Montana Public Radio

Welcome To 'Parsing The Press'

Jan 8, 2021

Welcome to the first episode of Parsing the Press, a look at current issues and how they're being presented in the Montana press. Veteran journalist and author Gwen Florio joins MTPR's Sally Mauk for the weekly analysis.

Sally Mauk Gwen, the events this week in Washington, DC, with the storming of the Capitol by an angry mob egged on by the president of the United States was not what I thought we would be talking about in our first show. But here we are. And I want to start with a blunt editorial your old newspaper, the Missoulian, ran calling on Montana Senator Steve Daines, Congressman Matt Rosendale and Governor Greg Gianforte to apologize to Montanans for contesting the presidential election, which the editorial board believes enabled the capital riot. And these editorials are not written by news reporters, but an independent group that often includes the newspaper publisher. And I want to read the last sentence of that editorial, which is addressed to those men, "Make it right with Montanans or live with wearing this low-rent insurrection around your necks from this point forward."

And Gwen, this is one of those rare times when a newspaper editorial shows its absolute fury with elected representatives.

Gwen Florio Yeah, and I thought there were a number of good things about that editorial that made it so strong. In addition just to the very strong wording, one, it was timely. They jumped right on it. That editorial went online when the debate was still going on in Congress. And I thought it very rightfully held people to account for the role they played in enabling this.

Sally Mauk And it was very localized as well. They were talking about Montana representation and Montana reaction.

Gwen Florio Yes. And I thought that, again, was one of the things that made it so effective. A number of papers around the country yesterday were calling for the 25th Amendment to be invoked; papers large and small. But I thought the newspaper's editorial very wisely focused on our local delegation and our governor. And one of the things that I was thinking as I was watching this is not only will Representative Rosendale and Senator Daines now be in the minority, but they'll be in the minority of the minority, having supported these efforts to overturn the election. And that could make them less effective in representing Montana.

Sally Mauk There are some events, Gwen, where normal rules of neutrality and covering breaking news don't apply. And I think of events like the 9/11 attack. And I think this attack on the Capitol is another one where reporters have to figure out what language to use to describe what's happening. And, for example, NPR put out a notification to their reporters saying, look, we're going to call this a mob attack. We're not going to call this a protest. And that may sound like a judgment, but in fact, it's accurate. It's the right language to use.

Gwen Florio No, it's absolutely not a judgment. That was what was happening. Anyone looking at the screen could see that. And I was also seeing a lot of chatter on social media criticizing news organizations that were still using the term "protesters." You know, a protest is a sometimes orderly, sometimes not, but it's, there are some pretty recognizable parameters. And this was so off the rails that there was no other way to describe it.

Sally Mauk And the other thing that struck me when watching and listening to the live coverage was that reporters, just like everybody else, can be shocked by what they're witnessing, for example, in trashing the speaker's office and carrying Confederate flags inside the Capitol. And I think in that instance, it's fair for reporters to lose the mask of neutrality they often wear and show their shock. I think that's totally appropriate.

Gwen Florio I think so, too, because I think that mirrored what a lot of the country was feeling. Yesterday, I flashed back to my own experience coming into Baghdad during the American invasion and watching buildings, government buildings, just being looted and sacked. And I remember thinking at that time, thank God I live in a place where this doesn't happen. And then it was happening, you know, on my television screen, and I just couldn't believe it.

Sally Mauk I want to switch gears now from what happened in D.C. to what's happening in Helena. And, of course, what happened in D.C. is affecting everybody in Montana. But in the wake of the D.C. riot, security has been tightened at state capitols as well. And here we are in the middle of a pandemic and now an attempted federal coup and usually the state capitol press, Gwen, is only worried about tracking bills. But now they literally have to worry about their physical safety on many fronts.

Gwen Florio I contacted a number of editors and news directors around the state as to how they were directing their reporters in terms of their coverage and their safety, and to a man and woman, their highest piece of advice is, if you don't feel safe in a situation, get out. You know, no story is worth risking your health. That said, they're providing masks and other gear. I think Montana Free Press has installed air filters in their offices. They're talking about distancing. They're talking about covering it remotely. The new Daily Montanan nonprofit operation upped their Wi-Fi speeds so that they could easily stream the legislative meetings. So all sorts of things are happening. One of the nicest ones that I saw was that Holly Michels from Lee Newspapers is using her iPad during news conferences to enable reporters who can't be there to ask questions at the news conference.

Sally Mauk Something else notable about this legislative session, and you mentioned part of it, and that is that there are a ton more reporters covering this session than in more recent sessions. You mentioned the Daily Montanan. That's a new nonprofit organization, and they've got four journalists covering the Capitol. The Lee state bureau has added three reporters, so they're up to four, along with other television and public radio coverage. And this is a big change and one that I, for one, welcome. I think you can't have too much coverage of the state government.

Gwen Florio I think it's wonderful. And again, Montanans benefit by having a whole lot of eyes watching what's happening in Helena and reporting back. I hope it continues. You know, you wonder with all these different organizations how things will sort them out. But in the meantime, it is just a really terrific development in Montana. And I'd like, in my dreams, see that spread to local coverage in the various communities also.

Sally Mauk Well, speaking of that, there has been criticism of the expanded Lee bureau, and one of the critics is the Montana News Guild. And this is a union representing reporters who work for the Billings Gazette. And the Gazette, like a lot of papers around the country, has been cutting back on its staff. And they were critical of the Lee expansion because they feel like it comes at the expense of local reporting. And I think they may have a point.

Gwen Florio I think that's really valid criticism. The Billings Gazette just lost three reporters and another staffer to layoffs. So even as they're beefing up state coverage, local coverage is being pared back further. And I would argue that Montanans care as much about what happens in their city council and their local school boards and their sports as they do what happens in Helena.

Sally Mauk And the time and effort and responsibility of covering those local events and local organizations is equivalent to covering a legislative committee hearing. I mean, there's not a difference there.

Gwen Florio Yeah, I guess the benefit, such as it is, to the legislature is it's only for 90 days, and all of these other things happen year round. And I don't know if those capitol resources will be reallocated after the session. I doubt it. But it's going to be interesting to watch and see how that plays out.

Sally Mauk Also, the other critic of the expanded state coverage is Aaron Flint, who hosts a conservative radio program called Montana Talks. And he thinks the expanded coverage has come about because the press wants to basically attack the new Republican administration. He thinks it's politically motivated. And I think Aaron is off the mark here.

Gwen Florio Yeah, I actually had to laugh when I saw that piece, because I remember all the times people from the Bullock administration called me when they were unhappy with stories I wrote. His whole point was that the press gave Bullock a pass. And I think that absolutely did not happen.

Sally Mauk Well, we'll keep an eye on, obviously, what's going on in Helena and what's going on in D.C. And we'll talk again next week Gwen. What a week this has been. We'll see what the next one brings. Thank you so much.

Gwen Florio Thanks, Sally. I'm so glad we started off on a slow news week.