The Billings Outpost

Local editorial draws attention of Fox, Limbaugh

When a recent Billings Gazette editorial drew national notoriety, it was difficult to tell which was more fatuous, the editorial or the response.

The editorial, an attack on the record of the president, drew attention from Rush Limbaugh and from the Fox News show “Outnumbered,” which said the newspaper had apologized for its 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama.

The show, which features four good-looking women with high hemlines surrounding somebody else, who I think is a guy, was most amazed that the paper could ever have endorsed Obama in the first place.

“I’ve been to Montana,” said Jesse Watters, who I am pretty sure is a guy. “I don’t know if you guys have.”

It’s hard to argue with on-the-ground expertise like that, but no one who actually lives in Montana would be surprised to see a newspaper here endorse a Democrat. That’s not because newspapers are run by wild-eyed liberals but because Montana is far more politically interesting and diverse than can be imagined in the world of Fox News.

After all, we have two Democratic U.S. senators (true, one of them wasn’t elected, but he was appointed by a Democratic governor who was), and Democrats in recent years have dominated statewide offices while Republicans overwhelmingly control the Legislature.

Just look at the state’s two Democratic strongholds: Butte and Missoula. Can there be any place in the Union where two cities so close together are so fundamentally different yet vote in such similar ways?

But such complexities blur an easy story line. Rush Limbaugh’s analysis was even more fact free. “Would I be justified in saying, ‘See, I told you so?’” he asked.

Well, maybe, except that Limbaugh has attacked every Democrat since Roosevelt. Taking his warnings seriously is like taking the boy who cried wolf seriously because the thousandth time he raised the alarm, wolves actually attacked.

The editorial itself was an odd duck. In a follow-up column, Editor Darrell Ehrlick pushed back on the notion that the paper had rescinded its 2008 endorsement of Obama. That’s sort of true. The paper didn’t really rescind or even apologize for its early endorsement. Instead, it admitted it goofed for thinking that things couldn’t get much worse than they were under George Bush.

Actually, things haven’t gotten worse. When Obama took office, the stock market and the housing market were in free fall, the economy was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month, two major car companies were on the brink of collapse, healthcare costs were skyrocketing, we were locked in two unwinnable wars, and the deficit was soaring.

Now, the stock market keeps flirting with new all-time highs, jobs are being added slowly but steadily, car companies are recovering, and both wars are winding down – at least in terms of our involvement. Obama came within a few months of keeping his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, and the Affordable Care Act, despite its critics, appears to have cut the number of uninsured, moderated healthcare costs and produced insurance policies that even a strong majority of Republicans say they like.

The Gazette’s worst argument was that six years into his presidency, Obama has to “own” the Iraq quagmire that he inherited. That’s exactly the sort of blinkered thinking that got us into that mess in the first place. You own your backyard. If weeds grow there, that’s your problem.

We don’t own Iraq. People who live there have their own ideas about what Iraq should be, and our failure to recognize that led us into inevitable disaster.

The editorial’s most cogent argument was that the Obama administration has “cracked down on journalists, spied on citizens and retaliated against those who leak information to the press.” All too true, sadly, and it is possible that John McCain would have been better. But Mitt Romney, whom the Gazette endorsed in 2012, would not have been.

The editorial had drawn some 266 online comments the last time I checked (I don’t remember the survey question I had to answer to obtain this information, but my answer was “no”). As Mr. Ehrlick’s Sunday column indicated, many readers wondered whether the editorial indicated some change in editorial policy.

That is a typical but understandable misunderstanding of how newspapers work. People often assume that newspapers have some sort of coordinated, carefully planned approach to how they cover the news. Perhaps some newspapers do, but I have never worked for one.

My own brief stint on the Gazette editorial board was typical. During election season, the board would meet with candidates, ask careful questions, take thorough notes, then read an editorial the next day that had nothing to do with anything we had learned.

Let me encapsulate the chaos in a single example: When I was on the board, the Gazette endorsed Wes Prouse, a legislative candidate who drove without a driver’s license for five years because he believed the U.S. Constitution did not authorize states to issue licenses.

In 2010, Mr. Prouse ran a campaign in which he claimed to have spent no money at all. The commissioner of political practices concluded, “Candidate Prouse’s response is objectively false.”

More depressing is the reaction of Fox News, lamentably the go-to source for Republican voters. A joint survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project Internet and Campaign found that 47 percent of Republican voters said they got most of their election news from Fox. Nothing else came close.

By contrast, only 7 percent of Democratic voters said they got most of their news from MSNBC, Fox’s liberal counterpart. And MSNBC admits to its liberal slant, while Fox continues to claim to be “fair and balanced.”

I will believe that the day I see a Fox story under the headline, “Montana newspaper concludes Obama isn’t so bad after all.”

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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