Journalism in a fake democracy

Pat Williams said something true in 1997.
Pat Williams said something true in 1997.

I can tell you from my viewpoint that spinning Montana’s newspapers was as easy as spinning a top. There’s precious little congressional news that is actually broken by a Montana newspaper. That works to the advantage of the politician. Absolutely. When you are free from a burrowing press, you pretty much have clear sailing. (Former Montana Representative Pat Williams, on leaving Congress in 1997)

I was watching episodes of the Daily Show last night, the American version of the court jester. The back-and-forth between the Comedy Central outlet and FOX News leaves one with the impression that we have a rich and full dialogue among factions, and that our democracy is in good shape. In fact, looking over the whole of the landscape, we have vigorous tests of wit between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals. These exchanges are lively and intense. It appears that ours is a fully functioning system of public debate.

That illusion is very important to those who really run the country. That’s the only reason Daily Show has its perch. Imagine if all we were allowed were FOX, NBC and ABC etc., and the other government mouthpiece outlets. People would begin to suspect that we really aren’t as free as we imagine. The important lesson is that all that noise is ” … a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.*

To those paying attention, this week supplied some important evidence regarding the true nature of American “democracy.” It started when Montana Senator Jon Tester appeared on Montana Public Radio and told a bold-faced lie.

“Unfortunately, every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation. Every one of them.”

We don’t know the inner workings of his office or his mind, but the lie, so obvious and easily exposed, could have been the result of the man’s own ignorance, a signal that he’s being kept in the dark by his handlers. That was certainly the case with his predecessor, former Montana Senator Conrad Burns. Absent any other evidence, I think that a safe resting spot. He had no clue his statement was false. That would make him a mere sock puppet.

He’s just a man occupying a slot. More important here is the reaction of the Montana media when the lie was exposed. In a fully functioning democracy, Tester’s words would have immediately been challenged by a burrowing journalist fully on top of the issue of logging of our commons. Men like Tester would sweat bullets before appearing in public, knowing they would not be coddled. They would stay on top of issues, facts and figures. They would not lie easily and then stroll away.

But no, it was listeners who pointed out the lie, which is all I can call it, given it is so far from the truth. Tester was allowed a full leash with no challenge on the Montana Public Radio program.

Here is the reaction of Montana Public Radio, given to me in a comment by a reader of this blog:

Based on what I know, MTPR did actually attempt to fact-check Senator Tester’s lies, and literally did so within minutes of being informed of the[m], but it was tough because Senator Tester just issued more incorrect statements and then the USFS dragged its feet….then the weekend hit. Then there was more total silence from Sen Tester and the USFS. Finally the WaPost Fact-Checker article appeared on Wednesday AM. I’m not sure if MTPR has done anything on-air with the WaPost fact-checker story, but again, in my opinion MTPR’s newsroom did a good job trying to uncover the truth, especially when up against a US Senator and USFS that clearly just wanted to sweep all this under the rug.

There’s not much content there, but the reader did link me to an official reaction of MTPR, as follows:

Yesterday, in a story about attempts to boost revenue for Montana counties that are mostly federal land, Montana Senator Jon Tester made the following statement:

“Unfortunately, every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation. Every one of them.”

Several listeners questioned that statement, so we asked Senator Tester to respond.

His communications director Marnee Banks said he is unavailable this week.

Banks says Tester’s staff checked with the Forest Service, and now says, less than half “of the awarded timber volume in Fiscal 2014 is currently under litigation.”

“I apologize for the error,” Banks said via email.

In the story, Senator Tester also referenced Matthew Koehler, with the Missoula-based environmental group Wildwest Institute. Tester said Koehler “is part of the problem” of litigation costs taking money away from timber management.

Koehler responded that the Wildwest Institute has not litigated a logging sale in at least seven years.

Koehler has asked Senator Tester for an apology, and also takes issue with Tester’s clarification.

“He has now gone from claiming that ‘every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation,’ and has switched to talking about ‘awarded timber VOLUME,’ Koehler wrote to us.

“As expected, Tester’s response is just total subterfuge and he entirely failed to own up to the fact that he lied to the people of Montana on your news program.”

That sounds like MTPR is following up, doing the burrowing duties, but they are not. They are doing “he-said-she-said.” They have devoted exactly zero resources towards holding Tester accountable.

The next part surprised me, as I don’t expect fact-checking and accountability from any mainstream outlet in this country. The Washington Post Fact Checker got hold of the story, dug deep into it, and came up with facts and figures enough to award Tester “Four Pinocchios,” its highest honor for deviation from truth.

Dennison: Earns four Pinnochios of his own
Dennison: Earns four Pinnochios of his own
At this point, the story had legs, and it is hard for the Montana media to continue its other-way-gazing. Enter the Missoulian, and Mike Dennison. Here are the first two paragraphs of Dennison’s story:

The Washington Post “fact checker” column Wednesday chastised U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for misstating facts last week about the impact of lawsuits on timber harvests in Montana.

Tester, D-Mont., corrected his initial statement within 24 hours of making it last week and apologized, his spokeswoman said.

The whole story is longer, but all of these “journalists” know that readers of news generally read headline and first paragraph, possibly second, so that the body of the intended message is going to be in the words above: Tester “misstated” facts and corrected the misstatement. Dennison did not link (!) to the WaPo story. He made no reference to the extensive research done there. His work was either lazy, or protective of Tester. (They also ran a flattering picture of Tester above the story.)

Fortunately, in the comments below the Dennison piece, Matt Koehler did Dennison’s job by citing the story and its important facts and providing a link. However, his comment, 717 words, was probably not read by the same readers who knew only to read the headline and first graph or two of Dennison’s work. So the public mind is not troubled by a Senator who either is wildly uninformed or deliberately dishonest in his public utterances.

Thanks, Montana media. Truth is, however, this is your real job.

That, to my knowledge this Saturday morning, is the extent of Montana’s burrowing press into the lies and misadventures of its Senator, Jon Tester. They are guilty of gross misconduct, in my view, protecting the man. But remember, this is a fake democracy, and Tester’s job, like Burns before him, has nothing to do with campaign utterances. The media’s job has nothing to do with searching for truth or reporting on the activities of powerful people. These media people routinely lay high praise and awards on one another for doing essentially nothing, and doing it badly.

But then again, their job is to protect those with real power from the public scrutiny. With that in mind, they do a good job, and earn those statues, plaques, and citations collecting dust as they peck away on keyboards, oblivious to the role of real journalism in a real democracy.
*Thank you, Mrs. Hudson, for forcing this young inattentive student to memorize MacBeth’s Tomorrow speech. I still recite it when I want to sound well-educated.

2 thoughts on “Journalism in a fake democracy

  1. The news that sombody’s baby died in the womb is heartbreaking. Imagine how difficult it is for most Americans to accept the fact that our baby — democracy — was stillborn. American democracy is one of the top myths in existence today.

    Without war, we don’t know how to exist. How can a “democracy” survive without extended periods of peace? “America Has Been At War 93% of the Time – 222 Out of 239 Years – Since 1776. The U.S. Has Only Been At Peace For 21 Years Total Since Its Birth” By WashingtonsBlog


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