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.

The (Immense) Hole in the Star Tribune’s Sunday Quartet.

My vaunted sense of fairness that compels me to give the Star Tribune’s editorial page credit for trying — not valiantly, mind you — but trying to cover all points of the ideological spectrum with this past Sunday’s quartet of pieces on Minnesota’s governmental gridlock. In an age long past the point where big city newspapers made much if any difference in candidate endorsements, I kinda doubt the mind of anyone anywhere was nudged, much less changed, by what they read. If they read it.

In old school journalism jargon, Sunday’s pieces, by commentary editor D.J. Tice (thoughtful, cautious Libertarian-esque), Lori Sturdevant (earnestly maternal but lately increasingly indignant mainstream pro-government), ex-Strib political reporter Dane Smith (informed and puckish think tank liberal) and talk radio host Jason Lewis (superficially intellectual, rationalizing the irrational for Ayn Rand-validated personal gain) , were a perfect “package”, designed to address all the significant, vital issues in the “deadlock”. Except of course they left out the most profound issue of all. So in the end they really didn’t advance problem solving in the only direction it can go. if the point is effective government for five million people. (If the point is just academic bonhomie … well, they knocked themselves out.)

The missing element in each and every piece, and the most significant element in the state (and much of the country’s retrograde political dynamic) is the devolution of the Republican party from something like rational conservatism — minimal government, lower taxes, yadda yadda — to its current state, populated and itself gridlocked by lock-stepping, dime-deep, anti-tax, anti-government, anti-science ideologues whose “ideology” is as flagrantly ill-informed as their projections for how their financial solutions are supposed to actually work. I suspect the Strib editorialists decided they as a paper have covered this devolution so thoroughly in the past there was no point burdening their “package” with repetitious dogma and partisanship. As a broadly-directed, “mainstream” entity the paper lives in a perpetual fear of the latter. Story after editorial after commentary pushes the plea for “compromise” and “coming together” in the “best interests of all”, which would be a fine, wonderful and heart-warming thing if only one side had any interest in “compromise”.

Here’s a shocker. The two pieces I have the most problems with are Tice’s and Lewis’s.

Tice is a writer/thinker I’ve always admired. (He was my boss briefly way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.) If not Noam Chomsky or Bill Maher, Tice would be my choice for The Least Likely Guy to Enjoy a Tea Party Gun Show Pro-Family Picnic. His style of conservatism is coherent, with clear appreciation for historical precedents. But oh does Doug — as an outlier to contemporary conservative “thinking” — love the “both sides are equally at fault” rhetorical position.

He writes:

Dayton has also talked incessantly about his willingness to compromise, his heartbreaking longing to compromise — thus skillfully winning credit as the flexible one in the situation without the disagreeable necessity of actually doing much compromising. Consider: Dayton is now claiming the meek middle ground for a proposal that would leave Minnesota essentially tied with Hawaii and Oregon for the highest top income tax rate in the country. This is a descent from the vertigo-inducing rates Dayton first proposed (the textbook negotiating ploy), but it’s not exactly a wrenching sacrifice of his beloved tax-the-rich vision.

Okay, so Dayton’s original “tax the rich” numbers were “textbook negotiating”. But in textbook negotiating fashion Dayton has moved/compromised in pursuit of the great historical concept of giving something to get something.

Tice’s distillation of the GOP position is that:

GOP leaders have been so adamant that state government must get along on existing revenues that they’ve left themselves no obvious route for graceful retreat. Almost any accommodation could look like a surrender, if not a betrayal of principle. They have burned their boats and can only go forward.

I would strongly suggest there’s room in that paragraph for an explicit reminder of how far off the beam this GOP is from the GOP of Tice’s youth and that therein lies the foremost impediment to effective governance.

As for Lewis. Well look, he’s in the Strib because like every American paper of any size, the Strib believes it is so inherently liberal and therefore anathema to modern conservatives, they must have someone who speaks to the talk-radio informed mentality of their readership. So who better than a talk radio jock? Again, in fairness, Lewis is a world apart in terms of rhetorical ability and marketing savvy from the Bradlee Dean, AM 1280 Patriot lunkheads. (Much like Tice, I can only imagine Lewis gritting his teeth while — only rarely —  enduring their company). Lewis’s greatest talent is lubricating — I don’t think there’s a better word for it — bullshit — in away that makes it digestible among a brighter class of people. His arguments amount to a spun candy confection with an appealing appearance and no nutritional value.

After artfully glossing past how the state avoided actually paying bills amid all that “deferment” and “unallotting” voodoo, (short answer — the DFL let Pawlenty get away with it), Lewis writes:

… disproportionately relying on income taxes from the “wealthy” is a recipe for budgetary chaos. Incomes at the top tend to ebb and flow with the economy, so once the downturn hits, you see massive drops in revenue streams. It’s no coincidence that the high-income tax states of California, New York and Illinois are those with the biggest budget problems.

Point being of course that the truly, deeply, madly wealthy are so vulnerable to economic fluctuation and chaos … why, there must be numbers somewhere that prove this … that their tax status must be protected above all others (like their customers, for example). Later, he quotes Reason magazine, every ’60s era Libertarian’s fanzine of choice, which notes with some alarm that after a similar “tax the rich” plan “a third of the millionaires had disappeared from Maryland tax rolls.”

Lewis of course glosses, talk radio host-style, over the actual years involved in this terrible “disappearance”. Says Neil Bergsman of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute:

What about the 30 percent drop in millionaires cited in media stories? Here again, some claim it means millionaires left Maryland because of the tax increase. Again, the evidence says otherwise. Almost certainly, these taxpayers suffered in the poor economy to the point that their income declined from over $1 million to under $1 million. That also happens every year. The comptroller reported that over the past seven years, between 31 percent and 52 percent of millionaires failed to repeat. In 2008, reductions in investment income, business income and real estate proceeds very likely brought several hundred former millionaires under the million-dollar level in 2008. A 30 percent drop this year isn’t exceptional. In fact, it’s a trend seen nationwide.

But, you know, “whatever”. It’s his schtick, it sells on the radio and the Strib believes they need it for balance.

The essential point is that the Strib, as its Op-Ed habit, chose to avoid the unraveling of one of the state/country’s two political parties in its “packaged” analysis of what is causing “deadlock”.

IMHO? You can not exclude the obdurate radicalizing of the contemporary GOP from any discussion of governmental breakdown. It is the PRIMARY issue, not a peripheral issue.