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.

Minnesota Media Sides With Anti-Union Forces By Adopting “Right To Work” Framing

On the abortion issue, one group of advocates says “Right to Life,” the other side says “Pro-Choice” and the news media usually opts for the more neutral term, calling it a debate over “abortion rights,” or describing the protagonists as being “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights.” Fair enough. On that issue, reporters have done a pretty good job of striking a balance on the language they use.

But on the top labor issue of the day, one side says “Right to Work,” the other side says “Right to Work for Less” or “union busting.” The media goes with “Right to Work.”

Pioneer Press headline: “Republicans set stage for right to work fight in Minnesota”
Star Tribune headline: “State Republicans launch right-to-work amendment”
MPR headline: “One on One: The Right to Work Amendment”

In other words, the news media is framing the issue exactly how pro-amendment spin savants want it framed.

As reporters know, there is a reason why amendment proponents deliberately chose the words “right to work” for their propaganda. Extensive market research told them swing voters felt supportive of the notion of having the “right to work,” and are opposed to someone taking that right away from them. Who wouldn’t? So, they invest in millions of dollars worth of marketing and PR trying to make that wording stick.

At the same time, amendment opponents’ market research told them that “Right to Work for Less” was helpful to their cause. Those words bring attention to the fact that the typical employees in states with this union restriction make about $5300 less per year than employees in other states, a fact that is extremely helpful in selling their point-of-view.

To be fair, perpetually PR-challenged unions don’t do themselves any favors on this front, as they continually use their opponents’ “right to work” framing in their own communications, making that label seem normalized and mutually acceptable.

Still, as with the abortion debate, reporters should avoid both side’s carefully focus grouped labels, and go with more neutral language. For instance, they could call it a “union limitation amendment,” or some such poker-faced pabulum.

Minnesotans are going to be exosed to a lot of news coverage about this amendment over the next nine months, so it’s a good time for editors to have earnest conversations about fair rules of engagement. Reporters need to get a lot better at covering the issue in a balanced way.

– Loveland

Fox News Fakes News

Just about four years ago to the day, I criticized my industry, the public relations industry, for its use of video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are video segments designed to look exactly like a TV news story. But they are produced by PR pros, not reporters, often with PR people acting out the role of faux reporters. Just as PR people and their clients hope, VNRs often get run unedited or lightly edited on actual newscasts, which has caused watchdog groups like PR Watch to label this crowning achievement of the PR industry “fake news.” This brand of fake news has been shamelessly used over the years to sell everything from widgets to wars.

Ever the killjoy, I argued back in the day that VNRs are qualitatively different than written news releases: “The use of PR people mimicking the dress and conventions of news reporters without real time disclosures of their mimicry crosses the line from briefing reporters to impersonating reporters.”

VNR’s just do not pass a reasonable person’s smell test.

My quixotic propsoal was for PR pros to be proactively ethical, and disclose the funder of the VNR, via a continuously on-screen chyron, to make it impossible for a TV news producer to use any VNR footage without proper attiribution.

This proposal did not catch fire in PR salons.

But the issue hasn’t gone away. In fact, last week the FCC penalized the local Fox affilate, KMSP-TV, for airing a story about the automobile industry that was, it turns out, exactly how General Motors would tell the story, if it were telling the story itself. Because it was. Because the KMSP-TV news team borrowed heavily from a GM-funded VNR advertisement.

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Who Are Minnesota’s Most Heinous “Job Killers?”

These days Minnesota’s GOP state legislators mutter the word “jobs” several hundred times per day — sometimes with Tourette-esque usage and timing — to assure us how very, very committed to job creation they are. Similarly, any initiative Republicans oppose earns the label “job killing” _____ (fill in the blank).

The limitation both parties’ aspiring “job creaters” face is a’ $5 billion budget shortfall, which the Minnesota Constitution says must be eliminated every year. Both major options for closing the shortfall – increasing taxes and cutting assistance to families and communities – hurt the employment picture. Both approaches are job killing, but the question remains, which kills more?

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Pawlenty of Desperation

The other day, Minnesota Public Radio noted that former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is trying out a faux southern accent on the Presidential campaign trail. For instance, MPR cited a piece in the New York Times:

The knock on Mr. Pawlenty, according to conversations with voters, is that his speeches sound sincere but do not always sizzle. At a faith forum last week in Iowa, he displayed vigor. But the next day at the Statehouse, the talk among several Republicans was that it seemed he had suddenly developed a Southern accent as he tried connecting to voters by speaking louder and with more energy.

The political blog of Radio Iowa heard it too and noted, “Pawlenty seems to be adopting a Southern accent as he talks about his record as governor.” As he spoke of the country’s challenges, he dropped the letter G, saying: “It ain’t gonna be easy. This is about plowin’ ahead and gettin’ the job done.”

Ever since I heard about this, I just can’t get this tune out of my head:

Come-n-listen to a story ’bout a man named Tim.
Poor Governeer left his state a mighty grim.
Then one day he was fixin’ to win it all,
And out of his trap come a bumblin’ “y’all…”
(Dropped “g’s” that is, political gold, real folksy!)

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Checking the Checkers’ Checking

small business association I’m a fan of reporters doing regular fact checking analyses of claims made by their sources, particularly elected officials. Pat Kessler at WCCO-TV’s Reality Check and Tom Scheck at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) are among those who do a decent job with that locally, but there should be more of it.

But who is checking the checkers? The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog did an interesting analysis of the fact checking done by the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact, which is affiliated with the St. Petersburg Times. doing business

Dr. Eric Ostermeier of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance (CSPG) at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs notes that Politifact analyses have found that Republicans lie more often than Democrats or Independents. A lot more.

But Dr. Ostermeier asks a fair question, whether this is because of Politifact’s selection bias. When asked about its selection methodology, Politifact’s Editor told C-Span: small business start up

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