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Last week a reader emailed with a question. The subject line? “Question on your organization’s policy concerning left, right, center coverage on political issues.”

I signed up for your daily morning Montana Free Press newsletter. Am new to your organization, not new to Montana. Can you enlighten me on how the topics for publication are selected? So many “news” providers have a bias, and strictly adhere to that bias. Seldom does one have the privilege/luxury to get fair and balanced news instead of someone’s slanted narrative. Would very much like to know your policy and mode of operation.

Example: Last week there was a bill in the Senate that, if it passed, every Montana citizen and every U.S. citizen would benefit. In my opinion and the opinion of thousands of Montana voters, this bill would be the absolutely most important vote the 150 legislators would ever address. I did not see one word in your publication about it. 

It’s an excellent question. I get several versions of it just about every week from readers who are justifiably curious about how we report news. So this week I wanted to share my answer, which has been lightly edited to fit this format.

Hi, Reader,

I’m the MTFP editor who works with our reporters to assign and edit stories for publication. Thanks for the question.

Without knowing which bill you’re referring to, I can’t offer any specific insight into how we decided not to cover it. But I can tell you that we would not have based a decision on an assessment “that if it passed, every Montana citizen and every U.S. citizen would benefit.” That’s an opinion, and we work hard to keep opinions out of our pages (excepting the reported opinions of our stories’ subjects, of course). That’s why MTFP does not, as a matter of policy, publish editorials, op-eds, endorsements, or even letters to the editor. It’s our opinion — and yes, like most people, we have plenty, though we aren’t in the business of promoting them — that the value of reporting lies in delivering documentable and observed facts and accurate information. We trust readers to form their own opinions.

We have six reporters, and there have already been more than 800 bills introduced this session. We can’t cover them all. So we tend to focus on those bills that fall within our reporters’ areas of expertise and experience, which with our current staffing is primarily health and human services, the state budget and economy, the officeholders and agendas of state government’s executive branch, education, the environment and energy policy, and Native affairs. There are plenty of topical areas we’d like to be able to cover better, and we’re working hard to grow the organization so we can. 

Even within those areas, we have to make daily decisions to prioritize one bill or newsworthy development over others simply because no one reporter can be two places at the same time. And then there’s the matter of timing. Any bill that makes it to the governor’s desk for signature or veto will have gone through multiple milestones: initial consideration by a committee, a hearing with public comment and testimony, rounds of debate and voting in both the House and Senate. The point being that there are multiple stages in a bill’s progress where we may choose an opportunity to write about it. It’s rare (though not unheard of) that we would report on a bill before it’s had a public hearing, which allows us to include the testimony of interested citizens and stakeholders.

In terms of left, right, or center, we try to cover proposals with an awareness of the partisan political dynamics that influence their origination and progress. Given the composition and power balance in the current Legislature, we inevitably cover more Republican proposals than Democratic ones. If a future Montana Legislature turns out to feature a supermajority of Democrats, we will direct more coverage to Democratic proposals. 

When we do report on a proposal, we do our best to explain in plain, unslanted language what the bill would do; whom it would affect; the origins of the bill (whether an individual constituent request, the governor’s expressed agenda, an out-of-state think tank, etc.); the history of any similar proposals; the sponsors’ and supporters’ reasons for promoting the bill; the rationale for opposition to the proposal, if any, expressed by stakeholders with legitimate standing to assess it; and factual context that speaks to the bill’s potential consequences. 

Everyone, of course, has biases. But very few professions embed within their job description the mandate to self-interrogate those biases and keep them out of their work. Independent nonpartisan journalism is one of the few professions that do. As an organization, our mission is heavily weighted toward impartiality. It’s the basis of our entire business model, which relies on reader support derived from reader trust. We ask ourselves these questions every day and with every story: Are we inadvertently or unfairly promoting one advocate’s framing of an issue over another’s? Are we giving a fair hearing to unpopular or marginalized voices in any given debate? Does the article we’re about to publish serve a reader’s information needs first and foremost?

We don’t conceive of our readers — current and potential — as exclusively left, right or center, and so we don’t engineer our coverage to privilege the political left, right or center. Our organizational mission puts readers, not political orientation, first. And we rely on readers to let us know when and where we may fall short, so we can do our level best to do better. 

I hope that at least partly addressed our reader’s question, and I hope it gives you a better idea of how and why we do what we do. We appreciate, as ever, the engagement, discernment and curiosity you bring to reading Montana Free Press, and please keep letting us know what you’re thinking.

Brad Tyer, Editor

Verbatim 💬

“In the past, I have been heavily bullied to the point of faking being sick to go home early. Even now I have slurs yelled at me, I get called awful names and I get tripped in the school hallways. My teachers do their best to stop this from happening, but it still happens day in and day out. If my teachers can’t or won’t intervene, it gets much worse.” 

—Max Finn, a transgender middle school student from Missoula, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 8. Finn was among a steady stream of opponents speaking against House Bill 361, which would prohibit local school employees from disciplining students who misgender their transgender peers or refer to them by their birth names. Critics argued that the bill would lead to increased bullying and harassment of transgender youth and prevent districts from adopting policies to protect them, while supporters said it would shield students who make mistakes out of confusion or hold a binary view of sexual identity. 

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

With so much public focus on the jam-packed 2023 Legislature, it’s easy to lose track of one of the state’s many ongoing court cases. But for plenty of Montanans, the stalemate over if and how transgender people can change their birth certificates between “male” and “female” remains front of mind. 

For the last four months of 2022, trans people were able to request those changes from the state health department because District Court Judge Michael Moses had ordered the agency to comply with his earlier ruling blocking a restrictive Republican law from taking effect. While that case over 2021’s Senate Bill 280 proceeds, Moses wrote, the state had to revert to the status quo: the more lenient policy in place before SB 280 was enacted. 

Now that opportunity is once again in limbo. Last month, the state Supreme Court walked a legal tightrope in ruling that while Moses was correct in enforcing the status quo, the judge did not have the authority to override an even more restrictive rule the health department adopted in September, which prohibited amending the listed sex on birth certificates in most circumstances. If that 2022 rule was to be reconsidered, the Supreme Court said, plaintiff attorneys with the ACLU of Montana would need to challenge it directly in Moses’ court. 

Hours after that ruling, state health department Director Charlie Brereton said the agency would again be implementing its latest rule — the one barring most changes to a person’s listed sex — appearing to overlook the part of the court’s decision that affirmed the role of the status quo in the ongoing case. The ACLU of Montana, on the other hand, released a statement doubling down on its stance: that the state should revert to handling change requests like it used to, before SB 280 became law.

Since those conflicting press releases, the health department and ACLU of Montana have remained in a legal standoff in court. Plaintiff attorneys have filed a motion asking the state to explain why its re-adoption of the 2022 rule should not merit a contempt charge from Judge Moses. The state filed its responses on Wednesday, arguing that it has consistently operated “in good faith” and that its use of the 2022 rule is based on its genuine interpretation of court rulings. 

If all of that legal jousting seems too convoluted to follow, the takeaway is this: The health department and attorneys for transgender plaintiffs remain at loggerheads, not just about the constitutionality of the Republican bill, but about what the current policy governing birth certificate changes even is. 

MTFP asked health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt how the department is handling the cases of people who requested document changes last year — people who thought they’d found an open window, only to arrive at an apparent brick wall in January. He declined to comment in an email last week, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

The Viz 📈

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Belgrade remains by far Montana’s busiest airport. But hundreds of thousands of passengers also flew into other parts of Montana last year, according to data collected by the Montana Department of Transportation.

While Billings remains the state’s largest city, its Billings-Logan International Airport was just the fourth-busiest Montana airport in terms of passenger arrivals recorded in 2022, behind the Missoula Airport and Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell. Both Kalispell and Missoula did, however, see greater seasonal variation than Billings, drawing much of their traffic during the summer tourism season.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Dept. of Corrections 🤥

In last week’s Lowdown, we made an erroneous reference (since corrected) to longtime former Montana lawmaker Dorothy Bradley, describing her as the first woman to serve in the Montana Legislature. That distinction rightfully belongs to two western Montana women, Maggie Hathaway and Emma Ingalls, who served in the state House of Representatives in 1917. We regret the error, and appreciate readers bringing it to our attention.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🐻

On the heels of the federal government’s announcement that it’s engaging in a yearlong process to explore delisting Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams sent a letter to the man occupying the post she once held.

In her Feb. 3 letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Henry “Hank” Worsech, Williams said she looks forward to working with the state on continued grizzly recovery, but has concerns about Montana laws that could serve as a barrier to a delisting decision. Those laws include measures passed during the 2021 session that Williams said contradict federal Endangered Species Act provisions or “invite conflicts between hunters and grizzly bears.”

Williams highlighted a handful of measures including Senate Bill 98, which seeks to shield someone who’s shot a grizzly bear “threatening” livestock from running afoul of state law; a law establishing a hound-hunting season for black bears; and another one legalizing the use of neck snares

“The current 2023 Montana legislative session presents a good opportunity to address those issues,” Williams wrote in the letter.

It appears that lawmakers are taking her counsel to heart. Next Tuesday, the Senate Fish and Game Committee is set to hold a hearing on Senate Bill 295, a measure titled “Revising laws to accommodate grizzly bear delisting” sponsored by Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge. Gillespie sponsored SB 98 when it was passed by the 2021 Legislature.

This week MTFP explores FWP’s draft grizzly management plan through the eyes of stakeholders.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Acreage of sugar beet production contracted for processing by Sidney Sugars in 2022 — down from 30,774 acres in 2021. On Feb. 6, Sidney Sugars’ owner, Minnesota-based American Crystal Sugar Company, announced the closure of Sidney Sugars starting April 14, citing “insufficient supply of sugar beets from the local growers.” That assessment was quickly disputed by the Montana-Dakota Beet Growers Association Board in a letter to the Sidney Herald. The 100-year-old business employed about 300 workers, who will receive unspecified severance packages and access to job-search resources. 

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Say Again? 🤔

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines had his Twitter account locked for 13 hours this week over a hunting photo the San Francisco-based social media company determined violated its policy against “graphic violence.”

The offending image, which shows the senator and his wife, Cindy, posing with a freshly shot antelope, included a small amount of blood splatter visible on the animal’s leg.

In a press statement following his reinstatement, Daines said he had been in contact with Twitter CEO Elon Musk about the ban, which he called “disappointing given the fact that it is no different than photos Montanans share on social media every day.”

“It’s our Montana way of life and we are proud of it. I am glad Elon Musk recognizes this,” Daines said. “The rest of the country benefits from the acceptance of diverse thoughts and values, including Montana values.”

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — When I was working in Big Sky circa 2015, the Resort Tax Board was the community’s closest thing to a local government, so I reported on it pretty frequently. It was pulling in about $4 million in collections. Collections last year? An eye-popping $18 million. Read more about the 30-year history of one of the state’s oldest resort taxes here. 

Alex — The hunt for a new superintendent for Missoula County Public Schoolsis turning into a Cinderella story — just without Cinderella. As Skylar Rispens at the Missoulian reported this week, district trustees interviewed three applicants, but determined that none had all the qualities they were looking for and voted unanimously to restart the search.

Mara — Just when I’m getting queasy from riding the rollercoaster of Montana politics, national headlines like this one about scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. George Santos allegedly writing bad checks for Amish puppies really put things in perspective.  

Arren — Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, one of the two first openly transgender lawmakers in state history, did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit this week. Her answers offer tons of insight on the realities of being a trans woman in the Capitol, caucus dynamics, bills this session and more. 

Eric — Outraged about what a Chinese spy balloon running loose over U.S. airspace means for national security? Read this New York Times investigationabout how defense industry lobbyists have gotten Congress to spend billions on ships that the Navy expects to fail in combat against Chinese submarines.

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