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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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A letter to Montana's news editors: The state of the fourth estate

Dear Editors,

Political news is increasingly important to our lives. Yet, Montana voters are receiving less useful information on candidates and issues from the mainstream media. With budgets constricting and reluctant to alienate readers and advertisers, you find it expedient to reprint campaign press releases, to use letter-writing readers to raise issues, and to simply reprint news reports from the wire services. This echo-chamber approach is often insufficiently informative for voters to distinguish between the trivial and the essential, to separate the Montana wheat from the chaff.

As citizens of a democracy, we know we are learning too little about each candidate’s policy agenda and how it expresses his or her core values. How many times have we been fooled by a candidate beholden only to special interests? With the growing popularity of strategic mendacity (i.e., campaigns getting out front with purposely misleading statements), voters cannot reasonably anticipate how candidates will legislate before they take office.

By not pursuing candidates’ hidden agendas or at the very least questioning their inconsistencies, the mainstream media have become less useful—and, in some instances, harmful—to the democratic process. The media itself has developed a habit of parroting the banality and triviality that result from single-issue polling and unenlightened blather. In all the noise, the public’s agenda has all but been smothered.

We, the people, need a way to set the talking points and to hold candidates accountable for their responses. Missing are the hard questions each candidate should answer in order to satisfy the public’s need to know. It is still the responsibility of the mainstream media to ask those questions and to question the answers.

It is the job of our media (including TV, radio, print and cyber), to facilitate the voter-candidate dialogue and to make space for it without prejudice. This, the media’s primary civic duty, should be chiseled on a stone tablet and placed in the town square.

By the time we vote, we should know: How well informed is each candidate on essential issues? How well do candidates articulate their positions? Are arguments logical, rational and fact-based? Can they engage in an extended discussion of issues with neutral interlocutors? And, how honest has each candidate been in representing his or her position?

To rejuvenate the old “Fourth Estate,” as journalism has often been called, here is a starter kit of questions that the Magpie would like you to ask all Montana candidates for federal office.

Question 1: Congressional Reform
The approval rating of the U.S. Congress is now at its lowest point in forty years of tracking. Most of the ill feeling stems from the demonstrated position that the institution is corrupt, that mostly the rich benefit from its lawmaking activities and that the leadership controls the way individual lawmakers vote. Why would you want to become a member of this “worst Congress in U.S. history”? Do you have a specific strategy for Congressional reform that you would openly fight for from Day One?

Question 2: Climate Stabilization
Human-induced climate change is on its way to being the most devastating event for life on Earth of anything in the last 73,000 years. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that human activity, particularly the continuing extraction and burning of fossil fuels—including coal, oil and natural gas—is the major contributor to global warming. Although there is no practical way, economically or technically, to make an instantaneous switch to renewable resources like wind, solar, geothermal and hydro, what is your plan to speed the transition from fossil fuels in order to stabilize the climate for our children? What is the timing for implementation of your plan?

Question 3: Economy, Environment and Infrastructure
Montana has a volatile, up-and-down primary economy, built on extractive and agricultural activities. It has a growing services sector made up of tourism, government, non-profits, education, health care and media. It also has a relatively weak manufacturing or secondary sector, which could be a source of additional economic growth. What could Congress do to create conditions for a more robust western economy while protecting the region’s water, air and land resources? What national infrastructure investments would be needed? Where would the money come from?

Question 4: Health Care
Whether called the Affordable Health Care Act or “Obamacare,” the legislation has provided health care and protection from predatory insurance company practices to millions of Americans and more than 71,000 Montanans. What do you propose to make it better?

Question 5: Campaign Finance
A majority of the Supreme Court has decided that money is the same as speech and that corporations, unions and individuals have the right to donate unlimited amounts of cash to political campaigns. This has opened the gates to money from wealthy donors, often from far away urban centers and even foreign countries, to influence elections across America. Is a “one-dollar-one-vote” system consistent with your view of how our democracy should work? If, however, you agree with the 75% of Montana voters who voted for I-166 in 2012 demanding campaign-reform action from congressional delegates, what will you do specifically to reform our electoral system once you are in office?

Question 6: The Role of Government
Many politicians believe that government should be less intrusive in our lives. Yet, they side with a federal government that claims the right to spy on American citizens. And, many people who would like to see less governmental intrusion support laws to prohibit abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana and to subsidize large corporations. Where are you on each of these issues, starting with your definition of the role of government?

Question 7: Torture
A still-classified Senate report on the CIA confirms that, after 9/11, our federal government authorized and carried out torture on alleged terrorism suspects. The intelligence gained was minimal, at best, and the damage done to the country’s honor was enormous. Do you agree or disagree with this last statement? Under what circumstances, if any, should the United States use torture to gain information?

Question 8: Economy and Environment
In light of the rash of train derailments, pipeline ruptures and mine waste disasters, what would you do to protect America’s communities and waterways, whilst encouraging a healthy economy?

Question 9: Economy and Transportation
America’s railroads have recently seen a surge in oil and coal shipments throughout the country, at the expense of all other goods and passengers traveling by rail. As the cost of fossil fuels rises, rail will become increasingly attractive for both freight and passenger traffic. What is your plan to improve rail service throughout the United States to insure, for example, that Montana’s grain gets to market? What priority would you place on the development of an efficient national passenger rail service?

Question 10: Poverty
In Montana, one-in-five children and one-in-eleven seniors lives in poverty. Sixteen percent of all Montana women and over one-third of all single-parent families with related children live below the poverty line. By definition, these people are too impoverished to receive proper nutrition, health care or housing. How much should the federal government do for them? What would be your strategy to assist all Americans living in poverty? How would you pay for implementation of your ideas?

— + —

We encourage you, as directors of Montana’s news media, to reconsider your civic responsibility in the election process. You may disagree that the media should be pro-active in digging out useful information on candidates and issues, but then we would ask: why do you exist?

Our set of ten questions is not exhaustive and they are presented without priority. Other topics for candidates to address might include:
• Cost of higher education
• Immigration policy
• Militarization of our economy
• The economic power of mega-banks
• Perceived and real threats from China, Russia and radical Islam
• International trade and investment agreements

We regret to say that the Fourth Estate is in a disastrous shambles. As you try to survive, economically, your reason for existence is being sacrificed. We don’t know the answer to your dilemma, but if you can’t renew your social contract with the electorate, our democracy will crumble and we will be left defenseless against those who would seize our country for their own purposes. Renewing your quest for good information on candidates and issues would be a start toward revitalizing the media and shoring up our democracy.

Blake Maxwell
Jay Moor


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