Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 26-30. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP editors’ and reporters’ looks back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Arren Kimbel-Sannit’s turn.
I was hired at Montana Free Press this summer under a job title with confines I’m still trying to map out: political investigations reporter.
Which sounds — and is — great. But at MTFP, we’re all political investigative reporters, in one sense or another. While some of us focus on areas like the economy, environment, health care or education, we all dig deep, cultivate sources and try to reveal opaque truths about our government and elected leaders.
But unlike most of my colleagues, I don’t have a specific area of policy expertise. And I don’t know how to design sweeping data visualizations.
So what have I been up to since I came to MTFP? A little bit of quite a lot of things, it turns out.
I covered a primary and general election at the legislative and federal levels, rode in a squad car with congressman-elect Ryan Zinke as he reminisced about bar fights and high school sports in Browning, documented the government’s response to a devastating flood, turned Capitol gossip into breaking news, followed the development of new state House districts and much more.
In my eyes, none of these stories were as significant as my September profile of J.D. Hall, the disgraced former pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney and an influential figure in far-right Montana political and media circles. I spent months poring over legal documents and digging into internet archives. I interviewed church members, Richland County political figures and longtime Capitol hounds. I was unable to get through to Hall himself, but landed in his inner circle.
The result was a roughly 7,000 word examination of how a transplant pastor parlayed bombast, dogma and sway over Republicans in one of Montana’s most conservative counties into a platform that reached across the state and beyond, and how it all came crashing down in legal troubles, alleged substance abuse and bankruptcy.
It was everything I think I can do well in a story: getting a lot of people to be honest about their political reality in ways they rarely are and putting those insights on the page in a way I hope, despite its length, was digestible, even entertaining.
To show another side of my work, I’m also proud of the reporting my MTFP colleague (and data whiz) Eric Dietrich and I did to unpack the concept of fairness and representation in Montana’s decennial redistricting process as a state commission works to draw new legislative maps for the next decade. We examined the contradictions of representative democracy in a system with single-member districts and desires for proportionality and competitiveness using the state’s existing maps in a way I hope informed the public’s understanding of the often-arcane redistricting process.
Now, I’m looking ahead to my second legislative session since moving to Montana two years ago. With Republicans holding a supermajority, the stakes are high for all involved. On the pages of MTFP and in our new newsletter, Capitolized, I’ll be shaking out the truth under the dome all session long.