Local Journalism’s Bachmann Failure

If you have any interest in things like gay bullying and the seamless interlocking of modern conservative politics and homosexual fear-mongering, you owe it to yourself to read the Rolling Stone piece, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens”.  It’s the, well, embarrassing tale of how conservative religious zealots up in the Anoka-Hennepin school district created and inflamed a climate that may – may —  have contributed to bullying that resulted in the suicides of nine teenagers, a rate far, far beyond the national norm.

Now, I realize that judging by traffic flow, deep-inside media stories hold very little interest to the public, and even less if the story means having read a daily paper opinion page piece. But bear with me, or move on. Your choice.

The 7000-word Rolling Stone story is both vivid, detailed and unsparing in making the connection between the likes of Michele Bachmann and the atmosphere of intense intolerance in the north metro area. It is also wholly unlike anything written, or produced, by any major media outlet in the Twin Cities — Star Tribune, Pioneer Press or Minnesota Public Radio — all of whom are fully aware of both the appalling suicide rate and the fervor of anti-gay rhetoric stoked by religious conservatives.

My MinnPost colleague, David Brauer, appears to be aware of this curious under-reporting of so highly provocative a case of cause-and-effect. A couple of days ago, he took Star Tribune opinion page writer Lori Sturdevant to task for a column she wrote tut-tutting Rolling Stone for what she regarded as a hyperbolic presentation of the story of Anoke-Hennepin’s problem, specifically the way it connected Bachmann’s political strategy with the anti-gay fervor … and tragic consequences.

I encourage you to read David’s piece, “Rolling Stone didn’t slime Michele Bachmann.” He treads into a pet/obsessive fascination of mine, namely the clear editorial choice made by standard-bearers of journalistic truth-telling and context-providing in this major media market. To be more specific: The very curious way the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and MPR have restrained their coverage of Bachmann, in particular, and the volatile, potent and routinely factually inaccurate movement inspired by her kind.

My duties at MinnPost involve aggregating stories from near and far with an impact on Minnesota. When Bachmann was in the GOP presidential hunt there was a regular torrent of reporting and commentary on her daily/hourly accusations, misstatements, flagrant falsehoods and, what else can you call them but outright lies.

The striking thing to me, as I surfed hither and yon, was how little of Bachmann’s manifest recklessness with the truth made its way in to the print (or on-air) version of any of our three primary serious news entities. To its (modest) credit the Strib did run more of Bachmann’s absurdities in its “Hot Dish Politics” blog than the other two did anywhere. But, if I had to apply a percentage, our three local journalism mainstays reported no more than 30%-40% of what Bachmann — a presidential candidate and easily the highest profile politician in the state — was saying in a given news cycle.

More to the point in the context of the Rolling Stone piece, the influence of Bachmann, and other hyper-conservative political characters on events in Anoka-Hennepin, was reported only flatly. There was no drawing of any overt lines of causation, and no story approached the depth of reporting Rolling Stone put into the piece. Put another way, our local journalistic icons, treated the over-heated Anoka-Hennepin culture war milieu with studied dispassion and no evident desire to lay out a full and complete context for their readers/listeners.

My suspicion/accusation has long been that the local news media have each separately made an economic calculation that regular and full reporting Bachmann’s misrepresentations, activities, alliances and influences becomes counter-productive after the point of perfunctory diligence. Translation: To have aggressively covered her — did I mention, a presidential candidate and the state politician with the highest profile on the national stage? — would be to risk blowback from her intensely contentious supporters, open themselves to invigorated charges of “liberal bias” and possibly/likely suffer advertising/underwriting blowback.

My attitude has always been that Bachmann was/is a disgrace to the concept of public service; that her’s is a stunningly self-serving act fired by her willingness to recklessly disregard even a minimal respect for truth, accuracy and fairness … three qualities on which serious news organizations pride and market themselves. By her contempt for those qualities and her surge into the national limelight it seemed to me she merited/required both 24/7 attention from her hometown media AND regular reminders that she was practicing a form of reckless rabble-rousing that didn’t entitle her to serious coverage.

That last part is me, largely as blogger. But all three of the news organizations I mentioned have “silos” for analysis and commentary where they could have laid out in far greater depth than they didthe roots of Bachmann’s candidacy and her influence with so potent a sub-set of today’s electorate. But, largely, they passed on that opportunity.

Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker wrote the definitive Bachmann profile, Karl Bremer at “Ripple in Stillwater”, Bill Prendergast and the rest at The Minnesota Progressive Project delivered the best day-to-day coverage and Rolling Stone laid out the most complete portrait of the pernicious effects of her rhetoric and influence.

Put bluntly, there’s no excuse for that kind of coverage not appearing in journalism entities truly committed to reporting without fear or favor.

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40 Responses

  1. Fabulous post and terrific “Rolling Stone” article. Thanks!

  2. There has been kind of rule in journalism to “never speak ill of journalism.” Anyone who has been in a newsroom knows there is normal “circle the wagon” mentality because you are constantly criticized. It is a tough job to do well and therefore criticism is part of the process.

    But it’s about time that journalist, like you, Brian, and David Brauer call the weak-ass reporting of Michele Bachmann out from behind the Oz curtain.

    I guess the thing that bothers me most is: a news media gets to define its own job mission. And it should be judged by that. You want to cover Minnesota business, for instance, then you should be judged on how well you do that. If, as the media listed here do, you want to say you cover Minnesota, then that is how I will judge you. And they all do a piss-poor job of covering politics in this state. They are eager to light a fire that is all heat and no light. And they ignore big stories if they feel – as they always do – overburdened by the amount of work they have chosen for themselves. And Michele Bachmann has defeated their pseudo-fairness doctrine of he said/she said because she won’t talk to them, therefore they feel they can’t publish an “unfair” story without her side proffered.

    Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, coach. And those who can’t coach write about politics in Minnesota. The political writers in this state are as much to blame for the crappy state of affairs in Minnesota as the politicians, political parties and even the lobbyists. An informed electorate is necessary for a democracy, but that doesn’t sell newspapers or make you look good in the press room at the capital.

    • Jeremy: Your point about the news media defining its own job mission is a significant one. For all the interaction with the public and “outside world” my experience with daily papers was to deal with a remarkably insular bubble culture, a very problematic situation that escalated/deteriorated with the financial pressures brought to bear by private equity investors’ demand for unrealistic profit-taking.

  3. This is so true and such a shame. I was horrified by the details of the Rolling Stone article, and asked myself WHY I had to go there to find them, instead of learning about them from the many local media outlets I follow.

  4. So true, and accurate, Brian. A good barometer for me is the number of times friends, clients, family, from outside of MN would ask me about some gaffe, lie, “factually challenged” statement, some ridiculous policy statement and I didn’t hear or see anything about it here. This happened a LOT the last 2 years especially. And I’m a local media junkie…small chance I would have missed it, IF her destructive beliefs and m.o. was actually reported by the media here.

  5. “best day-to-day coverage”

    Not City Pages? Dump Bachmann?

    Coverage of Anoka-Hennepin: Andy Birkey for MnIndy and Beth Hawkins for MinnPost, Jessica Lussenhop for City Pages

    • No, the relevant critique is Brauer’s, who wrote “Several in the media use “Bachmann” as a hit-whoring crutch — consider City Pages, which never met a Bachmann triviality it didn’t blare, or our own Daily Glean, whose “our gal” mentions too often seem forced.

      I think he’s being too harsh on you Lambo. Something like that is said with no context for your logorrhea or the ‘special needs’ of your Bachmann obsessed audience.

    • Ken: I should have mentioned your work, Birkey’s, G.R. Anderson’s and a few others. My apologies. The point remains that people like yourself are not only not the mainstream of local journalism, but to my knowledge were rarely if ever even used much less cited as sources by Big Three reporters allegedly covering Bachmann. I’m sure you’re used to being regarded as some kind of “obsessive” over your work on her … by professionals who display remarkably little fascination with her hows, whys and consequences.

      • Thanks Brian. We much appreciate the links on The Glean. Good post here. There is a lot of Bachmann-related stories the blogs have covered that have also been neglected by the local mainstream media. Bradlee Dean is a good example.

        When Bradlee Dean gave his prayer at the Capitol, it was the first time he was mentioned in the Star Tribune – front page, top of the fold. Since then, Bradlee Dean has not returned to the Strib. There have been blog posts, articles elsewhere – mainly in City Pages, MnIndy, Ripple in Stillwater, Dump Bachmann, MinnPost, Cucking Stool, Bluestem Prairie MPP, etc. – but not the local MSM.

        You’d think the local MSM would be concerned that about Minnesota’s growing reputation as haven for bizarre, gay-hating demagogues. And I don’t think I’m “obsessed” to be alarmed about the raving, right-wing theocratic movement here that among other godawful stuff in their agenda, wants to enforce Sodomy Laws (including heterosexual acts) and ban contraception.

        Thanks again for your thoughts on the subject, Brian.

      • Ken: One other aspect of the locals’ Bachmann coverage was that I don’t recall much in the way of “enterprise” campaign coverage. Travel budgets are tight to non-existent for second, third and fourth tier newsrooms, but again, given her national stature you’d have thought one of the at least would have made a point of an extended presence with her on the trail. I recall Mark Zedechlik of MPR and I believe Kevin Diaz of the Strib linking up for a few days in New Hampshire. Otherwise it was only what was available next door in Iowa, and then only fleetingly. What do you imagine would have been the coverage had Jesse Ventura been running?

  6. Thought-provoking post.

    The Star Tribune’s Hot Dish Politics blog at first seemed like it might constitute an expansion of political coverage, a place where political reporters could write the many things they know that just wouldn’t fit in the paper paper.

    But in retrospect it may one of the worst things to happen to political coverage in the Star Tribune, because it seems like Hot Dish has become the acoustically insulated room where a lot of political stories go to get muffled. I haven’t been doing a formal study or anything, but it feels like political coverage in the dead trees version has dwindled since Hot Dish was put on the table, which is a problem because I assume there still are fewer eyeballs on the blog than on the morning paper (?).

    • Joe: I wonder what the Strib’s research is telling them in terms of eyeballs on blog v. dead tree? Political junkies have certainly discovered “Hot Dish”. The modulation of political coverage, largely for a mythical personal perspective free reader, doesn’t even make business sense to me.

  7. Still telling it like it is, Brian. Thank you.

  8. To be perfectly analogous, if you are the Strib the big danger is probably that if you are to develop a sustained critique of Bachmann’s BS, you’ll eventually be forced to acknowledge that Keith Ellison’s Muslim religiosity is fake, made up purely as a superficial badge of Pan-African authenticity. The thing we could do here at The Crowd is articulate the eventual false balance / false equivalence explanation the Strib can use to dismiss these demands for coverage of Ellison. That’s a good group project for us eh?

    • Erik, got anything, anything at all, to back up your claim that Rep. Keith Ellison’s Muslim faith is “fake, made up purely as a superficial badge of Pan-African authenticity”? Seems to me a claim of that nature ought to be accompanied by something to substantiate it.

      • No, of course I don’t. But to say “Prove it!” in this case is to feign a bit of obtuseness. You’ll never be able to do obtuse well (…this is certainly not an insult).

      • I’m not saying “prove it.” I’m saying it seems cheaply gratuitous.

      • It’s not that cheap. For me to use this nugget provocatively and gratuitously (and fail) is one thing, but the contextual underpinning already exists. Secular liberalism and Islam aren’t compatible. You could only be devout to one. Ellison is with no doubts a liberal, and this undercuts an appearance of serious devotion to Islam. While more or less inconsequential in Ellison’s case because he won’t lose an election over it, this is nonetheless not an absurd critique. So I do expect you have passing familiarity with this observation. Indeed, I would expect that white Minneapolis liberals have for the most part assured themselves Ellison doesn’t actually believe in God, lest he be deemed intellectually unfit for the party.

      • I would simply point out that proponents of liberal, progressive or reform Islam and their scholarly writings on the subject do exist, admittedly sometimes at their mortal peril in parts of the world.

        One assumes from his words and deeds that Rep. Ellison counts himself among their number. As for your wider assertion that there can be no religious liberals, well, it’s ludicrous on its face, isn’t it? They, too, exist. So, again, at the risk of being accused by you of affecting an obtuse pose, I don’t see how you can accuse anyone of a liberal political bent of being disingenuous to also claim to be a person of religious faith.

        This reads like your very own Alhambra Decree for liberals.

  9. So Rolling Stone was “detailed and unsparing in making the connection between ‘the likes of Michele Bachmann’ and the atmosphere of intense intolerance in the north metro area.”

    Where?

    In 7,000 words Rolling Stone failed to to cite one specific example of Bachmann’s transgressions against gays, or her role in fostering intolerance.

    There are ample rules and statutes in effect to deal with assholes and predators who harrass and intimidate gay kids. They need to be used and enforced vigorously.

    What north metro parents don’t want is the establishment of a special, privileged class that has its own elevated status and remedies over any form of harrassment and intimidation, irrespective of the type of victim. ALL forms of these transgressions – against anyone, for any reason – are wrong.

    There also are ample civil remedies against school districts that don’t enforce their own standards against bullying and harrassment. I would think this area is a fertile, new cottage industry for plaintiff’s attorneys.

  10. Bachmann’s cohorts are directly involved in Anoka-Hennepin:

    http://bit.ly/xzu8La

  11. Without even checking, I’m willing to bet, not $10G like Willard, but a six of Summit Maibock that Stewart and Colbert have done a better job of covering Bachmann than any of the MSM outlets. It’s embarrassing the number of times “fake news” kicks the ass of “real news.”

    • The great irony, John, is that while “real journalists” absolutely get what Stewart and Colbert are doing, institutional standards and ethics prevent them from from coming even close to replicating his fully documented truth assessing.

  12. At CPAC, Bachmann told a talk show host she’s going to have a rough election in 2012 because “Democrat judges are now writing the redistricting maps”

    Bachmann is lying again – only one judge on the 5-judge panel was appointed by DFL governor. One judge was appointed by Pawlenty.

    Hear the audio at Dump Bachmann:

    http://bit.ly/zCCLs5

    • It goes without saying the DFL needs a credible challenger to Bachmann — in whatever shape the “new Sixth” takes. I do wonder how much the nutbag right will pour in to Bachmann’s reelection now that she has so thoroughly marginalized her influence.

  13. I understand Brian Lambert’s argument on the Bachmann reporting, but it strikes me that his larger very troubling issue, is that longer form, investigative journalism is seriously endangered, if not approaching extinction. Murdered by publications lacking budget or inclination (politically or commercially motivated or otherwise) to support it, while a growing readership, increasingly attuned to their news in the form of 250 word online snippets, has lost interest in it. A sad situation I think.

      • Wonderful, thought-provoking article. Kudos to Applebaum, Gebeloff and their editor for running with it. And thank you for the link! (I miss my daily delivery of the “Times”, one of my own budget cuts a couple years ago. Just easier for me to follow with something to hold and ink on my fingers.)

    • I agree with you, Dennis. This is about so much more than the skewed press Bachmann has received in her own state for far too long. Kudos to Lambert for drawing [more] attention to the Rolling Stone piece.

      However, as a long-time resident of the Anoka-Hennepin district, I must say that although Rolling Stone paints the entire district with what may appear to be one brush, there are scores of people here in the north end that are appalled, disheartened and angered by the politics of Bachmann and her ilk that continue to lead to the discrimination of and suicide by gay teens in this area.

      We are not all idiots wearing rose-colored glasses who purposefully attend the “hate the gays” seminars put on by the Bachmann types or try to pray away the gay or who vote for incumbents like Michele Bachmann without understanding what she really stands for. There is a growing faction of realistic, justified, sympathetic support for the gay community within the Anoka-Hennepin district, and we will not stop fighting for the enactment of civil rights for everyone…including and especially the LGBT community here.

      Thanks to Rolling Stone, Lambert and all who follow in bringing this issue to the attention of those who can and will make a difference. It’s time for Bachmann & Co. to do some penance for the situation they created and it’s time that civil rights be extended to everyone.

  14. Brian – thanks for the great post. There is so much in play here. At bottom, I believe, local media is just not prepared to take the view from 30,000 feet – putting together the overall picture. They are just not willing to say that one party – the Republicans – have gone off the rails, and taken the country with them. The volume of lying and moral decay from Republicans is astounding.

    I remember when the state Republicans were trying – successfully, it turned out – to weaken the state gun laws, and they brought in the serial fabricator John “My dog ate my research” Lott to testify to the legislature to bolster their case. The PiPress did one of their “he said, she said” reports on the issue. I contacted the reporter – one of their better ones, incidentally – to point out that Lott was a lying sack of shit peddling unadulterated bull. His response? It wasn’t his job of sorting out competing truth claims. This gets to the bottom of a lot of issues – reporters and columnists, for that matter, are afraid to wade into competing truth claims. When they do that all claims to facts end up looking the same, regardless of the underlying facts.

  15. [...] Journalism and asked, I couldn’t have received better affirmation of the underlying point in my previous post than what The New York Times delivered on the front page of their Sunday paper yesterday. Titled  [...]

  16. [...] MPR, Bob Collins takes a crackpot local blogger to task for saying the Strib, PiPress and MPR fell short of due diligence on Michele Bachmann: [...]

  17. Bachmann is not the only politician who wasn’t covered very well by the local media. Pawlenty’s photo ops were covered relentlessly, but the local press never mentioned all the programs Pawlenty introduced with great hoopla, then allowed to quietly die (or had arranged in advance to have cronies in the legislature kill). We kept hearing about how likeable he was. His ineffectiveness as a governor never got much press at all.

  18. [...] as it has ignored outrageous Bachmannisms over the years, Minnesota’s mainstream newspapers ignored this gem. [...]

  19. “I have never regretted what I said in ‘the last press conference.’ I believe that it gave the media a warning that I would not sit back and take whatever biased coverage was dished out to me. I think the episode was partially responsible for the much fairer treatment I received from the press during the next few years. From that point of view alone, it was worth it.”
    Richard M. Nixon

  20. [...] LINK: Here’s Lambert on why Bachmann coverage (not teen suicide coverage, Bob, but Bachmann coverage) was a fail…http://thesamerowdycrowd.wordp… [...]

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