Mike Dennison has had a front row seat to Montana politics for three decades as a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, Lee Newspapers, and now MTN News.
He's got a new book out about his experiences: Inside Montana Politics, A Reporter's View from the Trenches.
Dennison spoke with Eric Whitney on the eve of a book signing tour that takes him to Montana Book Company in Helena Aug. 1 at 6 p.m., Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls Aug. 8 at 7 p.m., Fact & Fiction Books in Missoula Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. and This House of Books in Billings Sept. 21.
Eric Whitney: Why did you write this book, and why now?
Mike Dennison: I think every journalist probably wants to write a book because they're writing stories of such impermanence. You want to write something that maybe has a little more lasting effect.
I wanted to write a history book that talked about political figures of the last 30 years. And I wanted to write about people that I had covered who were big political figures and also other events in my career that I thought kind of shaped the politics. And I wanted to talk about what it was like to be a reporter to cover those things.
Whitney: I found it a fascinating read, and there are chapters in your book about the fall of the Montana Power Company, the exoneration of Cody Marble, and the 1991 riot at Montana State Prison. But most of the book is about politicians. You have chapters in there on Judy Martz, Conrad Burns, Brian Schweitzer, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Is there any one chapter or one politician that really stands out to you as the most interesting to cover or to write about?
Dennison: The chapter on Conrad Burns is one of my favorite chapters in the book for a couple of reasons. One, I think Burns is a conflicted figure. I mean, he was a hero, very popular with many people. A lot of people didn't like him. And I covered him most of his career and kind of felt the same way about him.
This chapter also has a story about Cass Chinske, a former city councilman in Missoula who was busted for growing marijuana back in the early 1990s, and Conrad Burns had a relationship with him, went to some extraordinary lengths as a senator to help him out in the criminal justice system. Now, that story had never been told until this book.
I think the chapter on Judy Martz where she talks a lot about how she had such a difficult governorship, and why. It's compelling and it's kind of sad in a way too, because I think she really wanted to do a good job and just all kinds of things happened that — some of which were her fault some of which weren't — that led to very low approval ratings and she decided not to run for re-election.
Also, I wrote a lot about Max Baucus as a U.S. senator and what a power he was. He was not the greatest speaker. He wasn't a guy who was in the public eye a lot, but he just accomplished all these things that people don't really remember him for that much.
Whitney: As reporters we're just proxies for the public. Elected officials are ultimately responsible to the public, and it's our job to ask politicians pertinent questions and to hold them accountable. But there's no clear set of rules. There's no rule that says you must have this many press conferences, or you must grant this many interviews, or to give any at all. Among the politicians that you write about in Inside Montana Politics, which ones do you think did or do take the responsibility to talk to the public through the press most and least seriously?
Dennison: Almost all those politicians that I talked to talked to the press a lot. And that's because most of those politicians were of an era where the traditional press — the newspapers, TV, radio — were much more dominant because we didn't have the internet a lot of time, or the internet was just starting. And so now I think politicians have much more power and ability to go around the traditional media, whereas back then they really didn't. You know, we were the gatekeepers. So they had to talk to us.
I think most of the ones that I covered were very open. You know, I wrote how Martz had some trouble with the press and tried to kind of shut some of the reporters out. That was fairly extraordinary and Gov. Racicot was very open but loved to feud with the press all the time and say, 'I disagree with the premise of your question.' But he was always very open. Schweitzer very open. Tester incredibly open. So I think all these guys made themselves available because we were really the only game in town.
Whitney: Tell me how that's different now.
Dennison: They basically have their own media that they can use to communicate to everyone they want to communicate with, and they can filter out those they don't want to communicate with. But, I actually think we do need reporters to help inform the public as a neutral observer and also as a source that's not just informing them from a political standpoint on what the political people want to promote or want to hear. And it's gotten more and more difficult. I mean, I think back to before there was email where politicians would often ask, 'I'd like to have the questions in writing before we talk.' And we could say 'No way, man. You're not going to get the questions in writing. You're to come in there, I'm going to throw questions at you, you're going to answer 'em.' Well now with email, it happens all the time. You send in questions in writing, and they answer in writing in an email. That almost never happened before.
Whitney: I have a lot of sympathy for folks out there who are not in the media, are not part of the political world. I think they're struggling to understand what's going on, they want to be informed, they want to make informed decisions when they go to the voting booth, but they're mistrustful of politicians and frankly there's a lot of mistrust for the press as well. I wonder if you have any advice for regular Montanans out there who are just trying to get the facts and understand what's going on, but they have to see it through this media filter that we as reporters give and also that the politicians interact with them through?
Dennison: That's a difficult question to answer because I think that people are going to read things or read sources that they feel comfortable with and that may tell them what they want to hear. I would encourage anyone to go out there and read things you don't want to hear. I mean, for instance, me as a reporter, I don't just read one type of publication. I want to go out there and see what the conservative publications are writing, what the liberal publications are writing and see what what sort of stories they're covering.
As far as determining what's credible and what's not, I still think you can look to public radio, the newspapers, the traditional television stations. I still think all the people who work for those outlets take their job as journalists really seriously, to be fair and accurate and honest. Whereas you have all these various websites and sometimes certain owners and networks that have a political spin. I think you have to keep that in mind as a consumer. It's difficult to do.
But I think that's something that if you really want to be informed you've got to look at what's out there and evaluate where it's coming from.
Whitney: What do you hope people get from reading your book?
Dennison: I want it to be an entertaining look at the historical figures of Montana politics, and I want people to realize what it's like to be a reporter. What we're thinking, what we're looking at when we're covering things. And it's not just me in this book as a reporter, I'm quoting reporters that I've known or worked with over the years, and how they've covered things and the information they gleaned as well to paint the full picture of the people in the book. And so that's what I want people to do. I want them to be entertained. I think it's a good read, looking at the people who shaped the politics in this state for the last three decades, and also like I said what it's like to be a reporter on the ground.
Mike Dennison will be appearing at Montana bookstores in August and September to talk about and sign copies of his book:
Thursday, Aug. 8: Cassiopeia Books, Great Falls, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 29: Fact & Fiction bookstore, Missoula, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 17 : Boulder Community Library, Boulder, 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 18: Country Bookshelf, Bozeman, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 21: This House of Books, Billings, 1 p.m.