Silence is golden: Montana politicians pay for silence and bet you won’t notice

December 9, 2021 5:09 am

The Montana State Capitol in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

So, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen will speak to disgraced, debunked pillow peddler Mike Lindell, but he won’t speak to the majority of Montana media.

Just so we’re all clear.

Knudsen is big enough to try bullying a bunch of overworked healthcare workers into handing out horse dewormer for COVID, but apparently too afraid to talk clearly about what his office is doing, fearing – we assume – that he’ll wilt under the pressure of critical questions.

And we’re the snowflakes, eh?

Yet, this isn’t a self-serving column, which takes advantage of the low-hanging fruit that is hypocrisy in much of the Republican governing these days. Instead, it’s an unflinching assessment of the state of politics in the Treasure State. You see, reporters and editors have it drubbed into their thick skulls in the very early days of journalism training that the story is never about them. So, forgive us for not spilling the beans sooner, but the truth is: Your state government is about as transparent as a moonless midnight.

Because we believe that the story – no matter what the topic – isn’t about us, most of us get ignored or “no commented” and move on, looking to extract information from documents, other well-placed sources, and through public records requests. Yet, how the government operates and its responsiveness to inquiries isn’t just about some Republican jihad against the much maligned media. Instead, it’s a very plain, very good window into how your Montana government is operating. It’s an extension of the town hall meetings that folks like Sen. Steve Daines aren’t holding, or the cleverly planned meetings that Gov. Greg Gianforte’s staff try to script so as to avoid any tough question, opposition, or anything less than adulation.

And for the record, the previous Bullock administration, at times, suffered from a much weaker variant of the same transparency disease.

While the media depends on the transparency of public officials, that’s only because we’re doing the legwork of the public — retrieving information that has a direct impact on the lives of every resident in the state. And, it’s information that is required by no less of a document than the state’s constitution (which some in the Republican Party want to trash, huh, Rep. Skees?).

You probably haven’t heard more about this because of a fear of “blowback.” Journalists fear if they speak out or become too confrontational, they’ll be cut off. And if anyone in the state should understand that, it’s probably a dude like me who has plenty of opinions and a mouth big enough to share them. Yet, the truth is that the fear of being iced out by politicians is predicated on the notion that keeping in their good graces will mean better access. But, take a cursory read of Montana media and folks like Knudsen and Gianforte speak only when it’s convenient, then simply don’t respond the rest of the time. And, as long as Montana citizens don’t demand better, this pattern of being mysterious bullies who pander to their base will continue.

Often, the information we seek is mundane, routine and nonpartisan — think of scintillating information like contracts, rules, policies and spreadsheets.

Lately, this behavior has been called out. Our colleagues at the Montana Free Press last week sent out a note that listed some of the communication people in the state, many of whom knock down more than $100,000 a year, much more than the average Montanan household income. They note that for all that state taxpayer funding, there’s precious little information coming from it. Here’s an example of their very good analysis:

“Knudsen’s press secretary was not forthcoming with information about what happened at that meeting, including whether Knudsen himself met with Lindell, a peddler of false claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Cantrell is among dozens of taxpayer-funded public information officials whose job is to supply the press — and thus the public — with information about what our elected officials are up to. In her case, she gets paid $35.78 an hour, or $74,422 a year, to do that job. Her boss, the attorney general’s Communications Director Kyler Nerison, pulls in a six-figure government salary, earning $49.29 per hour, or $102,523 a year.”

Adding up the various government communications positions throughout state government would likely total more than $1 million. And, truthfully, if the leaders wanted to remain silent, it shouldn’t cost more than a dime. Montana politicians like to talk about waste, inefficiency and lack of transparency as characteristics of bureaucratic bloat, but seem to encourage it within their own administration.

In short, we’re being ripped off.

These silent leaders weren’t drafted into these positions. In the case of our governor, he’s spent millions of his own wealth just to achieve these political slots for what can only be considered a massive ego stroke. But, you shouldn’t be able to pick and choose what portions of the job you like, and which ones to ignore. Put in any other context, that’d be the definition of a derelict employee.

The state government’s inability to respond to tough, critical and honest inquiries is decidedly anti-Montanan. When the policies that they push are nothing more than craven political maneuvers and not good policy, it may be easy to see why they avoid the press like a visit to a leper colony. Their policies and plans are simply toxic, divisive stunts, rather than good governance.

And that’s exactly why I am certain the Montana press corps – an impressive collection of very talented journalists in a rural state – will continue to press for answers, and push back against the great wall of silence. Ultimately, that’s all we can do. But, that’s not really the point because – well, the story isn’t about us.

In this case, however, this isn’t a question for the Gianfortes or the Knudsens of Montana – it’s one for the residents of this state: What are you going to do about it? And, how much silence are you willing to tolerate from the same leaders who are gladly taking your tax dollars and not giving you much in return?

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.