Montana Public Radio

Parsing The Press: Public Officials, The Press And Transparency

Apr 15, 2021

Updated 04/16/21 This transcription has been updated to reflect the on-air broadcast of this program. 

Former-Gov. Brian Schweitzer prided himself on his access to the press. Now Schweitzer joins Gwen and Sally to talk about the obligation public officials have to be transparent, and what he sees as the press' failure to hold them accountable.

Listen now on Parsing the Press with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk Well, of the six governors I've covered in Montana, Brian Schweitzer stands out as the most accessible to the press: He not only returned your calls, he returned them in time to meet your deadline. Gov. Schweitzer is our guest today.

And governor, I'd like your view of the appropriate relationship between a public official and the press. What are the obligations and what are the boundaries?

Brain Schweitzer After I was sworn in, I said to the press, "Come on, let's go take a look at the governor's office. Any of you been in it?" Oh yeah, they'd all been in it. I said, "Not me, so maybe you can lead the way."

So they led the way, and they took me down to the office, and then only a couple of them knew right where the governor's private office was in the back. I said, "Well, where's that at?"

They took me back there. We walked in there together — first time I'd ever seen it — and on the desk was a key. So I looked at that key and I walked over to the door to check to see if that key fit the lock, and it did. So I said to the press, "You see this key?" And I threw it in the garbage.

"Your job is to make sure that that key never arrives in this lock again. Any meeting that I have, while I'm governor, you are invited. You don't need a special invite, and I will post my schedule every morning at six o'clock. Come if you like, don't come if you don't like."

You know, if I'm going to talk about what the press does right or wrong: You don't reward people who are transparent like that. You don't, because being transparent like this means that you get to see everything that we're doing — while we're doing it — and you get to write about it, whether you like it or whether you don't like it. And sometimes you do, sometimes you don't.

But almost every other politician that grew up through the political world said, "Oh my God, don't do that."

They got staffers, as you know, running around, sending texts to each other's: "Oh my gosh. The senator's only got three minutes. OK, what was your question again? OK, we got to go."

You know how this is played, and they get the press that they want — because they came there to get a headline and you write that headline. Meanwhile, when you're completely transparent — as I have been and I will be — you get whatever press shows up.

I can tell you right now I'm disgusted with the press because you have no transparency in state government in Montana right now. Zero.

I don't hear any complaints from the press. I think the press just falls in line because they say, "Oh, well, gosh, if we we challenge them, we'll get even less access — and we want to get a little access because we have a little access, that's better than somebody else might get."

I think it's your job as the press to say every day, "This has changed. We no longer have access. You the people of Montana, who have elected these people, you're not getting access. We can't even ask them questions."

Mauk Governor, I would disagree with you respectfully that the press currently isn't pushing for transparency. And when when we don't get transparency and we believe a public official isn't being forthcoming, we do push to get that information.

And that pushing is sometimes seen as being obnoxious — both by the official we're pushing and the public — but it's us doing our job, as the governor just outlined.

Gwen Florio Well governor, that's something I wanted to talk to you about, about public officials in general. As Sally just mentioned, we can come across as pushy and usually when that happens, it's because someone is being evasive.

And it seems as though we're getting fewer and fewer chances to ask the tough questions we need to ask as elected officials stick to very scripted events; they do private events and then do news releases about them afterward; or they talk only with reporters they deem friendly. And you've already started to talk about that, [please] talk some more.

Schweitzer That's what they like to do. They choose some press that they know is going to give them some good press.

And oftentimes these elected officials, they have staffers that move into their staff and then out into the — we'll put finger quotes around — the "journalist world" And they move back, and forth and they're friendly, and they know they got a job waiting for them on both sides of the fence no matter what happens. That's not the way it ought to be.

But what some famous ones — that [garbled], Fox and some others do right now — is the same sort of thing. They want to get something outrageous — usually it's tilted to one direction — and of course there's liberal press that does the same sort of thing.

But if you're trying to play the thing down the middle, you're less likely to get those great big wild headlines because you have to actually report the press that's news, as opposed to just sort of making it up as you go along.

Florio Well, and speaking of, you know, you're talking about FOX, MSNBC — they have a lot of shows that are strictly opinion. But we're talking about daily journalism in Montana, where reporters here are just trying to report the news of interest to Montanans.

And that seems like, in many cases, it's getting harder to do as the access is diminished — and that's my take on it.

Schweitzer I can't see — and I read the Montana newspapers — I can't see the headlines that point out that you're not getting access to current elected officials. I don't see stories where the first paragraph says, well, this isn't the way it used to be and how is it that we no longer have access, that we can't ask you questions, that not only do you not have press conferences often — you don't even respond to our calls and our questions.

I don't see any discussion about that — and I think I know the reason — I think the reason is, is that the threat is that if you challenge some of these elected officials right now, you're going to get an even less access. So I don't know what you can do.

Mauk Well governor, I would push back yet again that I think the reason we know that we're not getting access is because we've all reported it.

But governor, I want to ask you about an interview you did in 2014 with the National Journal, where you said some candid things about some members of Congress that were widely criticized and many believe those comments may have ended your role as a potential national political player.

And you apologized, but I wonder if that made you think twice about being open with the press — or did that make any difference?

Schweitzer No, not at all. In fact, going back to those days: First you need to remember — because perhaps you were even there — at the end of the closing months of me being governor, there was a potential Senate seat that was opening up and my approval ratings were approaching 70%.

And everybody just assumed that I was going to do X or Y or Z and reported that I was. And at one point, the press was all in the room and somebody asked a question about my future plans. And I said, "OK, now make sure you're recording this correctly and everybody write down exactly what I say, because this is the first draft of history. I ain't goofy enough to be a member of Congress and I ain't senile enough to be in the United States Senate. Now, write that down.".

I wasn't running, or planning to run, for anything. The only office I've ever held was governor of Montana. I did it for eight years. When I walked out of the governor's office, I went back to doing what I was doing.

Mauk Gwen we've talked before about the damage done by the label "fake news" — which now seems to mean any news someone doesn't want to hear because it doesn't fit their chosen bias — I can't think of anything more damaging to our profession than that epithet. Can you, Gwen?

Florio Not at all, and I think it has done tremendous damage over the last few years. And what's worried me is this tendency now of people tending only to listen to news stations, news outlets that reflect what they believe.

I don't know how we get back to just looking at facts again. You know, I think we in the media are trying really hard to focus on that. I'm not so sure it's what readers want anymore and that is deeply concerning.

Schweitzer Fortunately, most of that that we've just discussed is national news and it's the national television networks and they're talking about national news.

But here in Montana, we still have public radio and we still have local newspapers who write local stories. And we're expected to write about local stories, because you're not going to read about Montana politics or what's going on in Montana — and you're not going to hear about it — on CNN and Fox News.

So in Montana, we have a different role and you guys know and understand that. The problem is, is that people have heard that word "fake news" and they just apply it to everybody they don't like.

Mauk Governor, we go on and on and I wish we could, but we're out of time. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Schweitzer Your job is to keep the hammer out, and you got to keep hammering. Those of us who are citizens of Montana, we only find out what is happening with our government by you reporting it. So please — please, please, please — for Montana, for our children, for our future: Keep reporting it and telling the truth.

Florio Will do. Thanks Sally. Thanks governor.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.