Bill Cotterell: Reporter’s reply was wrong, but not a hanging offense

Axios Tampa Bay reporter Ben Montgomery didn’t deserve to get fired. Here's why.

Image by ROBERT SŁOMA from Pixabay

He shouldn’t have said it, even though it was true, but he also shouldn’t have lost his job over one hasty retort to a bit of partisan puffery.

Journalism critique sites have been abuzz recently with the firing of Ben Montgomery, a respected reporter for Axios in the Tampa Bay area. The news site parted ways with Montgomery over a note he sent to the Florida Department of Education’s publicity office, responding to a press release about Gov. Ron DeSantis holding a roundtable discussion on a cutoff of state funding for “diversity, equity and inclusion” policies in state colleges and universities.

“This is propaganda,” Montgomery wrote, “not a press release.”

A DOE communications staffer quickly tweeted out Montgomery’s remark as an example of the media bias DeSantis is up against in his crusade against “woke” curriculum and what the governor considers pervasive liberal indoctrination in education, from kindergarten through graduate schools. The press release – or propaganda piece, if you wish – said, “We will expose the scams they are trying to push onto students across the country” through DEI efforts.

DOE communications director Alex Lanfranconi’s tweet sharing Montgomery’s tart response got more than a million views. The reporter’s bosses were among those viewers – and he got fired.

He was correct. The press release was propaganda. Pointing that out was uncalled for — ALL press releases are propaganda. Sending even an accurate editorial comment to a DOE flak was a bit of bear-baiting that served no purpose. It was just begging to get held forth as a wretched example of lefty reporters showing prejudice against a conservative champion of all that is good and fair and virtuous about America.

Government agencies, and every candidate’s campaign staff, have teams who get the word out regarding whatever the agency or candidate wants the public to think. They are unfailingly laudatory. You won’t see a PR piece from, say, the U.S. Department of Transportation saying, “We could mess up an anvil, so it’s not surprising there are burning rail cars scattered around East Palestine, Illinois, or jumbo jets near-missing each other on runways all over the country.”

Most press releases are humdrum little details. So-and-so was promoted as the new division director for training and development. The lieutenant governor will address Boys State next week. The Highway Patrol has a new safety slogan.

But sometimes, legislators and high-level executives have controversial decisions to make and their official pronouncements take on a combative tone. So it is with DeSantis and his anti-DEI campaign. Democrats have no trouble with words like “fascist” and “racist” when criticizing him, so we can expect his agencies to be fairly blunt about his more headline-grabbing positions.

Reporters, though, should simply write it all down and report what is significant. A little commentary on the play-by-play is OK for ESPN, not politics. If readers spent an afternoon in the House or Senate press boxes, they might be amused or startled by some of the jokes and comments reporters make during a debate, or the governor’s annual address, but the scribes don’t send out their desultory grousing for general consumption.

Ideally, reporters should be like vending machines. Just dispense the product. Being human, and covering the constant conflict of politics, opinion is going to creep into coverage, especially in this social-media age. When I started out in the 1960s, a reporter might tell a flak, “What’d you send me that stuff for?” the next time their paths crossed; now, Facebook and Twitter can make a testy exchange public instantly.

Still, Montgomery didn’t deserve to get fired. At worst, an editor should have told him, “Look, Ben, we got Republicans from Trump to DeSantis accusing us of liberal bias — let’s try not to prove their point for ‘em, OK?”

Government press offices will always push out propaganda but reporters don’t need to respond. That’s what wastebaskets – virtual and literal – are for. 

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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