Empty Threats

By Kellyn Brown

Last week, Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette reported on an upcoming whistle-stop tour featuring the governor where he would announce a $45 million aid package for eastern Montana towns affected by the Bakken oil boom. The story was straightforward, explaining how Gov. Steve Bullock had previously vetoed legislation that would have delivered similar funds following the last legislative session. Lutey also interviewed lawmakers in the region who suggested, “people were putting pressure on” the governor to help.

The story was only unusual at its very end: “Contacted by The Gazette, Bullock’s communications director, Dave Parker, would not elaborate on the funding mechanisms for the aid package, and then threatened to exclude The Gazette from further advisories from the governor if the newspaper reported on the aid package before the governor’s whistle-stop tour.”

That final paragraph was unexpected. Most readers don’t make it to the end of news stories, but I’m sure those who did in this case were also taken aback. The paragraph made its way to Jim Romenesko’s media blog, perhaps the most widely read site of its kind, under the headline: “Montana governor’s media guy really knows how to hurt a newspaper!”

Romenesko wrote that headline in jest, as anyone in media could tell you we’re inundated with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of emails a day. Many of those are spam; others are from various press secretaries; and a lot more are just weird mailing lists to which our addresses are somehow added. Here’s sampling of subject lines that have landed in my inbox in the last week:

“Free high res photos of Eddie Murphy’s former mansion.” Apparently, the comedian’s house is for sale.

“Blueberry Coffee Cake Recipe and Brunch ideas.” This is your standard pitch from an agency that wants you to buy canned stories from them.

“You go Flo! The 80-year-old pole vaulter.” This is a standard email blast from a motivational speaker.

We are constantly combing through these to find notes from actual readers or local organizations pitching interesting stories. Announcements from elected officials are at least read (sometimes hurriedly). And every so often, they send out something newsworthy, as was the case with the governor’s announcement of a “major aid package for Eastern Montana.”

When reached by Romenesko about the governor’s communications director’s response to this rather cut-and-dry story, Lutey said, “Gov. Bullock’s office issued a non-embargoed advisory. We reported it. If Mr. Parker chooses to exclude The Gazette in the future, we will certainly report that, too.”

If the governor is smart, that won’t happen. Parker’s threat was empty but still ill-advised. The Gazette is the largest newspaper in Montana and covers an area where many residents are livid that Bullock vetoed the original aid package approved by the Legislature in 2013.

Another reporter, Northern Broadcasting Network’s Aaron Flint, first reported on the aid package story under the headline: “Bullock Trying to Mend Fences in Eastern Montana.” He was working off a message forwarded to him that said the governor was about make an announcement in the area.

So, the news broke before the governor’s office wanted it to. Who cares? It certainly wasn’t worth the follow-up headline that Flint reported: “Top Bullock Staffer Threatening the Billings Gazette.”

It’s a politician’s, and his or her staff’s right, to exclude certain media organizations from access, or refuse to comment, although it rarely benefits either party. And rarely is access threatened for something so mundane.

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