Stop Grabbing The Popcorn While Rome Burns…

by Travis Mateer

I don’t have to depict former Missoulian reporter/editor, Gwen Florio, as a political junkie with the attention span of a squirrel because she makes that reference herself in a tweet describing the challenge of writing while former president Donald Trump is getting raided by the FBI.

I had reached out to Gwen Florio last week about the supposed Missoulian policy of NOT changing a headline unless ok’d by an official institution or person, like a Sheriff or a Crime Lab, but I didn’t get a response. If I DID have a chance to speak with Florio, I’d tell her how little has changed since her “controversial” reporting a decade ago. From the link:

Florio reminds you of a close friend’s mother. Open and willing to chat, she has an unmistakable air of authority that can be intimidating. She’s unafraid to share her opinion and, on matters of principle, she doesn’t budge. Originally from the east coast, she’s always loved Missoula — a once conservative, blue-collar town that turned liberal, with the university by far its largest employer.

“Some really important issue was out there and people were finally talking about it,” she said.

True, they were talking — on forums, blogs, Facebook, in bars, and in the comment section of the Missoulian. But the tone of the discourse was far from civilized. Rather than trying to understand all sides of the issue, people cherry-picked from news stories, looking for evidence to support their pre-existing opinions, particularly concerning the media.

The issue known around the country as the Missoula rape scandal, last year’s “situation,” and Montana’s Penn State, landed on Florio’s beat in December 2011. She and other local news reporters received an anonymous tip claiming multiple football players from the University of Montana had sexually assaulted two young women.

What started as an anonymous tip turned into quite a series of stories for the Missoulian, a newspaper now in hiding from the public it covers. Over the controversial year of coverage, dozens and dozens of stories were written.

The Missoulian ran the story on December 15, 2011, under the far from provocative headline, “UM Probes Alleged Sexual Assault.” It was the first of more than 80 stories involving sexual assault cases published by the local newspaper in less than a year. The Missoulian would later submit the coverage for a Pulitzer Prize.

Editor Sherry Devlin made sure Florio had enough time to focus on every new development. “This was an important story for us, and we needed to give her the time to work,” Devlin said. Other reporters would pick up the slack on Florio’s beat, and when the Johnson trial began, city hall reporter Keila Szpaller Tweeted so Florio could concentrate on her notes.

Florio said she felt energized when she was given the time to pursue this story as far as she could. She considers that time a luxury and a gift.

Television outlets, the student newspaper, and public radio also devoted many pixels, inches, and minutes to the topic. Local TV station NBC Montana ran more than 150 stories from the beginning of their coverage to right before the Johnson trial in February 2013.

I have a VERY difficult time reading this without wondering what coverage like this could have done for the cases I’ve been looking into for the past two, almost three years.

Would Sean Stevenson’s family STILL be trying to reconcile the narrative they received from authorities with the images of Sean’s beaten body if they had gotten this kind of coverage?

Would the entire scenario of how Johnny Lee Perry (alleged assailant of Sean Stevenson) found himself out in the woods west of town, tweaking and twirling a machete before getting shot twice in the back by Sheriff Deputy Shawn Evans, be allowed to go unscrutinized if his death had received critical coverage?

And how about Rebekah Barsotti’s case? Would conflicts of interest, rampant unprofessionalism, jurisdictional games, and a seemingly willful suppression of a history of domestic abuse be the fodder of social media and true crime aficionados if the media had taken a more active role a year ago to put pressure on the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office?

Hypotheticals suck for those in various stages of grief because there’s nothing healing or restorative there; just anger and more pain.

But for a general public stupidly celebrating the FBI raiding a Trump property, or the huge financial judgement against Alex Jones, I think it’s important to emphasize the difference in coverage between a decade-old shot at Missoula’s “rape culture”, and the current vacuum of coverage when it comes to OTHER stories Missoula citizens supposedly care about, like the treatment of BIPOC people and the systemic protection of domestic abusers.

Despite the headline about NOT grabbing popcorn, I may have to change my tune after rewatching a movie called Spotlight. I found this movie to be so worth revisiting, I even fired off an email to the AG’s office.

I really do think a viewing of Spotlight would be a good idea because there are a lot of interesting plot points that feel familiar, like the way the media can minimize a story in its own pages. In the case of this Catholic abuse scandal, the Boston Globe buried a story in the “Metro” section years before they broke the big one.

Going over some of these old news stories has been interesting, like this one featuring the lip-service of then UM President, Royce Engstrom. From the link:

“I want to share with you my thoughts about sexual assault and the University of Montana because it is such an important topic that all college campuses — student groups, staff, faculty, and administrators — must address,” he wrote.

He noted the university “learned a great deal over the past 31/2 years and are aware of the work ahead of us.” He asked for feedback and the importance of listening to survivors. He also said UM is “focused on providing a safe learning and living environment for all of our students.” This includes revised policies, mandatory training, new and improved programs, and more personnel.

Well, considering the new headlines that started emerging last fall, I’d say the mandatory training worked about as well as the Crisis Intervention Training helped the Sheriff’s Department NOT shoot Johnny Lee Perry in the back.

If this town had learned its lessons AND acted on them in a manner that actually produced change, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Or the posts that are coming…

So stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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1 Response to Stop Grabbing The Popcorn While Rome Burns…

  1. Gina says:

    As a relative of one of the grieving families, it appears that in this region of Montana, it’s all about who you know. And if you are an outsider, they will do all they can to keep you out and protect their own. It doesn’t matter how illegal, unlawful, corruptive, or heinous their actions are to protect their kin and kind, they will protect him, regardless of his suspicious actions.

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