Every four years the tone of the country’s political discussion turns decidedly worse. Presidential candidates and the 24-hour news cycle clash and something, anything (often a “gaffe” or scandal) needs to drive the day. And the next day, something else takes its place.
It’s no wonder that when Donald Trump bemoans “lies, deceit, viciousness (and) disgusting reporters, horrible reporters,” his supporters cheer. Or when Bernie Sanders blasts corporate media because, “90 percent of the coverage is process, is soap opera, is polls,” his supporters do the same.
The gripes are often legitimate, but also give the impression that reporters are in an all-out war with politicians and would-be politicians. Insults and allegations must be the main form of communication between the two entities. Right? No, the reality is far more boring.
My first job out of college was working for the Associated Press in Bismarck, North Dakota. Republican John Hoeven was governor at the time (he’s now a U.S. senator) and his party held a super majority (or two-thirds advantage) in both chambers of the capitol. Nonetheless, Hoeven refused to sign the budget bill his colleagues passed and announced he would call a special session to address education funding.
Reporters gathered at a hastily called press conference and I expected them to drill the governor on the riff within his party. This, after all, was the most contentious day of the 2003 Legislature. Instead, Hoeven provided deliberate answers to measured questions. He was happy with the overall session, there was no GOP split, and he simply wanted more education funding. None in the media were yelling, each member was allowed a question and, when it was over, we each filed our separate stories.
To be sure, there are disagreements. After a county attorney took exception with a story I wrote in a Montana newspaper, he called me a “dime-store novelist,” then refused to meet with me after I chased him into his office. It’s also true that those insults are infrequent and those grudges are often short-lived.
No one elected to office will agree with everything written, or said, or aired about him or her. They shouldn’t. But more often, at least outside the media fishbowl of New York and Washington, D.C., officeholders are less inclined to publicly battle the press. Instead, they’ll call or even walk into the offices of reporters to air their grievances. That back-and-forth can be divisive, but it’s rarely toxic.
The narrative that drove a recent day of press coverage in D.C. was whether Trump gets too much attention and whether he should be allowed to phone into the Sunday shows instead of appearing on camera. For most of us, however, the process of interviewing someone is simple. Go to their home or pick up the phone.
That’s what Tristan Scott did when he wrote his recent story on Montana’s politicians’ perspective on the current presidential race. He called former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer on his cell phone. And Schweitzer answered. Scott did the same with former Republican Congressman Rick Hill.
Perceived fights between media and politicians, with both sides armed with only generalities, make a lot of press and can at once drive ratings and appeal to candidates’ supporters. But outside the beltway, even when there are necessary disagreements, the reality is far more nuanced. And often far more boring.
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