The story about how Celebrate Billings paid for ads that appeared in the Billings Gazette backing a school mill levy election takes a new twist.
When I interviewed Gazette Publisher Mike Gulledge about this, he assured me that The Gazette intended to do, and would do, the right thing. I believed him not, I hope, because I am hopelessly naive but because it wouldn't really make sense, so far as I could figure, to do it any other way. When a reader telephoned to ask if this was "dirty money," I said I didn't think so.
But I find the Gazette's accounting for the expenditures obscure at best (as, apparently, does the commissioner of political practices and, perhaps, MSU Billings). I can't help but wonder if the explanation is that the Gazette wanted to count that $225,000 in Celebrate Billings membership dues as Gazette revenue rather than as a separate account. If so, the intertwining of funds, especially funds used for political purposes, may have been a bad mistake.
Naturally, I was skeptical about the whole Celebrate Billings project from the git-go. Daily newspapers exert considerable influence just from their natural role. To try to leverage additional influence using nonprofit partners stretches my understanding of what a newspaper's place in the community ought to be.
UPDATE: The curse of running a weekly. I checked with the commissioner on political practices on Monday; on Tuesday, a formal complaint was filed.
Interesting that one of those involved in the complaint was Donald Cyphers, who has experience in such matters.
By coincidence, I raised skepticism both about Celebrate Billings' political involvement and about Cyphers' political ad practices in the same column six years ago. More here.