In a surprisingly competitive race in a state that went heavily for Donald Trump, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte beat his Democratic opponent Rob Quist Thursday, overcoming an election-eve assault charge. .
Gianforte pulled just over 50 percent of the vote, with Quist at 44 and Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks pulling in some six percent.
Quist had to fight off not just and ambivalent national Democratic Party and millions of dollars in attacks from the GOP, but also a local media that was aligned with them.
Earlier this month, a trio of Montana’s largest newspapers — The Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record, and the Billings Gazette — all endorsed Gianforte. And a string of local TV stations recently purchased by the arch-conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group offered some unusual coverage of the explosive story of Gianforte’s famous Wednesday night assault of a reporter.
The papers all share a single owner, the Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, whose board is stacked with Republican donors, and all three were dropped on the same day, May 14, as Republicans began to panic that the race might genuinely be in play. All three endorsements made similar arguments — deep reservations about his more extreme ideological positions, such as his rejection of evolution, coupled with optimism that he will set those bizarre views aside and do right by Montana in Washington.
The Lee board includes a number of Republican donors and other conservatives. The enterprise owns two other local newspapers in the state as well; neither explicitly endorsed, though they run copy from their sister publications.
Nancy Donovan, a founding partner of the Circle Financial Group, has been on the Lee Enterprises board since 2003. She gave $1,000 to support former Republican House Leader’s John Boehner’s re-election in 2010, and $2,400 to former Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk’s campaign.
Gregory P. Schermer, who spent 27 years with Lee before retiring and remains a member of the board, donated to the presidential bids of John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio. Herb Moloney, who is a Lead Director on the board, was previously a publisher of the conservative Washington Examiner.
In addition to the endorsements, the three papers focused their reporting heavily on Quist’s debt and financial woes.
On the Wednesday night before the election, a reporter for the Guardian, which is headquartered in London, Ben Jacobs, was interviewing Gianforte about his evolving position on Trump’s health care plan when the Republican candidate slammed him to the ground, according to Jacobs, backed up by audio of the encounter. The Billings Gazette led its story: “A foreign correspondent from the Guardian has accused GOP U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte of assaulting him during an interview.”
Eventually, all three papers revoked their endorsements of Gianforte but did not ask voters to back Quist or Wicks.
But it wasn’t just Lee Enterprises that proved a headache for Quist.
In April, Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative local news operator, bought three NBC stations in Montana. The stations’ coverage of the assault was deeply generous to Gianforte on Wednesday night. “Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin announced Wednesday evening that he is investigating an alleged altercation between Special Congressional Election candidate Greg Gianforte and a reporter from The Guardian,” the networks reported on their collective website. “Gootkin also said there is no evidence of a video to verify the incident as previously reported by other news outlets. NBC Montana takes pride in reporting only verifiable facts from independent reliable sources, officials and documents, regardless of what is reported by other media outlets. The only verifiable facts are what is being stated by the Gallatin County sheriff at this time,” the networks wrote.
A New York Magazine article published late Thursday reports that Julie Weindel, the news director for KECI, one of the NBC stations, refused to cover the audio of the Gianforte-Jacobs encounter. The source claims Weindel argued that “The person that tweeted [Jacobs] and was allegedly body slammed is a reporter for a politically biased publication.”
“There is a pretty long history of papers breaking toward business interests in this state,” said Lee Banville, an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Montana. “Endorsements came from publishers and they often skewed pro-business. So, the fact that the papers editorialized that way is not too shocking.”
Last week, Chris Rush, the publisher of The World, a local paper in Oregon owned by Lee Enterprises, stepped down from his job, and offered a blunt assessment in his goodbye column.
Top photo: Supporters of Democratic U.S. Congresstional candidate Rob Quist watch election returns during an election night gathering at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Missoula-Edgewater on May 25, 2017 in Missoula, Mont.
Update: May 26, 2017
This story was updated to include the final vote tally.
Update: May 30, 2017
A Sinclair spokesperson emailed us the following statement:
“Sinclair does not own, control, or influence KECI. Our purchase of the station is pending FCC approval. Sinclair did cover the assault, including the audio, on our stations and their websites.(Link: http://wjla.com/news/nation-world/reporter-alleges-attack-by-montana-gop-hopeful)”