Sarah Dettmer, the Great Falls Tribune’s education reporter, seems to have it out for Elsie Arntzen.
Yesterday, Dettmer published a heavily self-referential, self-congratulatory article to explain away some of the blowback from her hit job on the freshly-elected Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Republican Elsie Arntzen.
Then, Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Lacey stood up to ask her question about federally funded preschools. It was a tense moment. The biggest player in education in Great Falls was politely, but pointedly challenging the biggest player in education in Montana.
As further research on Dettmer’s part would indicate, there is virtually nothing that Arntzen — a state official — can do to change federal funding of preschools. And there was nothing “polite” about Lacey cheaply invoking Arntzen’s granddaughter to frame what should have been a substantive question. Evidently more concerned with gamesmanship than with policy, the GFPS Superintendent seemed to relish poking at the OPI chief.
Nevertheless, Dettmer established her moral authority as a journalist to intervene — against Arntzen:
The fact is the story changed. As a journalist, I cannot sit in the back of the room and listen to a publicly elected official avoid her constituents’ questions and then go back to the office and not address it. It is my job to hold officials accountable for their words and actions.
Dettmer conceded that the crowd reaction affected her reporting.
I focused more on the audience reaction than I typically would in an article, but in this case I thought it was important to bring the reader into the room and to capture the palpable emotions. This was not a typical introductory meeting.
What exactly did Dettmer expect? One of the worst-kept secrets in Helena is that Democrats, Eric Feaver and the MEA-MFT, can’t stand Arntzen (a Republican), and that — in this venue — Arntzen was speaking to a room full of hostile administrators and union members who detest her. Yet, Dettmer deliberately chose to omit this necessary context.
She concluded in a similar vein:
Despite Arntzen’s claims in other publications that I misinterpreted her words through my transcripts, I look forward to working with the superintendent over the coming years and hope we can move forward with a professional relationship.
But, I will continue to hold her and her administration accountable for their words and actions just as I hope she does for me.
On this, Dettmer isn’t wrong. Arntzen, a government official, should be held accountable — and so, too, should Tammy Lacey, the School Board, and Great Falls Public Schools.
But by singling out Arntzen’s administration — and no one else’s — what does that tell you about which way the Tribune leans?