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Veteran journalist Mike Dennison signs off after decades covering MT politics | 406 Politics

Veteran journalist Mike Dennison signs off after decades covering MT politics | 406 Politics
Written by publisher team

In the midst of a tight primary race that would ultimately determine the balance of the US Senate, Mike Dennison was holding a bombshell.

The veteran Montana journalist was on a team of three reporters working through the weekend in April 2006 to nail down a story about Democrat John Morrison, a Montana state auditor who they had confirmed had an extramarital affair years earlier. On one hand, it was an arguably salacious political scandal, but it also potentially implicated decisions Morrison had made in a major case his office prosecuted prior to his Senate run.

Dennison, who a week ago capped off one of the longest-running journalism careers in Montana, recently recalled the episode as one of the biggest — and most difficult — stories from his four decades as a reporter.

“A lot of people look at those sorts of stories and think, ‘Here’s a reporter being a reporter, they must love this stuff,'” he said in an interview last week. But that’s not his approach.

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“I sure don’t enjoy that. I don’t think anybody does,” he said. “… I think you always have to keep your mind on, these people have families, and they think they’re doing the right thing most of the time, and they’re not just people to be demonized. And so you have to have a little bit of humanity when you’re doing these types of stories.”

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison took his first reporting job in the 1980s on the cops and courts beat for the Great Falls Tribune.

Jennifer McKee, herself a long-time political reporter who was helping to cover the story for Lee Newspapers’ Montana Capitol Bureau, said Dennison’s thoughtful handling of the story was critical to getting it right.

“It’s not done gleefully,” McKee said in an interview last week. “The wrong way would be not to respect the whole situation — the people that are in the news and didn’t necessarily want to be, and the public, who need to make decisions on who their leaders will be.”

The story, broken the following week by Dennison, McKee and their boss, bureau chief Chuck Johnson, was a major event in a political race that would eventually vault Jon Tester, then a relatively unknown state legislator and Montana farmer, into the Senate seat he’s held for the past 15 years. Tester was sworn in the following January, allowing Democrats to control a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Like a lot of reporters, Dennison got into journalism pretty much by accident. After growing up in Seattle, the creative writing major had transferred from the local state university to the University of Montana during his junior year. His introduction to the journalism school came as something of a backup plan if his preferred gig didn’t work out.

“I kind of stumbled into journalism, thinking that when I graduated, maybe I’d want a job,” he said.

He found a job. In 41 years as a journalist, Dennison covered many of the biggest stories in state politics for wire services, most of the state’s daily newspapers, a statewide television network and public radio (as a guest on a weekly politics program) — while also finding time to write a book about Montana politics.

“It was just kind of one of those lucky breaks you have once in a while,” he said.

Johnson, who ran the Lee Capitol bureau during the 10 years that Dennison worked there, said he was always impressed by Dennison’s knack for digesting complex policy topics, from Montana’s disastrous deregulation push to the debates utility over the Affordable Care Act and subsequent Medicaid expansion in the state.

After the 2015 session session, Lee Enterprises (owners of the Billings Gazette, Missoulian, Independent Record, Montana Standard and Ravalli Republic) eliminated the capitol bureau positions held by Dennison and Johnson. Dennison was told he could apply for a new position with less pay, but chose a buyout and an uncertain future.

His next step in journalism came as Dennison made the difficult transition to television after decades as a newspaperman, becoming top political reporter for MTN News, a statewide TV network. His beloved deep dives into thorny policy issues got harder to pull off, he said, but also resulted in better stories when he could tell them visually.

Mike Dennison

His next step in journalism came as Dennison made the difficult transition to television after decades as a newspaperman, becoming top political reporter for MTN News, a statewide TV network.

Courtesy Photo

“We always used to make fun of TV reporters,” Dennison recalled, but added that his attitude quickly changed. “I didn’t realize how incredibly hard these people work. There’s one person who’s got to shoot it, write it, edit it and all into two minutes or less. Plus, you’ve got to go out in all kinds of weather and shoot stuff.”

Watching his former reporter make the switch from print, Johnson said it didn’t seem to slow him down.

“I don’t know any print reporters who made the transition to television like Mike has, and he still broke more than his share of stories,” he said.

Dennison said the biggest story he covered, as a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, was the push for utility deregulation and the fall of the Montana Power Company in the 1990s and early 2000s. And while he believes his paper had the most thorough coverage of the issue, Dennison is quick to note that he credit with other reporters at the paper who hammered out scoops and analysis of a scheme that would wind up losing millions for investors and costing hundreds of employees their jobs.

“We just had a gut feeling this was probably not a good idea,” Dennison said. “So a lot of our coverage kind of came from that belief, to scrutinize it. I wasn’t an expert, and I didn’t know that it was a bad idea, I just kind of felt that it probably was, based on our reporting.”

McKee, one of Dennison’s former colleagues, also remembers going toe-to-toe with him when they worked at competing outlets. Covering the same story could be an uneasy feeling.

“He’ll get it first, and it’ll also be better,” she said.

Book Talk: Reporter Mike Dennison

Montana journalist Mike Dennison holds a copy of his book “Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches” in this 2019 photo file.

TOM BAUER, Missoulian

Former colleagues also noted that his reporting chops were always complemented by a disarming, dry sense of humor. Despite being an avowed policy wonk with a bookish on-camera presence, he was also known as the guy who for years drove around Helena in a lime-green 1975 Volkswagen Beetle with a “Question Authority” bumper sticker.

Until hanging up his press badge a week ago, Dennison was one of the state’s few news reporters whose career predated the internet. He said it’s been a blessing when it comes to fact-checking on deadlines, ensuring names are spelled right and filing stories — he laughs as he recalls using a “prehistoric” modem-like gadget that attached to a telephone receiver to wire the final draft to his editor.

But he also believes the proliferation of alternative media outlets has given cover to politicians looking to dodge the accountability that print, radio and television traditionally provided to voters.

“If they want to, they can bypass reporters as much as they want,” he said. “Reporters they don’t like, they can just not talk to them. Or people that are asking hard questions, they can just avoid them. And they can still communicate.”

That’s a trend that bucks partisan lines, and likewise, Dennison still commands the respect of who he said were the two most accessible governors he covered. Former Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, was quick to praise the longtime reporter in interviews last week, despite making clear they had their fair share of disagreements over coverage.

“I know I certainly respect him as a journalist, because he was always very well prepared and knew what he was talking about and always asked piercing questions and expected straightforward answers,” Racicot said.

Schweitzer, who was elected governor with no previous political experience, recalled turning to the institutional knowledge of Dennison and other veteran reporters when navigating unfamiliar policy terrain.

“He was a walking history book. And sometimes you need that kind of history, because oftentimes you don’t have anybody else in the Capitol that has that history,” Schweitzer said. He added, “It didn’t matter who you were or what you were, he was gonna ask the tough questions.”

UM Journalism School 100th anniversary celebration

Governor Steve Bullock recognizes Lee State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison at the University of Montana Journalism school’s 100th anniversary celebration at the Capitol rotunda Friday.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record

Still, Dennison said he’s irked by the growing trend of national politicians vilifying the media.

“To me, our free press is one of the things that makes America America,” Dennison said. “I think it’s unfortunate that some partisan people use that as a strategy, that they would tear down an institution that’s kind of a pillar of our democracy.”

For now, Dennison has wasted no time kicking off a retirement plan heavy on ski hills and golf courses. But he stopped short of swearing off journalism in the future, and admitted his recent nights have included multiple dreams that he’s back in the reporting trenches (he insisted they weren’t nightmares).

“I’ll certainly miss the fun of being a reporter,” he said, “because my God, it sure is fun.”

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record


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