An email letter sent to thousands of Montanans by Secretary of State Corey Stapleton stirred up discussion Wednesday over how state resources were used to disseminate the message.
The email, sent to 130,000 business owners and subscribers through an e-blast system using state funds and resources, has a subject line that reads “Be Careful What Gets Your Attention” and says there “is one huge problem with mainstream media in America.”
Stapleton’s email alleges that the media “has diminished profitability, and as a result has increasingly begun chasing the tabloid headlines and venomous tweets of personal destruction, in an effort to survive financially.”
The email makes a variety of statements criticizing the media, including saying that “instead of focusing on the policies and impact of leadership decisions across the political spectrum, mainstream media has become obsessed with the sideshows of personality and politically incorrect language of today. Media has become the language cops instead of investigative reporters.”
On Wednesday, Stapleton said the email was “totally general” and not in response to any specific news coverage or event, either nationally or in Montana.
“That’s why I didn’t name names,” Stapleton said. The national conversation about media “seems really loud now, [so] maybe it seemed like a good item to address. … It’s not anything anybody’s doing to me.
“It can apply anywhere and everywhere, but I think in general what I see happening at the national level … affects us because we’re a part of the nation.”
The end of the email includes the mission of the Secretary of State’s Office, which “is to help commerce thrive, promote democracy and record history for future generations.”
Stapleton said the email and its message fit into that mission under the category of promoting democracy.
“Setting the tone for discourse, cordiality… I think that all of us would benefit not just in promoting democracy but in terms of talking about ideas. I think ideas matter and I think even people who disagree, I think we need to do a better job of how we disagree.
“I think the role of the person in charge of elections and voter services, I don’t think there could be a more timely conversation for voter services than, ‘Hey can we agree we should pay attention to ideas more than personalities.’”
Lee Banville, an associate professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism and political analyst, said Wednesday the email could raise a “legitimate question.”
“I think the office would have to explain how a message about social media and the rise of the internet and its effect on media are a direct connection to the Secretary of State’s office, or is this playing into a larger message of bashing the media for political benefit?” Banville said.
“If somebody wanted to ask that question, it’s interesting this is an official communication from the secretary of state and a declaration from Corey Stapleton, a politician,” he said.
Banville called it a “stretch” to connect the message, which was sent using state time and resources, to promoting democracy.
“The purpose of the office is to promote democracy and although he doesn’t say it, I think the implied message is sensational media is damaging democracy,” Banville said.
In state government, ethics concerns are handled through the Commissioner of Political Practices Office. The mechanism is complaint-based, meaning the office does not act as a watchdog but instead responds to any complaints filed over ethics concerns.
Stapleton said he views it as his role and the role of others prominent in government to “maintain some demeanor [so] that the rest of the world doesn’t look at us and kind of rub their brow and scratch their heads.”
He said the email is meant to “start a conversation.”
“I can lead, I can start a conversation like this,” Stapleton said. “People can be excited about it or freak out about it or can say whatever, but I don’t think you can argue with a lot of the crassness and just explosion of media.”
Stapleton said that he thinks the reporting that’s being done is now amplified through the internet and various social media channels.
“My point is I think it’s always existed, it’s just that 20-30 years ago it never reached the level where people heard it. It was three or four media companies that put out through a well-vetted account what the news was.”
Banville agreed on that point.
Banville said historically media used to be very partisan and incredibly salacious. “To argue a more sensational press is some monstrosity created by the internet is actually ignoring the history of the media,” Banville said.
Stapleton said while he doesn’t manage the social media accounts for his office, he did see some criticism Wednesday from what he called “the usual suspects.”
“I don’t think anyone outside the echo chamber cares that much,” he said.
Banville said because Stapleton’s email doesn’t point to any specific incident or explain the role of the Secretary of State’s office in the debate over news coverage, it doesn’t do much to shape conversation.
“In that letter there were no specifics, there’s no moment where he’s like, ‘This is what I’m talking about and this is what we need to watch out for.’ It doesn’t really help a Montanan become a better consumer of news and information. All it says is ‘Don’t trust the media.’
“I think that the secretary has used emails in the past to communicate fairly partisan messages, and this is what this seems like,” Banville said. “I think some people are absolutely going to agree with the message, and it seems to me he’s not communicating to the state of Montana, he’s communicating a political message to potential supporters. I don’t see the direct connection to the secretary of state’s mission or what he wants voters to do about it or how it affects the way we do balloting or something,” Banville said.
Stapleton has clashed with the media before over reports, saying he was misquoted in news stories as claiming there were 360 cases of voter fraud in a May special election.