Media Bias in Montana?

By Beacon Staff

Less than a week before the election, the Billings Gazette published a letter criticizing the paper’s endorsement of Democrat Barack Obama for president, and alleging a bias in the newsroom of Montana’s largest newspaper.

“I was disappointed in the paper’s endorsement of Sen. Obama. But not surprised!” wrote Wayne Schile, of Polson. “The Gazette newsroom (with few exceptions) has always been ultra liberal. The only hope was that of the editorial board, but alas they too did not see the wisdom to support Sen. McCain.”

While Schile’s accusations of liberal media bias were fairly routine, his perspective isn’t: Schile is a former publisher of the Billings Gazette.

The letter was just one speck in what has been a cascade of criticism during the 2008 election season that a left-leaning media swayed the election in Obama’s favor, and that coverage of Republican nominees John McCain and Sarah Palin was disproportionately critical compared to coverage of the Democratic ticket.

A study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found news coverage of McCain in the six weeks following the party conventions to be “heavily unfavorable,” with six in 10 stories about him “decidedly negative in nature,” and less than two in 10 stories positive. Obama, according to the same study, received more favorable coverage, with slightly more than a third of stories about him positive, and less than a third negative. The explanation the Pew study offers for its results is that when a candidate trails in the polls, as McCain was in the weeks preceding the election, the press writes stories about why that candidate is losing and what’s going wrong within the campaign.

But while the debate over liberal media bias on the national stage will inevitably rage on for the foreseeable future, what about coverage of the presidential race in the newly christened battleground state of Montana? And what about coverage of the myriad state and local races in the 2008 season? In the week before Election Day, Montana’s top print and broadcast journalists, political observers and party strategists weighed in with assessments of the Montana media’s objectivity. As one might expect, opinions varied widely.

Craig Wilson, chairman of the political science department at MSU-Billings, is quite possibly the most quoted political analyst in Montana. During the 2006 U.S. Senate election between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Conrad Burns, Wilson recalled being interviewed by several journalists from “nationally recognized publications” he declined to name. But in those interviews, Wilson said he could tell the reporters already had a storyline in their head, namely, “Isn’t Burns going to get his butt kicked?”

“They were looking for answers to support their opinion,” Wilson added. “At that level, my experience is that you run into more bias.”

But he has not encountered that kind of bias in the Montana media.

“My sense is the state and local people are much more objective in their approach than the national media,” Wilson said. “There’s no one in the state I won’t talk to because they’re just wacky left or wacky right.”

Sally Mauk, news director of Montana Public Radio, agrees with Wilson’s assessment, and noted that her reporters sometimes have to distinguish themselves from National Public Radio, which is often the target of liberal bias accusations. In debates this election season moderated by MTPR, Mauk said, her organization has taken pains to include third party candidates unlikely to receive a significant number of votes.

“If anything, the Montana media kind of bends over backwards to play fair,” Mauk added. “We’re not getting complaints.”

But not everyone agrees with the praise for Montana media. Julie Langaker is news director of KMMS, the Bozeman-area talk radio station that broke news of an audio recording from July where Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer remarked at a trial attorneys’ fundraising event that he tampered with the results of the 2006 U.S. Senate election. The KMMS audience skews conservative, Langaker said, and her station went big with the story. Republicans also pushed hard on it, seeing it as a way for GOP gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown to make up some of the deficit he faced in the polls against Schweitzer, who eventually apologized for his joking remarks.

While news outlets across Montana covered the story and its repercussions, Langaker thought Schweitzer’s remarks warranted more coverage than they received, and she believes the coverage would have had a very different tone had it been a Republican committing a gaffe of that magnitude.

“If (former Republican governor) Judy Martz had done that, it would have been all over the papers for a month, so yes, there’s some media bias,” Langaker said. “When I think there’s an important story and I don’t hear about it, it makes me wonder.”

Dave Rye, host of conservative radio talk show Voices of Montana, has worked in newsrooms across the state for much of his career and said “it’s hard to find a conservative,” there. He agrees with Langaker’s criticism of how the state press covered Schweitzer’s remarks to the trial attorneys.

“The media will cover any embarrassment by any candidate or officeholder, but if it is a Republican, the media will go after it with a lot more zeal,” Rye said. “In Montana, it’s kind of a tough call, nothing overt, but I think in millions of cases the bias of reporters bleeds into their stories. I don’t think it’s intentional bias.”

Rye also criticized coverage of the GOP’s October challenge of nearly 6,000 voter registrations across the state, as a story where Republicans were portrayed as trying to restrict voters “rather than what is was, which was avoiding voter fraud.”

A Missoula district judge strongly rebuked the GOP for the voter registration challenge, which the party withdrew. The Republican executive director managing the challenges also abruptly stepped down. A number of newspaper editorials across the state were highly critical of the GOP voter challenge.

Dennis Swibold, professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, did not think coverage of the GOP voter challenge reflected a liberal bias in the media so much as it was straightforward coverage of public and official reaction to an unpopular move by Republicans.

“I think everybody thought that smelled,” Swibold said. “I don’t think it was the press. I think it was the judge, and that guy’s no flaming liberal.”

If there’s a bias in the Montana press, Swibold added, “there’s a bias for activity,” and pointed to the presidential election. Obama coverage dwarfed that of McCain, and no one’s crying bias for an obvious reason: “If it seems that way in the presidential race, that’s just a natural result of the fact that McCain isn’t here,” Swibold said. “Montana reporters, by and large, really take great pains to play down the middle.”

GOP Chairman Erik Iverson understands that.

“Obama should deservedly get more press coverage in Montana because he’s been here,” Iverson said, but felt the press sometimes failed to verify statistics favorable to Democrats offered by campaign staffers. “I think the press has probably gone a little overboard in some instances by printing the Obama campaign’s claims about registration and turnout.”

Acknowledging Republicans often have a more contentious relationship with the press than Democrats, Iverson praised Montana reporters for “being able to check their political beliefs at the door.” He did note that editorials critical of the GOP voter challenge vastly outnumbered those critical of Schweitzer for his remarks to the trial lawyers – two events Iverson saw as similar in news value.

Iverson said he also found himself answering a lot more questions about problems within the Montana Republican party when long-shot candidate Bob Kelleher won the party’s nomination for U.S. Senate. But Iverson didn’t see Democrats faced with those same questions by the press when John Driscoll, another long-shot candidate for U.S House, won the primary over the establishment candidate who had raised significant amounts of money and been endorsed by party leaders.

“That, to me, has been kind of swept under the carpet,” Iverson added.

Ed Kemmick, a reporter and columnist for the Billings Gazette, refuted accusations by commenters on his now-defunct blog, “City Lights” that his paper was “going gaga” in its coverage of Obama’s visits to Montana by comparing it to coverage of Pres. George W. Bush’s visit to Montana four years ago. The number of photos, length of stories and pages of coverage were almost identical to what Obama received, Kemmick said.

“It never persuaded anybody but I still felt obligated to point it out,” he added.

Kemmick’s effort – likely in vain – to demonstrate the Gazette’s objectivity of coverage demonstrates that readers ultimately read each story and column from their own perspective, whether they are former newspaper publishers or the average reader. Their assessment of the job Montana’s media is doing remains their own, while reporters, sometimes beleaguered, continue to provide information as good as they know how.

“Maybe it’s Pollyanna-ish, but I still think that reporters, by and large, at least in Montana, have their beliefs but stay objective,” Kemmick said. “I think it works generally well.”