Almost a year ago, The Billings Gazette, along with many other newspapers ran a story of then Department of The Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift being assaulted after her boss, former Secretary Ryan Zinke, had testified at a congressional hearing.
The story was widely reported that media tracker Mike Stark had been aggressive and shoved her to the ground. Media trackers are paid to follow politicians recording every move and often shouting a barrage of questions at them.
Swift was particularly notable because she had been the spokeswoman for Zinke while he was Montana's lone congressman and had followed him to Interior. Her name was sprinkled through many Montana stories.
When the incident happened, we lamented in an editorial the toxic nature of politics and said once again that there was no place for physical attacks. It seems like Montana has been in the middle of its fair share from Rep. Greg Gianforte's assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to this shoving incident with Swift.
Except that it really didn't happen as originally reported.
Nearly a year after the incident made headlines, Stark reached out to The Gazette to ask about updating the report.
A Washington D.C. Superior Court found Stark not guilty of the simple assault charge.
To the extent that politics is toxic (the original point of the editorial written a year ago) that's probably even more true today than then.
To the extent that Stark was the poster child of bad behavior, well, in this case, probably not.
Yet this isn't just a case of us needing to update the reporting. If that were the case, we'd note it, and move along — just another story update in a sea of story updates.
Mike Stark (not to be confused with a former Gazette staff member by the same name) is not some casual observer who got into an argument with Swift. He's a well-known and aggressive media tracker, although he prefers the term "journalist." He wouldn't fit my definition because of who pays him and what he does.
"I'm too partisan they will say. Or I'm paid by partisans they will say. I'm unprofessional they will say," Stark said. "This is what I say: So long as you allow Fox News into your tribe, decrying my partisanship laughable ... If being professional means standing politely and writing down the lies Republicans tell you is professional, I'll proudly admit unprofessionalism."
Stark has also had a number of run-ins with authorities across the country as he's been tracking — with a phone, loaded questions and a complete lack of hesitation when it comes to shoving both in the faces of politicians while they're in public or even as they're at home.
As easy as it would be to dismiss Stark as reaping the fruits of his aggressive "reporting," this incident remains instructive because he happened to be wearing a Go-Pro body camera which captured the entire incident with Swift and Zinke. (Watch the video at a link with this column at billingsgazette.com.)
And that's part of the reason for this column.
Despite Stark's bluster on his own website which is pretty self-righteous and partisan, and despite his "reporting" tactics which I think are out-of-line, the camera told the truth.
You have free articles remaining.
And that truth didn't match up with the account that Swift and the other members of Zinke's entourage gave to police.
She and her associates gave accounts of being shoved to the ground. One staff member said that Stark "shoved multiple staff members and general public, positing a threat to public safety."
For her part, Swift's own complaint stated that she told him "to stop pushing me and he pushed harder."
But that's not what the camera seems to show. My read was the Stark was trying to ask Zinke questions, and Swift was trying to stop that. I can't see any evidence where she was shoved. In fact, at one point, she tells him he's not with the real media.
When I contacted Swift to ask for her side of the story, she would only talk to me off the record.
I wanted to know why the story she told seemed to be out of line with what the camera showed. What was I missing?
I also wondered why everyone else seemed to tell the same story? Did they all talk before filing the reports?
And why did the judge in the case say that the government had not even come close to meeting its burden of proof, especially after he saw the video.
"I spoke the truth and stand by it," Swift wrote to me. "I'm not comfortable discussing the situation further."
Quite frankly, the whole situation is disappointing.
I get the frustration of ambushing politicians and sticking cameras in their faces often. Then again, when you become a cabinet secretary, you have to expect the publicity, right?
Public officials, like Swift, who appears to still be employed at the Department of The Interior, should have to explain why their police reports seem to tell something different than the camera.
To me, this looks more like a set-up for a particularly brash and loud media tracker who is not liked.
A year ago, we lamented the horrible state of politics.
Sadly, not much has changed.