The event that led to the sudden resignation of Missoulian executive editor Gwen Florio on Sunday was a disagreement over a political endorsement, complicated by Florio’s temporary status as a political reporter.
Florio had planned to announce her retirement after 44 years in journalism on Wednesday, to be effective shortly after the end of the 2020 election. On Sunday, the Missoulian editorial board endorsed Republican candidate Jennifer Fielder for a seat on the Public Service Commission representing the part of the state covering Missoula County. Florio called Missoulian Publisher Jim Strauss on Sunday afternoon and told him she was resigning immediately.
As executive editor, Florio typically served on the Missoulian’s editorial board with Strauss and editorial page editor Tyler Christensen. But due to another state political reporter’s medical leave in September, Florio stepped down temporarily from the editor post and the editorial board to cover statewide election politics as a reporter. Florio did not participate in the decision to endorse Fielder. The Missoulian retracted that endorsement Monday.
“As soon as I went back to reporting, I had a discussion with Jim and Tyler about stepping off the editorial board because of endorsements,” Florio said on Monday. “But on Sunday I realized as the main representative of the newspaper, I was responsible for that even though I didn’t take part in it. I could not stand by that endorsement.”
Of the decision to change endorsements, Strauss wrote: "The Missoulian determined that it failed to give proper weight to Fielder’s connection with groups such the Coalition of Western Property Owners and the Bundy family that led an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in 2016. She also recently helped spread baseless rumors about Antifa supposedly traveling to Missoula to foment violence at Black Lives Matter protests, which encouraged militia-style groups to attend those protests."
Florio said she objected to Fielder’s endorsement because she believed Fielder’s political activity was too closely connected to anti-government militia movements for her to be an acceptable public servant. She backed that opinion with years covering those groups. Fielder is the chief executive officer of the American Lands Council, which supports privatization of federal public property and the Bundy activities.
“I feel very strongly that someone who plays footsie with these groups is not someone we should endorse,” Florio said. “Just in our own reporting, there were lots of really strong reasons why we should not endorse her."
Strauss said the conversation with Florio on Sunday was amicable, and that they had previously discussed her retirement plans. Both said some recent health issues in Florio’s family was driving her timing. The Fielder endorsement just accelerated her decision.
“She had asked for no input into the endorsements at any time,” Strauss said of Florio. “She was reporting and she had recused herself. But she did not agree at all with our endorsement of Fielder. She didn’t ask me to change it.”
However, Strauss said on his own further reflection and discussion with Christensen, he decided to retract the support for Fielder and endorse her Democratic challenger Monica Tranel instead. That endorsement was posted online Monday and will be published in print Tuesday.
University of Montana Journalism School Professor Dennis Swibold said a newsroom leader’s dual role to both avoid bias and present opinions is hard to explain to the public.
“It’s a fair criticism people have always had about journalism, that we don’t describe what goes on behind the curtain very well,” said Swibold, who was managing editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle before joining the journalism school in 1989. “The public doesn’t understand the distinction between the editorial page and news columns of the newspaper. I still remember angry readers calling me when I was editor of the Chronicle, asking why did I run that biased opinion on the editorial page?”
Swibold said larger newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have widely separated news and opinion departments. But even there, the public often overlaps the two.