Billings Gazette ‘Yellow Journalism’ Botches Public Service Commission Story

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In what might be the most biased, one-sided displays of tabloid journalism in recent memory, the Billings Gazette and its reporter, Tom Lutey, weaponized its slanted reporting against PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci and two additional PSC Employees

On February 22, the Montana Daily Gazette published the story, Montana “Spygate”: Pinocci Tries to Protect PSC From Koopman’s Alleged Irrational Behavior. That article was a correction of the financially failing and death-spiraling Billings Gazette, which published a story that accused Public Service Commissioner, Randi Pinocci, of “spying” on Commissioner Roger Koopman. In reality, the Billings Gazette had sensationalized Pinocci’s lawful and upright collection of public information with what should be a career-ending dose of yellow journalism.

Randy Pinocci

Lee Enterprises, which owns the Billings Gazette, laid-off employees yesterday in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, laid-off employees last week in Richmond and Roanoke, and laid off more last week in Charlottesville. In Montana, Lee Enterprises has already laid off much of its staff in the failing Billings Gazette publication, much of its Great Falls Tribune staff (and shuttered its print facility) and is losing its readership left-and-right due to its left-wing bias and shoddy journalism. The latest biased reporting against PSC Commissioner, Randy Pinocci, is an example of the type of sub-standard investigative reporting that has crippled Montana’s newspaper industry. It’s no wonder they’re being kicked off the New York Stock Exchange for poor business practices.

The article, written by Tom Lutey, makes a bevy of accusations without a hint of factual substantiation. Lutey begins his tabloid column by alleging, “Montana Public Service Commission documents showing a pattern of bullying, harassment, and spying at the agency have been released by a district court judge.” And yet not once throughout the piece did Lutey make even a tepid attempt to detail what, specifically, led to his conclusion that “bullying, harassment, and spying” took place at the agency.

Not a single piece of information was directly quoted by Lutey.

As already covered by the Montana Daily Gazette in February, the accusation of ‘spying’ alone probably meets the standard of libel, considering that spying conjures images of espionage rather than Freedom of Information Act requests within the confines of state law. And yet, Lutey uses this language in reference to the whistle-blowing complaints against Koopman’s misuse of public emails that, among other things, demonstrate violations of public trust.

Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Mike Menahan signed an order Sept. 11 to release documents pertinent to the brouhaha at the Public Service Commission caused by Koopman’s unprofessional handling of public email servers. None of these were quoted by Lutey in his piece for the Billings Gazette.

Roger Koopman

Nonetheless, Lutey referred to PSC Communications Director, Drew Zinecker, and Randy Pinocci of having “bullied” and “harassed” Koopman, ostensibly for no reason besides watching out for the rate-payer with various concerns about the liability of the PSC in regards to Koopman’s job performance. Thanks to Koopman, Montanans already had to foot the bill for the wrongful termination of another employee. A former PSC employee had received a settlement of several thousand dollars that the rate-payer had to pay for, and stemmed from personal differences with Koopman. According to some sources, Koopman has bragged about getting rid of the employee, nonplussed that Montanans had to pay for it.

Quoting an anonymous “third party” – also known as hear-say – Lutey says matter-of-factly that, “An investigation into the matter identified PCS Communications Director Drew Zinecker as the likely leaker, based on conversations with a third party that said Zinecker had offered him several of the same emails.”

The who said what when details a journalist should be expected to give were altogether absent from Lutey’s report. It is still unknown to whom or what he refers.

Furthermore, Lutey states without a scintilla of evidence, “Pinocci and Zinecker shopped their tale to several news outlets. Pinocci contacted The Billings Gazette with the narrative, but the newspaper considered Pinocci’s story malicious and did nothing with it.”

The Montana Daily Gazette asked Pinocci about this and he responded, “I’ve never gone to the [Billings] Gazette paper with any news story, ever. I’ve only gone to them to tell them if they’re going to write a story about me to get a comment first. They have never spoken to me before writing about me.”

Tom Lutey

Montana news consumers should be taken aback that the Billings Gazette chose to cover-up allegations of a public employee misusing their public email server and misbehaving in unprofessional ways. This admission from Lutey should be self-condemnatory on either the grounds that he gave no substantiation for his claim or, if it were true, that the Billings Gazette willfully buried a news story.

Claiming that Pinocci additionally ‘shopped a news story’ about a Republican candidate who had asked Zinecker to work on his campaign also places the Billings Gazette at the center of this scandal. The journalists, in this case, have become the epicenter of the controversy, making accusations toward Commissioner Pinocci without giving any substantiation to their accusations.

The Billings Gazette story also victim-shamed Zinecker for calling law enforcement to make a criminal complaint against Koopman for what he felt was an unsafe environment. In a matter of subjective impression, the paper claimed that Zinicker was ‘giddy.’ Never before has the Montana Daily Gazette seemed subjective impressions of demeanor placed within an article as though it were fact with more aplomb and self-assurance.

And if the vendetta against Zinecker wasn’t already clear enough, Lutey took aim at the communications director for making a complaint about office time and resources being spent on a ‘gaming device.’ While Montana rate-payers should be thankful that someone cares about the use and abuse of public resources, Lutey single-handedly turned their vigilance for public resources into a scandal.

Although Lutey characterizes Zinecker’s concerns as frivolous, in nearly the same breath, the reporter claimed that Zinicker’s supposed suggestion someone wear a chicken suit in a PSC video to be “harassment.” Lutey did not explain how it was harassment or provide context. But “making accusations without substantiation” should be the cutline or subtitle of his article.

According to research conducted by the Montana Daily Gazette, it was not Zinecker who made the alleged joke about a chicken suit and the comment was misattributed to him.

As if lobbing charges without factual support weren’t enough, Lutey attacked Mandi Hinman, the PSC Administrator who has largely corroborated Zinecker’s concerns with Koopman, throwing in the side-fact of an investigation of Hinman because she received modest wage increases during her tenure in state government. As Lutey himself admits, there is no evidence of wrongdoing. But for Lutey, a ‘throw everything against the wall and see what sticks’ approach to journalism seems to be his modus operandi.

According to reports, Roger Koopman is the one who advocated for Mandi Hinman’s pay-raises and voted for them. This fact turns the Billings Gazette story on its head.

As if these frivolous accusations toward Zinecker weren’t enough, Lutey complained in his article about how Zinicker chose to decorate his desk, with caution tape, which was – yet again – characterized as ‘harassment.’ The details surrounding this incident, according to our independent research, are also fraudulent and mischaracterized.

PSC Commissioner Tony O’Donnell told Lutey in respect to his fallacious reporting, “Here’s the point. And this is contrary to some of the articles you put in the paper that the commission is in disarray, or dysfunctional. The thing between Pinocci and Koopman has not affected one single decision that the commission has made.”

One wonders, then, what the scandal is in Lutey’s mind. Somehow chicken suits, desk decorations, and innuendo amount to legitimate news reporting perhaps only the Billings Gazette can tell you.

When asked about Lutey’s wild accusations, Zinecker told the Montana Daily Gazette, “As a rule, I do not read material from gossip columnists or tabloids, especially the failing Billings Gazette.”

In regard to Tony O’Donnell, Pinocci told the Montana Daily Gazette, “The Billings Gazette wants to tell the story the way they want, so they fail to call me and get my side of the story. Then, they end up printing something that’s simply not true. Yesterday, what they said was a lie. I never went to them to put a story forward, nor did I ever try to give them a story about Tony O’Donnell.”

Pinocci added, “We have to have new media in Montana that is open to both sides of the story. We have to be open to the truth. We need fair and accurate reporting. If you’re only going to get one side, it can be tainted. We need new media outlets that will tell the truth.”

In addition, emails exist that demonstrate Roger Koopman has placed pressure upon other PSC commissioners, including Tony O’Donnell, to fire Drew Zinecker in fear he would be whistleblowing on some of Koopman’s breaches of public trust. In reality, it seems that the “bullying and harassment” were coming from the other side of the aisle.

Tom Lutey has proudly placed ‘News Guild Member’ – the union that Billings Gazette employees have recently joined to help save their jobs – on his Twitter profile. The collective bargaining organization is currently lobbying Congress for COVID-19 stimulus funds for journalists who claim they can’t survive in what is the most dramatic news year in recent memory, with a demand for news at an all-time high.




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