“Do right and fear no man.”
That credo has served Ryan Zinke well in his tenure as secretary of the interior for President Donald Trump. Zinke has become a lightning rod for criticism from the Democratic left, and yet he continues to move forward with his agenda of increasing access to federal public lands and developing funding to pay for infrastructure needs that have been left unaddressed for decades.
I talked to Zinke in a wide-ranging interview two weeks ago and asked him how me managed to cope with the non-stop onslaught of negative publicity that goes with being a member of the Trump Cabinet.
“The fight for freedom never ends,” said the former Navy SEAL and congressman. “We live in an environment where it seems anyone can write a salacious article … It’s immediately picked up on the web by a reporter that doesn’t do research themselves. It’s highlighted and magnified in liberal papers that only want to attack and not address truth.”
A striking example of this occurred after our interview when “fake news” was created about Zinke’s testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 13. Asked about a proposal to raise fees to national parks, Zinke explained that part of the problem is that the parks collect their fees by the carload, not by the individual. Therefore, if one person in the car has a discounted annual pass, everyone else gets in for free.
As Zinke said, “When you give discounted [rates] to the elderly, veterans, and the disabled and do it by the carload, not a whole lot of people actually pay at our front door. One person with a pass and everyone comes in for free. We are looking at ways to have more revenue at the front door at our parks.”
This was translated by the Washington Examiner and other news “sources” as “Ryan Zinke blames free visits for veterans, disabled in push to raise fees at national parks.”
Um, no, not exactly. He didn’t blame the disabled or veterans for anything; he just wondered whether it was fair for the other people in the car not to pay anything. But Zinke said he sees this kind of distortion all the time.
“They make this headline, so they get a lot of clicks, and when you read the story, the last paragraph is usually, ‘Well, we don’t really know,’ but they allege that ‘sources say.’”
Zinke said that in his experience those sources are usually “one of the attack dogs of the left, and I can name those for you,” and he did — specifically a Montana-based environmental advocacy group that specializes in sending out emails attacking Zinke from his hometown.
“The Western Values Project is a mailbox in Whitefish of former Montana Democrat communications directors and staff. It’s a mailbox! You have a number of groups like that whose sole purpose is just to invent oppositional research and sell a story.”
Another example of distorted news that came up in our conversation was the claim that Zinke has wasted money on lavish private flights when he says just the opposite is true.
“The two previous secretaries did 80 trips at just under a million [dollars], and they used real jets. I used prop planes as a last resort, and only as a last resort… for instance, flying from the North Slope [to Fairbanks] in Alaska with senators on board. I just paid my share. Or flying between the Virgin Islands in the same formation with the governor of the Virgin Islands and the prime minister of Denmark to do the same parades. [In both cases] I didn’t have any choice because you couldn’t get there any other way.”
As Zinke points out, as secretary of the interior, he is responsible for overseeing public lands in 12 different time zones from the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific to the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. A little air travel is probably to be expected, and some of it may even be off of commercial routes and schedules. But it makes for a good headline to act as if Zinke is doing something unethical, so that leads to some — can we say unethical? —reporters just going with the click-bait.
“If your only source is the internet, and you are paid by clicks, then you will write a very enticing headline, regardless of truth, which is a marketing tool to get people to click on it,” said Zinke. “We see that done all the time by people who are not necessarily an employee but a contract worker who is paid by the clicks.”
In a somewhat philosophical mood, Zinke brought up Facebook two weeks before the tech giant became embroiled in a scandal over how it shapes opinion — and maybe votes.
“I don’t think America has wrestled with the computer age, and the influence of Facebook politically. Is Facebook driving the message to you, and to what extent is it driving? People in campaigns are investing in Facebook, and Facebook determines what type of people — based on what they are posting — they [should] target.”
Zinke said those kinds of trends in social media are “reshaping the American media” as well as American politics.
“I know the major players in the media, and there is a discussion in each of those [organizations] where they are critical of what the media itself has become,” but Zinke said there are also signs that the problem may only get worse.
“I have called senior Washington bureau chiefs and said, ‘The story you are writing is not true,’ and the response from senior editors was, ‘We know.’ Where do you start when they say, ‘We know’?”
You would think that someone who is vilified as much as Zinke has been by the media, the Democratic leadership and environmentalists would lose faith in the process, but he hasn’t.
“I think America sees through it. I believe in the American spirit more than I believe in a concocted agenda whose only interest is to ensure that President Trump gets discredited,” Zinke concluded.
(Next week, a final look at Secretary Zinke’s first year and a look ahead at what he hopes to accomplish in the coming year.)
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org