Political ‘discourse’ in the age of Facebook


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Here are some of the emails, mixed in with actual letters, I saved from my years at the Gazette. Dennis Scranton’s emails to me are probably in there somewhere.

I was glad to see Tom Lutey’s story in the Billings Gazette this morning, a solid follow-up to my Sunday column about the presidential elector from Miles City who went on Facebook six years ago to make joking comments about the killing of gay people.

I was also interested to see Ashley Nerbovig’s story about yet another man being called to account for an inappropriate Facebook post—interested because when this was brought to my attention I decided not to pursue a story.

I’d like to explain why, since Facebook and other social media seem destined to play such large, strange roles in American politics, and in the reporting on politics.

A week before I broke the story on Dennis Scranton, one of three Montana delegates to the U.S. Electoral College, I wrote about Coffee Tavern owner Larry Heafner and his outrageously obscene, violent Facebook posts, aimed at African-Americans, Hillary Clinton, Clinton supporters, liberals in general, gays and, well, just about anybody who didn’t make sacrifices at the altar of Donald Trump.

I thought that was a story because Heafner went out of his way to say that supporters of Clinton—excuse me, that “murdering whore”—were not welcome in his new 24-hour downtown coffee shop, which hadn’t even opened yet. He seemed to be inviting controversy and intent on dragging his high-profile business into it.

Doing a story on Dennis Scranton also seemed like a no-brainer, since he was one of Montana’s presidential electors, a high-profile position regardless of whether its duties are mostly ceremonial, as state GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann has stated.

It’s possible someone got to Scranton between Sunday, when I spoke with him by phone, and Monday, when Lutey interviewed him, and urged him to be a bit more circumspect in his comments. Lutey quotes him only once, saying, “Don’t forget, I’m 93 years old. I come from a different era. I hadn’t heard of anyone being homosexual until I joined the Navy, and then I encountered them. We were raised with good morals.”

When I talked to Scranton, he did not use the term “homosexuals,” preferring “fruitcakes” and “queers” and standing behind his earlier remarks that they deserved to be hanged. And as I said in my column, his Facebook post wasn’t a one-time outburst. When I worked at the Gazette he used to send me all sorts of taunting emails full of threats and bigoted slurs.

I have a stack of several thousand emails from my days at the Gazette. I tried going through them Sunday to see if I could find any of Scranton’s, to no avail. Depending on what happens with this story, I suppose I could kill a few hours going through the stack one by one.

The main contribution of Lutey’s story was that it named the person, Janice Linn, who apparently nominated Scranton during the Montana GOP delegate convention on May 13. I say apparently because the story says that on the day of the convention, “Linn told fellow Republicans and a reporter from The Gazette that Scranton should be an elector because he was in his 90s and a decorated World War II veteran.”

Anyway, I don’t know much about Janice Linn, except that she appeared to be active in Tea Party circles a few years back and for a while was a regular at City Council and County Commission meetings, where she railed against plans to build the Billings Bypass, also known as the Outer Belt Loop.

Here’s an excerpt from a story Matt Hagengruber wrote in 2009:

“At recent city and county meetings, a woman named Janice Linn has shown up to testify against the project, saying that she would lose some of her land if the project is built. Linn has called the project a ‘NAFTA superhighway’ because it’s part of the Camino Real trade route that links Canada to Mexico.

“Linn has been videotaping her testimony and posting it on YouTube. She refused to stop speaking at last week’s council meeting until Mayor Ron Tussing threatened to call police.

“Council members have received numerous e-mails regarding Linn and the project, some from Tea Party activists. City officials are considering extra security in case a large crowd shows up, since the matter is not scheduled for a public hearing.”

The whole thing just gets curiouser and curiouser, doesn’t it?


A screenshot of Ryan Carter’s post.

And that brings us to the third recent story involving Facebook. As Nerbovig reported, Billings resident Ryan Carter raised an outcry across the state when he posted a photo of his hand holding a gun and threatening American Indians, in reaction to coverage of the Standing Rock protests against an oil pipeline.

“Indians!” he wrote over the photo. “Come at me! There’s still a law in montana (sic) if more than three of you do, it’s considered a war party and I can defend myself!”

Carter’s post was brought to my attention on Monday, but I didn’t have to think very hard about it before deciding to pass on a story. As they say in the courtroom, he didn’t appear to have any standing. He was just some schmo making a crude display of bravado for the benefit of the schmos who visit his Facebook page.

Unlike Scranton but like Heafner, he apologized for his post, and then offered the unusual defense of having been under the influence of anesthesia, having had his wisdom teeth pulled earlier in the day. As they say on Facebook, whatever, dude.

Unfortunately, Carter’s Facebook page listed him as an employee of Tire-Rama, with the result that more than 20 angry calls were made to Tire-Rama, as if the company had some responsibility for Carter’s outbursts. In fact, a company spokesman said, Carter was a former employee, having worked there for just three months more than a year ago. Maybe he came to work on anesthesia one too many times…

Anyway, the point is, Carter’s place of employment had absolutely nothing to do with his opinions, unlike the case of Heafner and his coffee shop, and absent that, what made this schmo’s personal opinion rise to the level of a story on the front page of the Local & State section of the Gazette?

It was interesting, I’ll grant you that, but it wasn’t news.

One last comment, just because I can’t resist: If Scranton never knew a gay person until joining the Navy, shouldn’t it have occurred to him that they, like him, were patriots serving their country?

If he was brought up with “good morals,” why lash out in hatred at people whose sexual orientation had nothing to do with him, no effect on his life? Would his gay shipmates have been justified in wanting to hang Scranton for being, presumably, straight?

Scranton may be a decorated veteran of World War II, but when will people like him stop engaging in battles that do not need to be fought?

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