For the first year of his term, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton seemed to be on a witch hunt to find voter fraud.
Though he found evidence of ballots being turned in early and or signed carelessly, he didn't find fraud, a legally specific term which assumes intent.
Not wanting facts to stand in the way of politics, Stapleton charged ahead with reports of voter fraud that eventually his own office debunked, but not before possibly undermining faith in the very election process his office is charged with protecting.
Ironically, we've found our own sort of voter fraud here in Montana. And unfortunately, it's just a single case. Even less fortunate than that, the fraud is coming from Stapleton himself.
Here's what we mean: Earlier last week, Stapleton sent out an email to thousands of Montanans at taxpayer expense to join the chorus of politicians, including President Donald J. Trump, who want to de-legitimize the media and attack its function.
He's accused the media — which means all of us — of chasing tabloid headlines and venomous tweets in order to survive.
Clever theory, but wrong.
In terms so simple that even Stapleton can understand: News doesn't pay the bills; advertising does. So, accusing the media of chasing fake news to make money is like accusing a doctor of chasing patients just so they can use a bandage. It's mixed up.
That's the problem with Stapleton sending out a message to Montana residents like this. It's not what we elected him to do, and what's worse is that he gets the story wrong.
He's again led the voters to think something that is misleading intentionally.
He is entitled to his own opinion about the media. But, using state resources to engage in battle against a sector of business is inappropriate, especially since his job description by definition is to help make "commerce thrive."
The secretary of state isn't a self-styled bully pulpit to attack perceived political enemies.
The voters elected a secretary of state that would look out for commerce and elections. While some may crow with delight that Stapleton would pick a fight with alleged liberal, conspiracy-laden media, it's just not productive. Any ol' internet troll can pick that fight. He is the secretary of state.
We would have hoped that Stapleton had more pressing business than accusing the media of being "obsessed with the sideshows of personality and politically incorrect language of today."
Stapleton also accused the media of becoming language cops instead of investigative reporters. Another less-than-truthful sentiment.
Stapleton sets up a false dichotomy, trying to convince residents that the media has abandoned its reporting responsibility for something frivolous. Yet reporting by statewide media on his office and his own tenure would indicate its dedication to hard news and investigation.
Time and time again when Stapleton insisted that voter fraud was a serious problem in the state, several different reporters were able to show what Stapleton classified as "fraud" (a legally loaded word) was in fact simply a matter of ballots cast incorrectly without the intent of deception.
Without our — ahem — investigative reporting, Stapleton's assertion of voter fraud might not have gone challenged and discredited. Had we not taken Stapleton seriously and investigated his claims (in other words, doing our job), the result would have been unchallenged undermined faith in Montana elections, which are fair and accurate.
Stapleton also seems to be making oblique references to other controversial items that align with a very conservative base. When he talks about media policing "politically correct language," we wonder if that is referring to Trump's recent use of "shithouse" to describe countries largely populated by people of color.
When Stapleton urges people to "tolerate historical context" is that a reference to the Confederate monument that was taken down in Helena?
That's the problem with his recent letter: We don't know what he means because media critic is not his job.
How is it that Stapleton has the time to carp about the media in the face of steep cuts to Montana's budget? How is that his highest priority?
Still, there's one thing on which we can agree with Stapleton. Maybe we do need more investigative reporting. Maybe we should take a look at how the secretary of state spend its resources and what is getting done in that office.
Stapleton wonders aloud, "Who's watching the big picture?"