Democracy in three different Montana newspapers

October 12, 2021 4:07 am

Some people who grew up with print media are turning to digital. (Provided by Mike Van Schoonderwalt via

First, where I’m coming from: Donald Trump labeled the press “the enemy of the people.”  That was to be expected because authoritarians always demonize and take control of or outright destroy the press. Indeed, the right to publish is typically the first casualty of a fascist regime; the first victim when democracy dies.

Those of my generation were fortunate enough to enjoy print media which were voluminous, vibrant, thought-provoking and thorough. We looked forward every morning to a thick paper packed with local news, editorial opinion and analysis, lengthy exposes of corruption and wrong-doing and laudatory and inspiring articles all written by professional journalists.

For the most part, the internet, cable news and social media ruined all that. That’s not to say that the information-age is all bad.  It most certainly is not.  The wealth of data and information and ease of accessing it have been a boon to our global community–socially, scientifically, economically and culturally. But those same benefits have also fostered intellectual laziness, polarization, conspiracy-focus, propagandization, gaslighting and the corporatization of the media.  We view and read to feed our confirmation biases—we are spoon-fed what we want to hear; we have difficulty determining what is fact and what is fiction; and, at the extreme, we create alternate realities. Big lies become accepted truths.

So, with that said: It is why counter-examples to the above—exemplars of what is right with the press and journalism—deserve some well-earned praise. There are many examples to be sure, but I only mention three—no slights intended to the media and journalists not mentioned.  And, full disclosure, I was not asked or encouraged by any of those mentioned to write this; I simply believe that the right of a free press protected by the First Amendment and Article II, section 7 of Montana’s Constitution is so fundamental to the survival of our democracy, that we the people must be fight tooth and nail to guard it against the dark side of the force.

Example 1: The Daily Montanan

I read the Daily Montanan every day for the thorough news articles and interesting tidbits of lighter fare offered by editor-in-chief Darrell Ehrlick.

What prompted me to write this essay, however, was the articles and reporting of Keila Szpaller with respect to difficulties at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. Szpaller’s articles dived deeply into student complaints against Law School Dean Paul Kirgis and Associate Dean of Students Sally Weaver who were charged by students with discouraging the reporting of and failing to address various incidents of sexual abuse and harassment of female law students perpetrated by one male law student in particular and, as well, others.

The Daily Montanan staff. Darrell Ehrlick (left), Keith Schubert, Arren Kimbel-Sannit, and Keila Szpaller (right). (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

These failures ultimately lead to a student walk-out and to the resignations of both Kirgis and Weaver.

Szpaller’s articles were, in my estimation, instrumental in making these problems public and in the high-level leadership resignations—which, I suspect, are unparalleled in the history of the law school. Moreover, the University of Montana promised to launch a full investigation of these matter. We’ll see how full and investigative that goes.

Szpaller’s articles need to be read to be appreciated. For my purposes here, though, it is important to recognize that hers is the sort of journalism that is missing from most of the print media. This sort of courageous and thorough reporting not only exposes wrong-doing, but, as well, moves the pointer toward problem resolution.

Example 2:  Montana Free Press

I read this daily newsletter, too.  John Adams is editor-in-chief. The articles in the MFP are all thoroughly researched and well written.  In particular I follow those written by Mara Silvers as she most often covers topics and issues in which I am personally most interested. Silvers has closely followed and written about the last Legislature’s attack on women’s constitutional right to abortion services and the resulting litigation challenging those restrictive and intrusive laws.  Her articles are, in my view, among the best sources in the state for good reporting on this important and controversial constitutional issue.

Also deserving of mention is a really informative feature of the MFP, its “Laws on Trial” section.  This is not only a comprehensive guide to and summary of the 2021 legislative enactments being challenged in court, but it is also the only public news feature I am aware of where one can easily access the actual, as-filed, court documents in any given case. If you want to read the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint and the defendant (state’s) response you can go to the actual complaint and answer.  Motions and court orders are also accessible.  I cannot think of an easier and more convenient way to access court documents.  It beats going to the clerk of court’s office, I can assure you.

Again, the MFP is another great example of what good reporting and thorough journalism is and should aspire to be—the peoples’ most trusted friend, not its enemy.

Example 3: The Cut Bank Pioneer Press

The Press was my hometown paper when my wife and I and our family lived in Cut Bank 20+ years ago.  Like most small-town weeklies, the Press is devoted to stories of the community and its personalities.  But the Press is much more than that under the editorial leadership of owner LeAnne Kavanaugh.

When it comes to county government, Kavanaugh’s investigations and reporting have revealed unprecedented financial problems that threaten the continued existence of Glacier County. Her reporting exposed issues of misfeasance, incompetence, and serial violations of state audit, budget, accountability and reporting laws.  She has attended County Commission meetings and vigorously demanded compliance with the open meeting laws. She has appeared before the legislature and has advocated for the enactment of laws requiring accountability and transparency in local government fiscal matters. She has met with legal authorities. And, she has done this for 10 years running.  Even when others tired of the fight, even when courts ignored the pleas of Glacier County taxpayers, even when state agencies gave the county’s problems short shrift, Kavanaugh preserved.  She has been described by many as a hero in the fight expose the fiscal failures and improprieties of Glacier County government.

Indeed, Kavanaugh deserves a prize for her investigative reporting and journalism; she is the quintessential example of why a free and independent press is so important.  It is journalists like Kavanaugh that hold the feet of government to the fire of public scrutiny and regulatory supervision; that ensure elected officials don’t govern by cutting deals and corners.  LeAnne Kavanaugh is a hero; a credit to her profession; one of the gems of Montana journalism.

So, there it is. These are three examples of what a free press is and should aspire to be. Far from being the enemy of the people, a vibrant independent and free press can and should be the conscience of the community—reporting the truth, exposing lies and corruption, advocating for the oppressed, the weak and the powerless and defending against authoritarian forces that would turn a freedom to publish into a controlled instrument spewing propaganda, hate, ignorance, misinformation and lies.

We need more Daily Montanans, Montana Free Presses, and Cut Bank Pioneer Presses.

With a free press, democracy will endure; without it, it won’t. Historically that’s a fact.

James C. Nelson is a retired Montana Supreme Court Justice who lives in Helena.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.