The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.
Over the past week, Montana Free Press devoted considerable reporting resources to one of the biggest stories of the year: the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that for nearly 50 years protected as a constitutional right a pregnant woman’s right to choose an abortion.
The decision sends the question of whether abortions are legal or not to the states. In many states, abortion is now illegal outright.
Reporter Mara Silvers tackled the issue from many angles, starting with an examination of what the High Court’s ruling means for abortion in Montana. The short version: Abortion remains legal here because state courts consider abortion, like other medical choices, to be protected under Montana’s constitutional right to privacy.
Over the weekend, abortion-rights advocates rallied in cities around Montana.
Mara followed up with a look at the uncertain path facing anti-abortion advocates seeking to end legal access to abortion in Montana. That road is full of obstacles, starting with the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in Armstrong v. State, which legalized abortion under the state Constitution’s right to privacy.
Journalists cover few topics as contentious as abortion. People on both sides of the debate hold deep personal and religious beliefs and defend their stances passionately. Reporting about abortion is all but guaranteed to generate critical feedback.
A common critique is aimed at the way we characterize opposing sides of the divide. Some readers assume phrases such as “anti-abortion” or “abortion rights” imply a personal or institutional bias.
As one reader recently wrote:
“I have to object to your use of the phrase ‘anti-abortion’ throughout the article. Generally, I have found your reporting attempts to be both accurate and without bias. Using the term ‘anti-abortion’ instead of ‘pro-life’ is neither accurate or unbiased.”
While we can appreciate this perspective, we think it errs by asking us to replace one perceived bias with another. Both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” frame their positions in preferential and arguably euphemistic terms. The policies and agendas referred to in our coverage are, in contrast, specific. They aim to restrict legal access to abortion. We judge “anti-abortion” to be the least value-laden and most specifically accurate phrase available.
The Associated Press Stylebook, the leading reference for grammar and usage in the journalism and media world, agrees. Here’s the AP Stylebook’s reference for abortion:
Our goal in seeking the most accurate words and phrasing regarding abortion and other contentious issues is to keep bias out of our reporting.
So we, along with the vast majority of news organizations that follow AP style, use “anti-abortion” in an attempt to be as clear, direct, and non-euphemistic as possible in describing the agenda and the policies of parties and people who seek to end abortion. And while we understand and respect that not everyone will agree with that choice, we trust that readers will understand and respect the reason we make it — not to signal bias but, as much as possible in an imperfect language, to limit it.
On an unrelated note, the award-winning Montana Free Press news team has been extremely hard at work over the first half of the year covering what feels like a never-ending major news cycle. Therefore, we’ve ordered everyone to take mandatory time off over the July 4 holiday week to recharge their batteries and be ready for the upcoming 2022 election season and beyond.
Our homepage will feature a hand-picked selection of some of our most impactful coverage over the last few weeks and months — stories that are as fresh and relevant tomorrow as the day they were first published. We’ll also interrupt our regular newsletter schedule to give you the week off as well. Look for the next Lowdown in your inbox July 15.
We’ll be back in the saddle July 11 to pick up where we left off. Until then, we all hope you have a happy, safe and relaxing Independence Day weekend.
—John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief and Brad Tyer, Editor
A helicopter drops water on the Camper Fire, which was discovered near Three Mile Road northwest of Helena on Sunday evening. The human-caused fire grew to four acres before firefighters with local departments and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation contained it. It’s one 47 fires reported in Montana this week. Seventeen of those were started by a lightning storm that passed through the Helena area Tuesday. To date, small early season wildfires have burned more than 4,000 acres in Montana.
The wet spring across much of the state may have delayed the inevitable, but fire season is headed Montana’s way. Going into the week of the Fourth of July, our newsroom has launched the 2022 edition of our MT Fire Report, which compiles live fire information from multiple sources onto a single page.
This year’s tracker currently includes hourly air quality reports and a map of current fires tracked by the federal Inciweb incident management system (as of Friday, note that Inciweb wasn’t tracking any Montana fires. The state’s fire dashboard, which uses a different database including smaller fires, does have a few entries). We plan to add additional information there over the course of the summer, and would love to hear your suggestions about what you’d find useful.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Last March, we launched the MTFP Local project as a way to support the news needs of communities across the state by providing in-depth coverage of local issues by local reporters. As part of the project, we’re hosting events all across Montana to listen and learn from readers about the issues impacting your community. The MTFP Local Happy Hour is a chance to meet face-to-face with our local and statewide reporters, enjoy a tasty beverage and have great discussions.
Here are a few places you can join us throughout August and September:
August 2 — We’ll be at Thirsty Street Brewing Co. in Billings from 5 to 9 p.m. $1 from every beer sale will be donated to MTFP.
August 3 — Join us at Lewis & Clark Brewing Co. in Helena from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Stick around for a special trivia night hosted by us.
August 7 — It’s Sunday FUNday at Bozeman Brewing Co. We’ll be there from 4 to 8 p.m., and 10% of sales all day will support our newsroom.
August 11 — Find us at Imagine Nation Brewing Co. in Missoula from 4 to 8 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from each pint sold during the Happy Hour will be donated to MTFP.
September 26 — We’re going to be at Mighty Mo Brewing Co. in Great Falls from 5 to 8 p.m. $1 from each Happy Hour sale will be donated to MTFP.
We have more information on our events calendar, and we hope to see you there. Cheers!
—Nate Schoenfelder, Director of Audience Engagement
Following the Law ⚖️
The U.S. Supreme Court this week curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions in a 6-3 ruling that’s expected to have major implications for the Biden administration’s ability to limit emissions from one of the largest sources of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gasses in the country: the electricity sector.
The lawsuit dates to 2015, when then-President Barack Obama issued the Clean Power Plan, which sought to regulate carbon emissions by setting strict carbon standards for each state. That plan was challenged by West Virginia, one of the country’s top coal producers, and former Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who joined in the lawsuit.
In West Virginia vs. EPA, conservative justices writing the majority opinion cited the “major questions doctrine” to support its conclusion that federal agencies must be issued “clear Congressional authorization” before taking up issues of major national importance.
Dissenting liberal justices argued that the real overreach belongs to SCOTUS, not the executive branch.
“The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision maker on climate policy,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined by justices Sonia Sotomayer and Stephen Breyer in the dissenting opinion. “Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.’”
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen celebrated the High Court’s decision, arguing that the EPA’s plan would have allowed the agency to “pick and choose favored energy sources.”
“This ruling affirms what Montanans have known all along: the Biden administration’s attempt to weaponize the Clean Air Act was an abuse of the EPA’s authority. I’m glad to have worked with other states to stop this power grab and prevent President Biden from unilaterally ‘decarbonizing’ the power sector,” Knudsen said in a release.
Environmental organizations including the Montana Environmental Information Center took a dimmer view of the ruling, describing it in a release as evidence of the court’s “contempt” for human rights and Montana’s environment.
“This Supreme Court seems less concerned with legal matters than it does with advancing a highly polarizing political agenda that disregards the most vulnerable. Without immediate and strong action on the climate crisis, the harm from unprecedented floods, droughts, invasive species and fire will continue,” said Anne Hedges, MEIC’s director of policy and legislative affairs.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
“I don’t care that they have weapons, they are not here to hurt me, take the f’in [magnetometers] away, and they can march to the Capitol.”
—President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, according to recent testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as part of the congressional hearings on the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Following the Money 💵
A legislative audit report presented to state lawmakers this week contained some concerning information about the handling of federal COVID-19 relief funds by Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. According to the report, which delved into financial compliance at OPI over the past two years, the agency charged with overseeing Montana’s public school system failed to obtain adequate documentation to ensure that local schools receiving the funds were complying with federal spending requirements.
“Sixteen cash requests, totaling $460,154, either contained insufficient detail to demonstrate the funds were spent in accordance with regulations or could not be tied back to the approved budgets,” the auditors wrote.
Specific items called into question by the auditors included requests for salaries and benefits for teachers without noting how the spending was related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and funding for a bus that was $20,000 above the $5,000-benchmark requiring prior spending approval. The report says that insufficient documentation put OPI “at risk of approving costs that are not allowable,” though it did note the agency had implemented more stringent documentation requirements for later rounds of federal pandemic assistance.
Asked by lawmakers on the Legislative Audit Committee about the issue Wednesday, OPI Chief Financial Officer Jay Phillips acknowledged that documentation of the initial round of relief funding in 2020 was “a bit rushed,” which he attributed to the agency’s push to get the money out to school districts at the height of the pandemic. Phillips added that OPI staff and local auditors have been instructed to take an extensive look at COVID-19 spending as they continue to monitor compliance.
The report identified 12 additional areas of recommended improvement at OPI, all related to internal control mechanisms. Auditors attributed the issues in part to staff turnover at the agency, noting that over the course of the two-year audit period, 89 of OPI’s 183 positions experienced turnover or were vacant.
Phillips told lawmakers the agency’s staffing issues have been exacerbated by a competitive job market, a challenge he noted isn’t unique to OPI. But he assured the committee that recruitment is an ongoing priority and estimated the current number of vacancies at 21 — several of which, he added, will remain vacant because they were tied to federal programs that have since ended.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — High Country News recently published this compelling story about stream access in the West, anchoring it in the experience of an angler who’s challenging Colorado’s designation of the Arkansas River as a “non-navigable” waterway. That designation means landowners have ownership of the riverbed and can bring trespassing charges against recreationists who come into contact with it. The story helps demonstrate the uniqueness of Montana’s stream access law.
Alex — Community tensions over Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library reached a boiling point this week as Carmen Cuthbertson, a vocal critic of the book “Gender Queer,” joined the library’s board of trustees. The Flathead Beacon reported that Cuthbertson’s appointment prompted the resignation of ImagineIF’s longest-serving trustee and likely sets the stage for alterations to library policies and the removal of certain materials from its shelves.
Mara — On days when history is unfolding right before our eyes, the best thing journalists can do is witness, document, and deliver our best account of what we saw and heard to people who weren’t there. The New Yorker’s article about how the end of Roe v. Wade unfolded at one Texas abortion clinic is intimate, striking and well worth a read.
Arren — I spent last week in Colorado for IRE, an investigative reporting and editing conference that unites hundreds of national and local journalists from across the country. One of the talented folks I met covers hyperlocal party politics in Brooklyn, a place famous for its intricate political machine. This story from The City about party officials forging signatures on election paperwork to knock certain candidates from their own party out of the election really resonated with me as a Montana reporter covering communities where one party holds near total control.
Brad — The congressional hearings investigating responsibility for the Capitol attacks of Jan. 6, 2021, have been generating headlines, head-scratching, and hot-takes aplenty these past weeks, but this report from WyoFile homes in on the reaction in rural Wyoming, where the hearings are being seen — or, in many cases, going unseen — through the lens of local attitudes about Republican Wyoming U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who has led the hearings by the horns to divided effect.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.