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.

A Rising Tide of “Extremism”.

Last week, Scott Gillespie, the Star Tribune’s editor … of the editorial page, which is I guess kind of like being chief custodial engineer of the custodians’ locker room … wrote a commentary comparing and contrasting events and Governors in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Maybe you read it … or maybe, you didn’t. Well, trust me,  it was a minor classic of its kind. It was a paean to that largely mythical middle where people of deep convictions and good intentions only register tempered disapproval of the loudness and messiness of  people … who aren’t too pleased with the status quo.

Here’s its essence:

The gubernatorial battle cries in these two neighboring Midwestern states could hardly be more different. And yet, in another sense, they’re similar. Both leaders are steadfastly appeasing one end of the political spectrum while infuriating the other.

More moderate Minnesotans and Wisconsinites might be wondering where it will all end. The Minnesotans have more reason to be hopeful.

The direct suggestion that a call for “taxing the rich” is out there at “one end” of the spectrum where extreme ideas foment is kind of amazing … if you stop and think about it. “Tax the rich” after all is merely a call for readjusting progressive taxation. A readjustment in the midst of an already deep and long-running recession. Moreover it comes with a renewed awareness among a growing chunk of the middle class of the dramatic shift of wealth from the them upwards to the richest of the very rich over the last generation. Gillespie paints this concept as  “appeasing” to “one end” of the political spectrum and just as radical a notion as union-busting and  the unilateral abrogation of lawful contracts is on the other end of the dial.

So okay, you shrug. What else do you expect, really? This is the kind of heavily rationalized thinking we’ve come to expect from the so-called “mainstream media”, certainly since newsrooms  began being treated like just another division of some manufacturing firm.

I was pleased to see my MinnPost colleague, David Brauer, go after Gillespie for that remarkably insulated logic. Ditto a number of acid-tongued commenters to the piece itself.

Gillespie’s grasp of a sea change in public thinking on what is truly extreme and intolerable  really doesn’t matter much. But it’s another powerful example of how badly commercial news organizations like the Strib are trailing the curve of events in Wisconsin and now elsewhere. (It also explains, I believe, why the Strib, which has deep conflicts of interest over a new Vikings stadium, will never recognize or take seriously resistance to taxpayer support for the thing.)

The thing is, if Gillespie really wanted to talk “extremism”, he could have wandered into a discussion comparing and contrasting his two opposing examples. There’s great grist and juice there.

The “extremism” of the Tea Party movement, embodied now by Scott Walker in Wisconsin, is kind of known entity. What exactly they would do with power if they got it was always the mystery. Now we know. but as I said in my last post, based on their campaign of scattershot, inchoate rage and anger, there was no way anyone could explain in detail what Tea Party-logic would mean …  in practice. Therefore, union-busting came as a big surprise. Likewise the vigorous and focused reaction to it. (And, you gotta love Walker trying to backfill the idea that he ever mentioned collective bargaining on the campaign trail.)

An irony here is how often the Tea Party, which I suspect Gillespie would call “extreme” or at “one end”, is portrayed as a grassroots movement swelling up spontaneously all across the country. (Coordination and exploitation of all that rage by powerful, monied benefactors isn’t mentioned nearly so often.) By contrast, the “tax the rich” notion is left mostly unexamined, like someone’s feral stepchild. To the Gillespies and most other news organizations, enterprises committed to their “mainstream-ness”, re-dressing revenue imbalance by restoring the tax brackets of the Eighties is an idea with no “grassroots” foundations, no legitimate constituency and therefore something best quarantined off with the loonies yabbering about birth certificates, “death panels”, “socialized medicine” and keeping your government hands off my Medicare.

What if anything Gillespie thinks of polls that routinely show the public — which includes the mainstream, not just the “ends” — consistently supporting higher tax brackets for the wealthy, I don’t know. But if you need a refresher here’s this and this and this … and oh hell, this, too.

Point being, the belief that the wealthy should pay more is about as mainstream, or to use Gillespie’s preferred nomenclature, as “moderate”, as it gets. Name me three other ideas, besides motherhood, being nice to animals and hating the Yankees that regularly gets a 60%-70% consensus in this country?

The trouble is that mainstream news organization opinion leaders like Gillespie, other big city papers, and any of the broadcast news outlets are very much cogs in the “stewardship” fraternity of large-scale American business. Each plays a vital role in sustaining the other. And the conventional wisdom of that fraternity is that any plan to redress flaws in the rate of taxation that negatively impacts them is radical, extreme and out there on “one end” of the spectrum.

One other facet of Gillespie/the Strib’s blindered view is that you can also bet they will be among the last to recognize that what we’re watching in Wisconsin is a tide of “extremism” more politically potent than the Tea Party we have all followed so avidly. Why? Because with “one end” having showed and played its hand the other “end”, which is actually the middle that tolerated this nonsense in the abstract, has been slapped awake, and rapidly educated to what is actually going on. That “end” of the spectrum is now on high alert for everything else the “grassroots” Tea Party crowd may try to pull.

So yeah, extremism is on the rise in America. Except that this latest swelling tide is made up of bona fide, out there fringe radicals like teachers and nurses and cops and construction workers.

Another Stool at the Bar…

Or is “another stoolie behind bars” a better analogy?

Damned if I know.  I’m still trying to get my head around it being 2010.  According to the science fiction future historical timeline, this was the year in which Dave Bowman comes back to terraform Jupiter’s Europa, there are colonies on the Moon and Mars and everyone has a nano-scaled tech implanted in their heads to augment their wetware.  Instead, we’ve got Glenn Beck, ride sharing with the Russians to the International Space Station and the iPhone.  Somehow, I feel short-changed.

But, I digress.  As usual.

My actual purpose in writing today was to introduce a new member of the Crowd, Brian Lambert.  Observant visitors will note the appearance of his “gravatar” on the left side of the page or  may have read of his imminent arrival in David Brauer’s MinnPost column over the holidays.

Mr. Lambert is one-man media band with  gigs ranging from MinnPost, where he’s one of the authors of the Daily Glean, to blogging at the Rake and MPLS/St. Paul magazine, yakking on KTLK-FM and writing for the Pioneer Press where I first met him as a media critic. Starting next week, he’ll be co-hosting a 7-9 PM show on FM107, aka “The Chick Station.”  He’s probably done more stuff I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave it to him to embroider as he sees fit.

I’m not sure when his first post will appear or the topics he’ll be writing about (not surprising since I don’t know these things about myself), but I almost always find Mr. Lambert’s musings interesting, insightful, entertaining and fun.  He’s also enjoyably snarky and gossipy about the local media scene when the spirit moves him.  In short, he’s a fine addition to our group, especially since he promised to buy the first round for everyone who makes it to our next meatspace gathering. This alone sets him apart from the rest of us.

Enjoy.

– Austin

Photo credit:  Dick Kraus.  “Brian Lambert helps his dad shovel a heavy snowfall from the steps of their rented house in South Huntington in 1996″certified payroll nice

Tigers Having Sex In The Woods (VIDEO) – Part 2

Author’s note: I wasn’t intending on posting this, but in the course of putting together the post about “What Should Tiger Do?” that follows this one, I wrote up the ‘graph of how I came to know of this tomfoolery and even recreated a graphic to illustrate it.  When I was done with the larger post, this stuff no longer fit but I was reluctant to throw away perfectly good content.  As a result, I’m recreating in miniature the same shameless SEO gaming I poke fun at to see if it works.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

– Austin

Marketwatch‘s Jim Bernard, a speaker at David Brauer‘s #ofon gathering about the future of news, noted the Huffington Post had put up an item featuring a video of tigers (not Tiger) mating in a natural setting.  This was enjoyed for what it is – a blatant example of trying to game the search engine algorithms – that has been ridiculed elsewhere as well. It’s particularly fun to note the terms the post is tagged with (see the call-out in the image below), particularly the “green news” add at the end of the list.

It will be interesting to see what the same blatant exploitation of this situation does for us here at the Crowd.

– Austin