Tom Brokaw Touted Daily-Kos Democrat Over Montana Sen. Burns on NBC

Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw returned to the Nightly News set on Thursday night to forecast big trouble in Big Sky country for Montana’s Republican Senator, Conrad Burns: "This campaign sums up a lot of the Republican problems nationwide." Brokaw theorized that the country’s just tired of less-than-honest GOP majority rule: "For Burns and other GOP candidates across the country, their toughest opponent may be their own party, after six years of White House and Congressional rule."

He touted Montana’s Democrat governor, Brian Schweitzer, as popular, and projected a Democrat win: Schweitzer "could help pull independents and Republicans across the line for Jon Tester on Election Day and that in effect would change Montana from a red to a blue state. It would be a big change." Brokaw’s two local pundits on the race both blasted Bush and the GOP for misleading the country into war in Iraq. Brokaw ignored how Tester’s getting major support from far-left outlets like the Daily Kos website and is calling for the outright repeal of the Patriot Act, which is currently the buzz in Montana.

Several factoids were left out of this Montana story. First, as Brent Baker reported in the Cyber Alert last year, Brokaw has property in Montana, including a dude ranch purchased with former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. He also owns a ranch just south of Big Timber, Montana, near Billings.

Second, in early 2005, Capitol Hill newspapers buzzed about Brokaw the Montanan as a possible Democratic opponent for Sen. Burns. The Hill newspaper reported:

"Among the Democrats who could challenge Burns — or [potential nominee Rep. Dennis] Rehberg — are former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who owns a ranch in Montana; Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, who also lives in Montana; state Auditor John Morrison; state Senate President John Tester; and former state House Speaker Dan Kemmis."

Perhaps out of deference to the new anchorman, there was no promotion of Brokaw’s story at the show’s opening, and he arrived on set about 10 minutes in:

Brian Williams: "And now to the mid-term elections just over one month away. Political pros are watching a handful of very tight, important races across this country. One of them is the senate race in montana it involves a veteran incumbent whose name has come up in the Abramoff Washington lobbying scandal and we around here figured who better to cover politics in montana than Tom Brokaw who was just back from there. Tom, welcome."

Brokaw: Thanks, Brian. Brian, Montana's Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, is running for his fourth term at a time when the state seems to be having growing doubts about the Bush administration. Fully half of Montanans polled in a recent survey said they thought the nation was headed in the wrong direction. Only a third thought it was on the right course. So this campaign sums up a lot of the Republican problems nationwide."

This is a classic tactic that the networks also used in 2004. Pollsters routinely found that more people thought the country was moving in the wrong direction in 2004. (In early October, Newsweek’s poll was 40 percent right direction, 55 percent wrong; AP found 40 percent right, 56 percent wrong; NBC’s own poll of registered voters in mid-October 2004 found 39 percent right direction, 48 percent wrong.) But that didn’t mean John Kerry was elected. The numbers are presently bleaker than 2004's, but conservatives can say the country’s going downhill and still vote Republican. Brokaw began in Bozeman:

"Homecoming at Montana State University and Senator Conrad Burns has a hard ride in rough weather in his re-election campaign. Charges of Republican Party corruption, growing doubts about Iraq, and a general feeling Washington is dysfunctional, have given Democrat Jon Tester, a farmer and state legislator, a seven-point lead in the latest poll. Montana is no longer a solid red-for-Republican state. President Bush carried the state of montana twice by a wide margin, but these days, Montanans are not giving his administration any parades. Billings [Gazette] newspaper columnist Jim Gransberry.

Gransberry: "I think there's a sense, not just in Montana, but elswehere in the country too, that people in Washington, DC have not been playing straight when it comes to the war in Iraq, or the war against terrorism."

Brokaw: "Burns supports the President's policy on Iraq. Tester wants to find a formula to get out. Yet, even though this is yellow-ribbon country, Iraq is not the number one topic. [To Burns] Senator, what's going to be the defining issue in this race between you and Jon Tester?

Burns: "I think the way we look at taxation and taxes, especially here in Montana, and I think the way we use our natural resources, and this type of thing."

Tester: "Kitchen-table issues like energy and health care are huge issues. I think honesty and integrity is a baseline issue."Brokaw: That's Tester's big theme. After Burns was identified as the number one recipient of campaign funds from the disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff --

Montana Democratic Party ad: "Burns is delivering all right, but not for Montana."

Brokaw: "– Burns insists he's weathered the worst of the attacks."

Burns: "The issues -- we're on the right side of the issues, we're on the right side for Montana."

Brokaw: The GOP has struck back by sending in party all-stars to campaign with burns and he's raised $7 million -- more than $100 for every voter in the state. At one point, Republicans accused Tester of having a conservative haircut but liberal values."

End of GOP ad: "Didn't leave much of a tip, either."

Brokaw didn’t ask if he was liberal: "If you get elected, are you going change your haircut?"

Tester: "No, absolutely not."

If the network anchors want to say they're all about substance and style, why couldn't Brokaw get beyond the buzz-cut? Brokaw ignored how Tester’s getting major support from far-left outlets like the Daily Kos website and is calling for the outright repeal of the Patriot Act, which is currently the buzz in Billings, where Brokaw’s story was based. At the top of Friday's "reader favorites" at BillingsGazette.com is reporter Mike Dennison’s analysis of the latest GOP ad script:

Narrator: "Who supports Jon Tester? Tester is backed by extremists who share his cut-and-run position in Iraq. (He) took nearly $100,000 from a group that mocked American deaths. Tester is backed by radicals that want to close bases like Malmstrom ... and environmental extremists who want to stop logging and tear down dams. And Tester votes 92 percent with radicals who would cripple energy production in Montana. That's who supports Jon Tester."

The most interesting part of Dennison’s analysis, which mostly lays out the Burns facts, and then allows Tester’s liberal allies to rebut, is this paragraph on Kos:

The group said to have "mocked American deaths" is actually one person: Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, a Gulf War Army veteran and attorney who runs one of the nation's most prominent political Web logs, the Daily Kos. Moulitsas has contributed $725 to Tester's campaign, and the blog and related groups have helped raise an additional $120,000 for Tester by using the Internet to tell sympathetic individuals to contribute to his campaign. In April 2004, Moultisas posted a comment on the Daily Kos that said he "feels nothing" for the deaths of four American security contractors killed that week in Fallujah, Iraq. "They aren't in Iraq because of orders or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place," he wrote. "They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them." Moulitsas told the Gazette State Bureau that he wasn't mocking the deaths, but rather that he was angry that the media that day had publicized the deaths of the civilian "mercenaries" while ignoring the deaths of five Marines. "My No. 1 priority is our men and women in uniform, not mercenaries who make life difficult for them in Iraq," he said.

Tester also recently declared in a debate that he wants the Patriot Act repealed. Gwen Florio reported in The Great Falls Tribune on September 24:

Burns said he also supported programs monitoring international telephone calls against those suspected of terrorism.

"He wants to weaken the Patriot Act," he said of Tester.

Tester sought to clarify:

"I don't want to weaken the Patriot Act, I want to repeal it. What it does, it takes away your freedom ... and when you take away our freedoms, the terrorists have won," Tester said.

He came back to the subject near the end of the debate, when Burns tried to link him to New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is, Burns said, pro-gun-control.

"With things like the Patriot Act," Tester said, "We'd damn well better keep our guns."

Brokaw tried to insist the real issue in the race was disgust with a dishonest GOP:

"But in the end, this race may not be settled by haircuts or the debates or the ads. For Burns and other GOP candidates across the country, their toughest opponent may be their own party, after six years of White House and Congressional rule. Sven Maaland [sp?], a lifelong Republican, was sheriff of Sweet Grass County, Montana, for 30 years and he's disappointed in the President.

Maaland: "They showed him there were no weapons of mass destruction, he still insists they're there, basically. I mean, when you can't admit you're wrong, something's wrong."

Brokaw: "And you're an old Republican."

Maaland: "I am an old Republican. And I'll probably vote a lot of Republican. But I'm not, I’m going to change some votes this year."

Brokaw: "A tough road ahead for the Republican incumbent in Big Sky country."

Notice Brokaw did not ask Maaland if he was voting against Burns. It’s merely implied. Brokaw did not explain how he didn’t have much of a commute for this interview. Brokaw’s ranch is just south of Big Timber, the county seat of Sweet Grass County, so this would have been his local sheriff.

Brokaw concluded cheerfully, back on the set: "Brian, while the Bush administration is getting very mixed reviews in Montana, the state's Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer, is getting high marks at the same time. Of course, that could help pull independents and Republicans across the line for Jon Tester on Election Day and that in effect would change Montana from a red to a blue state. It would be a big change."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis