Racist letter to the editor exposes problems at The Billings Gazette and Lee Enterprises

The Billings Gazette published a letter to the editor from former Montana state senator Alvin Ellis Jr. on Tuesday entitled “Racism isn’t the problem, black culture is.” At 10:47 a.m. Wednesday, a Gazette editor added a note above the letter.

“The views expressed by letter writers do not necessarily reflect those of The Gazette. Alvin Ellis Jr. is a former Montana state senator,” the editor’s note read.

The word “necessarily” was deleted from the note at 10:48 a.m., then added back a minute later.

At 11:23 a.m., a new editor’s note was added. It read, “Alvin Ellis Jr. is a former Montana state senator from Red Lodge. The Billings Gazette finds his view wrong, dangerous and offensive. This letter was published to shine a light on a growing threat in our state from groups who share Ellis’ views.”

That note was deleted 11 minutes later, and no editor’s note has appeared in the letter since (the editor did add “Former Republican Montana state senator” under Ellis’ name at the bottom of the letter; the original version only included his name and “Red Lodge”).

This 36-minute stretch illustrates issues at The Gazette that extend beyond one bad decision to publish Ellis’ racist letter, issues that stem from bad decisions made by Lee Enterprises, The Gazette’s corporate owner.

Let’s be clear: the worst actor in this mess, which has sparked warranted outrage across Montana and beyond, is Ellis. He begins his letter with the claim that America is not a racist country because Barack Obama was elected president twice, an argument that is as weak as it is unoriginal (his letter also says that Obama was elected in 2008 and 2016; Obama was, of course, elected in 2008 and 2012, and Donald Trump won in 2016). Ellis cites unsourced statistics about household incomes and single-family households, believes that President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” was actually “a war on the American family” and compares President Joe Biden to Karl Marx.

The letter is unfocused, uses weak evidence and is blatantly racist. It’s sad that people still believe our country’s racial inequalities have more to do with individual mistakes and “the sexual revolution,” as Ellis put it, than the unmistakable racism that remains pervasive. These beliefs should not be given a platform in The Gazette.

As the now-deleted editor’s notes show, our editors don’t agree with Ellis, yet they chose to run his letter anyway. The decision to make this letter an “Editor’s Pick” was especially bad. From what we’ve gathered, our editors clicked the “Editor’s Pick” button because that pushed the letter out to The Gazette’s social media feeds. This gives the appearance that our editors cared more about getting clicks (mission accomplished) than silencing racist opinions.

It’s disappointing that our editors have done nothing to address this controversy publicly beyond those now-deleted editor’s notes, and several Montana News Guild members have not heard a word from Gazette management about the handling of this letter or its aftermath.

Lee Enterprises laid off Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick and Editorial Page Editor Pat Bellinghausen in February 2020, and neither have been replaced. Their responsibilities were delegated out to remaining staff members and management, some of whom have since quit or taken buyouts. Between layoffs, buyouts and people quitting, The Gazette has lost 10 staff members since February 2020, and an 11th staff member recently announced they will be leaving the paper.

While Lee deserves much of the blame for the Ellis letter debacle, Guild members also ask our editors to think more critically about which letters to the editor they publish. Many submissions never grace The Gazette’s website or newspaper, and Ellis’ should have been given the same treatment. Decisions like this reflect poorly on the entire Gazette, including Guild members who played no role in the publication of this letter and completely reject the harmful beliefs shared by people like Ellis.

We know our editors also reject those beliefs. We wish they would demonstrate that with thoughtful editorial decisions instead of hastily written editor’s notes a day after publishing a racist letter.

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