from page 1)
did. He knew that the print reporters
didn't like him any more than he liked them, which was why he
insisted that the nosier ones among them often had to settle
for quotes from one of his aides. Press relations had taken another
turn for the worse when he had agreed to be on a panel with his
Democratic opponent at the annual convention of the Montana Newspaper
Association, and then backed out to play golf somewhere down
south. That didn't go down well with the editors, publishers
and reporters of the state's weekly newspapers, including those
papers in Western Montana that recently had been bought by Lee,
thereby condemning their employees to involuntary servitude on
the Lee Enterprises expanded Montana plantation.
But it got worse. Somehow he had been surprised
at the political firestorm he created when he had come out on
the wrong side of two issues of considerable concern to constituents
who had voted for him. He had done that quietly lots of times
since entering the Senate and nobody back home seemed to mind
much. He had always been a lackey of W.R. Grace, the corrupt-to-the-core
corporation that eventually and inevitably plunged into bankruptcy,
and he had approved a bunch of full-page ads the asbestos industry
took out in the Montana daily newspapers to get Grace off the
Those slick adsbut not
slick enough, because the bozos in the advertising agencies back
east regard Montanans as bumpkins who will fall for any slick
ad campaignurged the asbestosis victims up Libby way to
support legislation that would allow Grace to escape the punishment
In fact, the proposed legislation limited
the ability of Libby workers and other victims of asbestos exposure
to get just compensation for the atrocities that Grace had inflicted
on them. Conrad had thought that was just fine, and he unashamedly
had served as a cosponsor of the legislation written by industry
lobbyists. The good people of Libby were not suckered by the
deceptive advertising and they were far from amused by the transparent
device. Even Conrad perceived that the natives were more than
restless; they were furious that he had openly worked against
justice for their legitimate concerns. Letters to the editors
made exactly that point. It dawned on Senator Burns that he had
made an awful mistake by serving as a handmaiden for Grace, whose
interests clearly appeared to have higher priority than the health
and welfare of Montanans in Lincoln County.
So there he was, in a big political
mess he had gotten himself into in Libby, where almost 200 residents
already had died and perhaps one out of every five residents
was sick or dying of asbestosis, all the result of criminal activities
of W.R. Grace.
As if things weren't bad enough, the
pharmaceutical companies which had been generous contributors
to his coffers also had taken out full-page ads in the Montana
corporate dailies to take below-the-belt shots at his Democratic
challenger and to warn the inhabitants of our third-world state,
in their finest East Coast accents, to mind our manners if we
knew what was good for us. The hucksters didn't have a clue to how strongly Montanans were
united behind the beleaguered folks up there in the northwest
corner of our state.
So that didn't turn out so hot, either.
Conrad's Democratic opponent made political
hay over that one, running buses loaded with angry, thrifty seniors
up to Canada to get their prescriptions filled for a lot less
money than the drug cartel was squeezing out of sick and poor
Thus did dark clouds hover as Burns headed
into the final weeks of the 2000 election campaign. The latest
polls were scary, even after he had lavished huge amounts of
money on a seemingly endless day-and-night series of scurrilous,
deceptive and unfair radio ads against his opponent, especially
in Eastern Montana. A lot of churches were handing out flyers
to their congregations urging his re-election. But still, he
feared maybe even that wouldn't turn the trick.
And then, to top it all off, the Billings
Gazette had gone crazy.
Comes to the Gazette
End of an Era in Billings
senator from Montana by way of Missouri was outraged by what
was happening at the Gazette, the linchpin that had kept
a wheel from coming off his jerry-built campaign wagon in previous
races. The lousy rag was running news stories about some of his
lies and deceptionseven putting it on the damn front page! and that
editorial writer Gary Svee was actually writing stuff on the
editorial page that criticized him. One news story after
another. One editorial after another. But then came the worst
news of all:
The Billings Gazette was going to endorse
Democratic candidate Brian Schweitzer.
What in hell was going on?
If there was one certainty in the political
career of Conrad Burns, like the rise and setting of the sun,
it was the support and protection of the Billings Gazette, largest of the four Montana daily
newspapers controlled by Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa.
Through thick and thin for twelve glorious
years, while some of the other newspapers in Montana were occasionally
printing negative news stories and even running editorials or
guest columns that were critical of him, none of that kind of
crap would find its way into the pages of the Gazette.
On those occasions when Conrad had flapped his loose lips, thereby
exposing his bare backside, the Gazette could be counted
on to cover it up. The paper exploited its comparatively large
circulation in Eastern Montana to protect Conrad's political
jewels in an area notable for right-wing views ranging from mildly
conservative all the way to extreme anti-government philosophies.
One of the sordid mantras chanted down through
the years by corporate hacks since Lee Newspapers of Montana
came into being in 1959 is that the suits in Davenport exercise
no control over the news and editorial content of their papers.
No one ever called from headquarters to influence news or editorial
content, they would say with that saccharine corporate smileand
that might well have been true. But that's not the point.
The point is that the bosses in Davenport don't
have to make that kind of phone call. They dismiss news and editorials
as "content" for the "product" they deliver
to their "customers." It's all just a business to them,
like K-mart or the Taco Bell down the street. That's one of the
reasons why their understaffed and underpaid "content providers"including
some first-rate journalists who love Montana and don't want to
leave for more money and live somewhere elseare condemned
to work on newspapers that vary from mediocre to shameful.
The point, so sharp it cannot be missed, is
that Lee's top executives try to make certain that those who
are hired as publishers are nicely paid, are "team players"
who won't rock the boat, and are firmly committed to the proposition
that the interests of Lee executives and Lee stockholders have
higher priority than their suffering subscribers and their overcharged
Furthermore, those who become Lee publishers
most frequently grow up within the confines of the corporation
and memorize the Lee corporate catechism, especially the succinct
First Law of a Lee Publisher: "Make Plan." You make
"Plan" and you'll be a publisher for another year.
"Plan" means draining more money to Davenport this
year than was drained from the local community last year.
As a result, several knowledgeable veteran
journalists in our state agree that out of all the Lee publishers
who have come and gone in Montana over more than four decades,
only threeif we do not hold against them policies forced
on them by corporate headquartershave demonstrated a measurable
amount of journalistic courage, integrity, ethical standards
and responsible professionalism.
They are George Remington, John Talbot and
Remington quit in 1985 as Billings
Gazette publisher, announcing that he refused to "stripmine"
the paper to satisfy the gluttons in Iowa. Talbot, son-in-law
of the first man in charge of Lee Newspapers of Montana and a
rare gem in a corporation riddled with a history of nepotism,
presided over the glory years of the editorial pages of Sam Reynolds
and a newsroom staff of extraordinary talent at the Missoulian.
Whittenberg, although he had an uneven career as publisher of
the Helena Independent Record, blossomed after he was
promoted to publisher of the Billings Gazette in January,
And that's when Conrad Burns began having trouble.
One of Whittenberg's
first acts at the Gazette, to the enormous gratification
of almost everyone in the newsroom, was to dismantle and throw
away the pieces of the "Product Center."
The "Product Center" was a cockamamie
concept of longtime publisher of the Gazette and sometime
honcho of all of Lee's Montana dailies, Wayne Schile. His "astigmatic
vision," as one critic put it, was to reinvent the traditional
letterpress composing room. "Designers" tossed news
and advertising into a confusing mix that resulted in an unending
mess as Schile relentlessly pursued his obsession. Whittenberg
took one look at it and, of course, did what any sane person
who knew anything about newspaper production would do.
It was the start of a happier time for those
released from Schile's choke-hold on the news and editorial columns
of the paper. The Gazette had earned a widespread reputation,
especially among journalists, for spiking or otherwise refusing
to publish news stories that did not fit Schile's warped view
of the world. Reporters who had dreaded going to work now flourished
under the new regime. News coverage immediately improved.
Especially notable was a different attitude
toward Native American news. When, a year before Whittenberg's
arrival, a reporter complained about the lack of coverage of
Indian reservations within the paper's circulation area, the
managing editor, a Schile protege, replied in a memo that "we
can't afford to cover the reservations on a regular basis; the
readership or more to the point, subscribership just isn't there."
Whittenberg also took the chains off the editor
of the editorial page, freeing him to write about subjects that
had been off limits. The paper's political endorsementswhich had
been tightly controlled by Schile and reflected his preferences
for candidates at the local, state and national levelswere opened
to serious discussion and decision by the editorial board. Under
Schile, in more than one election, the Gazette conducted
interviews with political candidates that turned out to be diaphanous
window- dressing. Schile presented his personal list to the editorial
page editor for the paper's endorsements, and that was that.
Whittenberg quickly sensed the need to mend relations with the
civic, cultural and business groups who long ago had been repelled
by the arrogant bullying and boosterism that had been the hallmark
of the Gazette under Schile. The new publisher soon was
perceived in the Billings community as a far more personable
representative of Lee's interests.
The 'King of Montana' to the Rescue
His ascent to the job had followed the puzzling
departure of Schile, shrouded in both mystery and rumors, after
thirteen raucous years on the job. Only four years earlier, the
Davenport executives had capped their many expressions of devotion
to their Montana darling at a "corporate feedback dinner"
when Lee Enterprises President and CEO Dick Gottlieb crowned
Schile "King of Montana." That moment of corporate
hilarity was captured in a front-page photo of TSR 12
(Summer 1995), which noted in the cutline that "the newly
crowned emperor is widely regarded in Montana as seriously undressed."
Treasure State Review also had no hesitation
in citing Schile as "the most pernicious influence on Montana
journalism in the last half of the 20th century."
At the time of Schile's sudden departure,
Lee's quarterly reports to stockholders meticulously announced
changes in executive positions on their newspapers, but Schile's
disappearance never was acknowledged.
That spurred additional speculations
that could not be confirmed. At any rate, it was something Davenport
didn't want to talk about.
In late September
or early October, 2000, a little more than two-and-a-half years
after Whittenberg had come to the Gazette, the editorial
board voted to endorse the Democratic candidate for the U.S.
Senate, Brian Schweitzer, a Whitefish farmer who also ran a farm
in Eastern Montana.
In the light of the Gazette's fervent
support of Burns through all of his Senate votes that repaid
corporations for their contributions, his gaffes and buffoonery,
readers could not have missed the startling new tone of anti-Burns
editorials. One especially angry editorial ran less than a month
before the election.
"TV ad backing Burns is full of lies"
was the headline.
"A recent TV ad maligns Brian Schweitzer,"
readers were informed. "It is built of lies, challenging
Schweitzer's integrity. . . . More than anything the ad is rank
and high smelling." It then cited examples of "more
lies," the "mendacity" of Burns, and unfounded
accusations that Schweitzer was campaigning in a fashion that
is "not the Montana Way."
That charge, coming from a particularly noxious
Burns aide, typified the sleazy campaign Burns had set in motion
to win re-election. The editorial concluded: "And speaking
of the Montana way, since when did it become the Montana way
to lie? Is it really the Montana way to have out-of-state politicians
decide how Montanans will vote?"
Could a newspaper possibly endorse Senator
Burns after that?
Wayne Schile leaped into action. He had created
Conrad Burns, a radio broadcaster transformed into a county commissioner
and then a candidate for the United States Senate. Schile was
Dr. Frankenstein, Conrad was the creature. The "King of
Montana" set out to show once again that the corporate crown
was merited. He had created other Republican candidates who had
won election from Eastern Montana and he had worked hard to destroy
the political careers of others who had sought to serve the general
welfare rather than corporate interests.
Almost three years after his sudden exit from
the Gazette, Schile again was being seen with cronies
in Billings, powering lunches and working his magic. He was widely
believed to be in contact with close friends in Davenport, especially
Greg Veon, Lee's vice president for publishing.
One week after the "Lies" editorial,
on Tuesday, October 10, the paper announced that Whittenberg
was voluntarily leaving as publisher.
"After nearly three years at the helm
of the Billings Gazette," the story began, "publisher
Bruce Whittenberg announced Monday that he is leaving his position.
"Whittenberg said that after a quarter
century in the newspaper business, including becoming publisher
on January 1, 1998, he decided to explore other opportunities.
"'As much as I have enjoyed the newspaper
business, particularly in Helena and Billings, I've been at it
for 25 years. It's time to flex my creative muscle a bit and
do something else,' he said."
Later in the story, Schile's buddy, Veon, was
quoted as saying he "started out with Whittenberg in the
newspaper business and respects his decision." He then weighed
in with the customary corporate spin.
you've got the skills he has, you ought to go for it,' Veon said.'I
think Bruce has done an excellent job of energizing and reinventing
the newspaper. I think the key event will be the redesign of
the newspaper and Web site.'"
In other words, Bruce Whittenberg had been
fired. (This corporate spin drew private hoots of derision
from Lee staffers in Montana. Sadly, reporters who have learned
the nitty-gritty of journalism and know that "sacred cows
make the best hamburgers," also learn that the most sacred
cow of the press is the press itself.)
The Gazette ran a full-page public service
ad to pay tribute to Whittenberg. It featured a proclamation
by the mayor declaring Bruce Whittenberg Day and testimonials
from civic leaders. This exhibition of fealty to a departed publisher,
especially one who was regarded by Lee Enterprises as dead meat,
so enraged Schile that he reportedly made three angry phone calls
to the paper that had routinely bid him farewell three years
Seven days after Whittenberg's "resignation,"
Veon announced the appointment of Michael Gulledge, publisher
of the Lee chain's Herald & Review in Decatur, Illinois,
as the new Gazette publisher, "effective immediately."
Gulledge, between trips back to Decatur and
forth to Billings, was seen having lunch with the man who had
demonstrated once again that he may well be the "King of
Montana." At one session (which only one source could confirm)
Schile introduced young publisher Gulledge to a greatly relieved
Ironically, Whittenberg had hired Gulledge
for his first job with Lee Enterprises, and Gulledge had never
worked on a newspaper outside the Lee chain. Although Gulledge early on showed unhappiness at being suddenly
uprooted in the middle of a school year, like a good corporate
paladin he obediently moved his family to Billings.
On the Sunday before the election, on the Gazette
opinion page, in what surely ranks as one of the most unwilling,
unhappy, backhanded, apologetic endorsements in the history of
American politics, Gary Svee's editorial was headlined "We
need Burns back in the Senate."It wasn't enough to save
his job. Shortly thereafter, this good man of Montana also was
Montana's Future at Stake
We have no
way of proving that the failure of the Billings Gazette
to endorse Brian Schweitzer resulted in the re-election of Conrad
Burns. But we know that Burns and Schile believed it was extremely
important that the Gazette endorse Conrad Burns.
And what we know for certain is that the bullet
that brought down Bruce Whittenberg came from a gun that smokes
in Davenport, Iowa.
That gun has been firedsecretly, shamelessly
and deliberatelymany times since the Lee corporation removed
Anaconda's copper collar from the throats of the citizens of
the Treasure State more than forty years ago, only to replace
it with handcuffs and shackles manufactured in Iowa. On many
occasions it was easy to smell the smoke, but the gun was well
hidden and could not be found.
For one notorious example, the Lee Montana
chain papers were in the vanguard of forces that stifled and
helped bring about the collapse of a powerful citizens movement
in the 1970s.
That was after an inspired majority in the
Montana Legislature, on a mission to protect our environment,
passed laws that the out-of-state corporations and the Lee newspapers
soon thereafter joined to erode. That Legislature also made possible
the extraordinary gathering of men and women in 1972 to forge
the most progressive state constitution in the United States.Those
admirable legislators overwhelmed the political power of Montana
Power and the giant industries that come here to clearcut our
forests and bulldoze our public lands, polluting our rivers,
streams and lakes, infecting our valleys with disease- and death-producing
contaminents from their chimneys and stacks, all with the blessings
of an out-of-state corporation practicing profit-driven journalism.
in those heady years of the '70s until Lee struck back. Our universities
and public schools were treated with the respect they deserve
until subsequent legislatures, dominated by corporation stooges,
steadily reduced the taxes of out-of-state corporations and dished
out niggardly appropriations for the education of our young.
The defeat of Brian Schweitzera man who
showed promise of restoring some dimension of prestige to the
state that sent to our nation's capital the likes of Jeannette
Rankin, Burton K. Wheeler, Thomas Walsh, Mike Mansfield, Lee
Metcalf and Pat Williamswas more than a loss for the people
of Montana. It was a loss of historic proportions.
The re-election of Conrad Burns gave the Republicans
the one-vote majority they needed to control the United States
Senate. A Schweitzer victory would have made irrelevant the later
switch of Vermont Senator James F. Jeffords from Republican to
Independent, thereby restoring a Democratic majority in the Senate.
The 2000 Senate election in Montana changed the course of history,
giving the Bush administration a free hand until the defection
of Senator Jeffords served the purpose that a Senator Schweitzer
would have fulfilled.
Back in a winter of discontent, 1991, I embarked
on a lonely crusade to break the grip of out-of-state corporations
on our press, our economy and our political structure. After
the first issue of the Treasure State Review, I
no longer was lonely.When I spoke the truth about our press in
Montana's state capital at the 25th anniversary celebration of
our 1972 Constitution, the longest standing ovation of that gathering
of our best citizens will remain one of the most gratifying moments
of my life.
In twenty not-quite-quarterly issues, TSR
has documented the miserable performance of the Montana chain
newspapers. They fill their pages with some excellent reporting
that unfortunately is accompanied by journalistic drivel and
corporate twaddle. What is not covered because of company policies
and a refusal to staff their newsrooms adequately is a continuing
disgrace. The exposure by a Seattle newspaper of the asbestosis
calamity that befell Libby also exposed the monumental failure
of the Missoulian to cover news in its circulation area.
The Lee chain editorial pages, without exception, avoid many
central issues in our cities, state and nation.
They are a cancer on Montana.
One of the
several goals of the Treasure State Review was
to encourage an independent weekly press in cities where corporate
monopolies rule. We now have three such publications and a fourth
is nearing reality. The Missoula Independent, Billings
Outpost and Butte Weekly frequently provide news and
comment superior to that supplied by the chain dailies. They
have served a useful and appreciated purpose. An astonishing
number of Montana journalistsand, significantly, former
Montanans who dream of the day they could come home and resume
their careers in journalismrallied to the cause. Many other
Montanans cheered us on, from Supreme Court justices to present
and former political leaders, from noted authors and journalists
to men and women who simply love Montana.
The time has never been better, in our current stage
of technology, to establish a different and distinctive statewide
weekly newspaper, written by Montanans, edited by Montanans,
supported by Montanans, and dedicated to Montanans. It would
be nothing like the "bottom-line" corporate sheets
that rely on their local monopolies to sustain their shabby "products."
It would stand proud against the corporations that have raped
Montana. It might well grow into a statewide daily newspaper.
I believe that kind of newspaperand
the Treasure Statewould prosper.
The Lighter Side of Montana News
of the Mansion
Again Speaks Her Mind
reliable source vows this is a true story. A woman friend of
the source approached Judy Martz after a Helena dinner and told
her that the governor reminded her of Margaret Thatcher.
"Well," Martz replied, "I'll
take that as a compliment until I have a chance to look up who
Margaret Thatcher is."
Correction of the New Millennium Thus Far
Gazette, March 30, 2001: A story headlined "A doctor's life"
in Tuesday's Health section erroneously said Billings physician
Dr. Neal Sorensen "is married with two daughters he affectionately
refers to as 'parrots.'"
Actually, Sorensen is married with two
parrots, Ruby and Precious, he affectionately refers to as daughters.