metro area in the state, decried Trump’s comments and Gianforte’s refusal to denounce them. Montana Public Radio’s Nicky Oulette has repeatedly pushed the congressman to go beyond the widespread “Make America Great Again” rhetoric in favor of substantive policy discussions and critiques of the president’s actions.

But covering Gianforte—or scandal-marred Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, formerly the state’s long congressional representative, or any number of other state and federal races—is difficult when journalistic resources are cut to the bone.

Newspaper conglomerate Lee Enterprises, which owns three of Montana’s top papers, has issued cascading layoffs over the past two years. Lee recently closed The Independent, Missoula’s beloved alt-weekly and one of the only Montana publications that still does in-depth reporting, after acquiring it just last year. Lee layoffs entailed the elimination of the syndicate’s state bureau in Helena, including veteran reporters Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson. It was Johnson (along with John Adams, then reporting for the Great Falls Tribune) who helped unearth and report on the dark money that supported misinformation campaigns in Montana state elections. As detailed in the recent documentary Dark Money, their reporting spurred bipartisan legislation to ban undisclosed contributions, many of which came from corporations outside of Montana that were eager to set the agenda for natural resource extraction across the state.

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Today, Lee Enterprises has a restructured, one-person state bureau, Johnson is in early retirement, and Adams has launched Montana Free Press, a shoestring operation that survives on donations and syndicates its investigative reporting in Montana papers, including Lee-owned ones. (Montana Free Press hopes to hire a state capitol reporter to start in October.) Smaller, digital-only news sites, largely staffed by ex-newspaper employees, struggle along. Last Best News, helmed by ex-Billings Gazette reporter Ed Kemmick, shuttered earlier this year. Losing talent like Johnson’s doesn’t just mean losing decades of institutional knowledge; it means losing a beloved and trusted voice when newspapers need them the most.

Earlier this year, journalists broke a massive story concerning potential conflicts of interest involving Secretary Zinke’s landholdings in Whitefish. The reporters behind the scoop didn’t work for the local newspapers, or the Maury Povich and Connie Chung-owned alt-weekly, or any of the Lee Enterprise papers.

Montanans are proud of their refusal to keep outsiders out of everything, politics included. Politicians and old-timers and fresh-faced J-school students regularly invoke the days of the so-called “Copper Kings,” men who came in and wrested control of seemingly everything in the state—from the copper beneath the ground all the way to a Senate seat, which one of the so-called Kings, William Clark, effectively purchased. In the early 20th century, Montanans worked together to rebuke the rule and corruption of the Copper Kings. The anti–dark money legislation is often situated as a continuation of that tradition.

But state legislation can only go so far, and dark money is as sneaky and clever as its nickname suggests. This election cycle, the ballot includes a statewide initiative that would raise taxes on cigarette sales in order to continue funding of Medicaid Expansion. A group called “Montanans Against Tax Hikes” raised $7.7 million in August, nearly all of it from the parent company of Philip Morris Tobacco. At the same time, the Montana Democratic party is battling an attempt on the behalf of the Green Party to get a candidate on the ballot in November, even as it’s been revealed that the signature-gathering for the candidate has been funded by an out-of-state group with Republican ties. (Recent elections have been so close that a third party candidate, particularly on the left, could be enough to tilt the race in Democrats’ or Republicans’ favor).

Democrats won their suit to keep candidates off the ballot in district court, only to be challenged by the Republican Secretary of State; the Montana Supreme Court has since upheld the ruling. And while the Montana press has duly reported on these cases, it simply lacks the resources or wherewithal to pursue the larger issues, institutions, and money-flows in depth. What is “Advanced Micro Targeting,” the organization behind the Green Party signature gathering? What stake do its funders have in who wins the Montana election? How did they recruit signature gatherers and collaborate with the existing Green Party infrastructure? Why is the most in-depth reporting on the issue happening on a small community podcast?  

Earlier this year, journalists broke a massive story concerning potential conflicts of interest involving Secretary Zinke’s landholdings in Whitefish. The reporters behind the scoop didn’t work for the local newspapers, or the Maury Povich and Connie Chung-owned alt-weekly, or any of the Lee Enterprise papers. They work for Politico, and are based in Washington, DC.
As this sort of in-depth investigative reporting continues to fall to national outlets, it might help inoculate the local newspapers from continued cries of liberal “bias.” But what’s lost in the process? To develop trust between a local publication and its readership, you have to do more than deliver the news with consistency and speed. You also have to speak truth to power, whether that means calling out a lie on the part of a wealthy elected congressman or investigating outside meddling in state matters. And that—more than covering candidates’ daily stops, or furor over a Pearl Jam concert poster depicting Trump, or even whether or not owning a ranch but not cattle makes you a rancher—should be our focus as members of the Montana press.

*This story has been updated to reflect that John Adams worked for the Great Falls Tribune, not the Helena Independent.

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Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer and Western correspondent for BuzzFeed News. She received her PhD in media studies from the University of Texas, and her most recent book is Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman.