Absent a Lee Newspapers state bureau, nothing has changed

People who know David Crisp know him to be a nice man of both letters and integrity. That makes it hard to be critical of him. But I will. Someone has to.

From his article “From the Outpost: Papers go dark when news is about them, I capture some telling sentences below.

The article is about how Lee Newspapers shut down its Helena Bureau and gave two journalists a hard choice – pay cut or the door.

Here are some excerpts from Mr. Crisp’s article about Charles Johnson and Mike Dennison:

As of this writing, late Tuesday, I have been unable to find a reference to the story in any Lee newspaper—not the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian, the Montana Standard or the Ravalli Republic, or any of the Lee’s numerous satellite publications in Montana. …

…Blogs and news sites such as Last Best News picked it up almost immediately and drew dozens of comments from readers.

This is a bugaboo in journalism, that their job is simply to write stuff that will be written anyway somewhere. Why should I care if a Ravalli paper or the I Like Boobs blog carries an easily accessible story like this? There is no great accomplishment in printing it on Tuesday instead of Monday, or on a blog instead of in a newspaper. The knowledge has little impact on us (it is a very big deal to journalists, I realize), and the timing and means of receipt of the information are of no consequence.

Chuck Johnson has covered the state capital since the Constitutional Convention of 1972. I have gotten to know him a little, and I have read his work for many years. If he has any political biases, I have been unable to detect them. …

…Mike Dennison has been in recent years, if anything, the more aggressive of the two reporters. He covered healthcare better than any Montana reporter I know about. His stories were detailed, precise and fair, and his occasional columns were must reads. …

…the web has nothing yet to match the expertise and deep knowledge that Johnson and Dennison brought to statewide coverage of Montana.

There’s a theme there, and it is a little difficult to detect, but I’ll try: Johnson and Dennison write stuff. They don’t allow their personal opinions to interfere with what they write. That’s why they are really good at what they do, no matter that the stuff they write is easily accessible and will be widely known whether they write it or someone else does. Everything that is acted out on the public stage, even in wee hours of the morning, gets written somewhere. So what?

In the mind of the journalist, the highest accolade is fairness and objectivity. Screw that. I want to know what is going on behind the scenes, off stage – money changing hands, deals cut, political cover and inside baseball. Fairness and objectivity are nice, but not useful. Power gets to do what power does behind the scenes even as reporters are fair and balanced.

Professional journalists are trained to avoid losing objectivity, of becoming involved in the story, even if in so doing they tell us something that we might otherwise not have known.

Here’s an example: In late 2002 and early 2003, the government lied to the public about Iraq, claiming by means both open and psychologically suggestive that Iraq (“Saddam Hussein”) was involved in 9/11, had nuclear and chemical weaponry, and was going it attack us. American journalists did their job, as they see it, reporting the lies in a fair and objective manner.

The result: hundreds of thousands of dead, a massive refugee crisis, and a crime of significant historic proportions, surely the greatest slaughter of the new century.

We had no one running interference for us, burrowing and getting down to the underlying truth. Our reporters were busy being professionals, reporting on what he and she said. The New York Times even allowed lies to go front page through Judith Miller, as if they could not control or discipline her.

That’s American journalism. I’m sorry, Mr. Crisp, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Dennison, to be the one with a scoop here, but writing down what public officials say and do in public, even if you do it on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, and in the New York Times instead of  the Ravalli Republic, is not an important job. Anyone can do that, even me.

We need people of steely resolve who are fearless of making enemies and who attempt to find out what powerful people are really doing. The ‘finding out’ part is very difficult. The ‘reporting back’ to us not so much. Somewhere along the line American journalists forgot about the ‘finding out’ part.

High praise given journalists by public officials is a sign they are not doing their job. Otherwise, powerful people would not like them so much.

Real journalism, finding out what powerful people are doing and reporting it to us, has value. Informed public opinion, even if enraged or indignant, and even in our fake democracy, matters.

We don’t have journalism. Shutting down a state bureau is not significant. We’ve got bigger problems than that. I feel the pain of dispatched reporters. But the world moves forward without a wobble, having lost nothing of value.
PS: Mr. Crisp has little regard for bloggers, in fact, even a haughty disdain. It is true, we do not do what he does, and I too have haughty disdain as a result. He quotes another blog, apparently a self-loathing one:

The 4&20 Blackbirds blog may have put the issue most concisely: “So what fills the vacuum? If the answer is bloggers, we’re screwed.”

Of course, blogs are not the answer, but let’s be clear: What we had before the Internet and blogs … that was not the answer either.

We need … reporting.

6 thoughts on “Absent a Lee Newspapers state bureau, nothing has changed

  1. Amazing coincidence. Yesterday I was in Albertsons on 27th St. walking along the produce and I spyed David, remembered his face from the internet. I asked him if he was Crisp and he said yes. I told that I read his “blog” occasionally, don’t always agree with him but enjoy it anyway. Seemed nice. The word “blog” could have caused a negative reaction, but didn’t.


  2. Actually, Mike Dennison had strong opinions about healthcare, and wrote passionately about Baucus’ ACA tragedy. I appreciated Dennison exactly because he would acknowledge his opinions and that his journalism would be accomplished from a particular angle. I happen to think that the notion of an

    If you want to see what I mean, take this 2008 Missoulian article he wrote:

    When it comes to health care reform in America, there is a relatively simple solution that will cover everyone’s basic health care, control costs and save businesses, most people and the country a lot of money.

    It’s called a single-payer health plan, where the government collects taxes to finance national health insurance. The government, which is the “single payer,” covers all citizens and pays the bills when they visit private (or public) doctors, hospitals and other health care for medical care.

    Everyone has basic coverage, regardless of whether they have a job, or where they work. Nobody gets billed for basic care. Nobody goes broke because of medical bills.

    Yet this option has been declared “off the table” by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who’s among those leading the charge for health care reform in America.

    Top Democrats who will be deciding policy in America in 2009, including Baucus and President-elect Barack Obama, say single-payer is “not politically feasible,” because the public won’t strongly support it.

    What they really mean is that when it comes to health care reform, they don’t want a political fight with some of the nation’s most powerful financial interests, which have the resources and the motivation to turn public opinion against meaningful reforms.

    These interests include the health insurance industry, pharmaceutical drug companies, some hospitals, highly paid medical specialists, medical suppliers and others who now profit handsomely from our current system – and who could no longer command those profits under a single-payer system or an alternative form of a national health plan.

    Dennison’s bright light on the ACA battle and its implementation was about the only bright light — news-wise — coming out of Lee Enterprises in the last 7 years. He even got national attention from the Columbia Journalism Review for taking Baucus and the medical-industrial-complex on:

    A laurel to Mike Dennison, a Montana statehouse reporter for Lee Newspapers, who for months has kept an eye on Sen. Max Baucus as he has tried to position himself as Mr. Health Care II, stealing turf from Mr. Health Care I, Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose name has been linked with the issue for decades. Two stories written as columns, which ran in the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record, and the Montana Standard a few days ago, are examples of the kind of careful, everyday, explanatory journalism that has been absent from health care reportage this year…

    Dennison notes that the Baucus paper offers few ideas for controlling rising health care costs and “plops another mishmash of new rules, regulations and bureaucracy” on top of our “fragmented, expensive system,” “all in the name of maintaining the private, for-profit insurance market.” In sum, Dennison writes, Baucus’s white paper “seems to bend over backwards to preserve much of the status quo—a status quo that just about everyone agrees is badly broken.”


    1. That all sounds good. I wonder if he knew that Baucus taking single payer off the table was a procedural move that allowed them to remove the public option as a fallback maneuver, or that ACA as introduced in 2009 was ACA as Obama signed in March of 2010, nothing having changed, or that the need for reform, there for decades, was only seen as urgent in 2009 because single payer was actually making progress, threatening to pass in California, for one place, or that Baucus, supposedly a key man in the debate, was renting his office to Liz Fowler, who oversaw the bill’s formation and shepherded its “debate”, later to move to the White House to oversee implementation, and that the politicians are merely fronting for power and should be ignored, as a burrowing reporter will find out where real power lies, and it wasn’t Baucus.

      I am a tax guy, and I’m yet to meet a journalist who has any tax savvy, but don’t suggest that to them, as they will tell you “I’m a journalist, don’t argue with me.” That’s basically what we get out of Crisp, that haughty arrogance without substance to back it up. He is sure that his profession has all bases covered, and that that vaunted objectivity is a powerful substitute for burrowing and being annoying, my specialty.

      Nonetheless, I am glad that Dennison got down and dirty on health care.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s