Valley Journal
Valley Journal

Valley Views

The silence of the comms

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Attorney General Austin Knudsen recently spoke to a meeting of health care workers and community members in Sidney, where some employees of the Sidney Health Center were protesting the hospital’s intention to comply with a federal vaccine mandate for health care providers that receive Medicaid and Medicare funding. 

What did Knudsen say at the meeting? 

We don’t know, because photos and recordings of the meeting were prohibited, and only Sidney Health Center employees were allowed to talk to the speakers, one of whom was Knudsen.

Knudsen’s spokesperson, Emilee Cantrell, told MTFP reporter Mara Silvers prior to the meeting that she did not have any prepared remarks to provide. Cantrell also said she wouldn’t record Knudsen’s address, which was delivered via Zoom. 

Alex Sakariassen’s investigative report, about a Nov. 10 meeting between Knudsen’s staff and election conspiracist and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, also cited Cantrell. And again, Knudsen’s press secretary was not forthcoming with information about what happened at that meeting, including whether Knudsen himself met with Lindell, a peddler of false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

Cantrell is among dozens of taxpayer-funded public information officials whose job is to supply the press — and thus the public — with information about what our elected officials are up to. In her case, she gets paid $35.78 an hour, or $74,422 a year, to do that job. Her boss, the attorney general’s Communications Director Kyler Nerison, pulls in a six-figure government salary, earning $49.29 per hour, or $102,523 a year. 

Increasingly, these well-paid government officials are blowing off news reporters. In this story from July about state guidance on a law that bars Montana agencies and businesses from requiring vaccines, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry didn’t’ respond to Alex’s request for comment on what vaccination incentives might be considered illegally coercive. The department pays public information officer Jessica Nelson $29 an hour, or $60,320 a year. Her boss, Director of Strategic Communications and Data John Elizandro, earns $51.88 an hour, or $107,910 a year. 

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen rarely talks to the press, and her office regularly declines to comment to reporters. Like in this story, about a class-action lawsuit alleging that the secretary of state’s office wrongfully retained $120,000 in duplicate filing fee charges paid by Montana businesses in 2020. Jacobsen spokesperson Richie Melby, who didn’t respond to Alex’s email seeking comment, earns a taxpayer-funded salary of $39 an hour, or $81,120 a year.

And it’s not just elected state officials who make a habit of avoiding the press. In this story, about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Montana’s sole representative, Matt Rosendale, refused to comment on the siege. His then-communications director, Harry Fones, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Fones was paid $51,916.67 between Jan. 3 and June 30. 

Taxpayer dollars fund generous salaries to these officials, whose job is to inform the public about where elected officials stand on important issues, what actions they’re taking in office, who they’re meeting with, and how they go about representing their constituents. 

This lack of government transparency makes reporters’ work more challenging, but it doesn’t mean we’ll stop doing it. Because reporting where elected officials stand on important issues, what actions they’re taking in office, who they’re meeting with, and how they represent their constituents is our job, too.

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