The Same Rowdy Crowd

Ruminations and Fulminations on Communication


Star Tribune

Jim Souhan Isn’t the Problem

NEW SLAUGHTERI don’t know Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who kinda stepped in it by saying that the University of Minnesota should, at the very least, keep epileptic seizure-prone football coach Jerry Kill out of public view. But I have some idea how he got himself into a predicament that unleashed a hailstorm of blowback.

But first, let’s be clear, risking and then taking a hammering in the court of public opinion is not always a bad thing. Often enough it is quite the opposite. If no one ever cares enough to complain about you or argue against your point of view you’re really just writing Chamber of Commerce ad copy … which, unfortunately, is what a lot of today’s news managers regard as responsible journalism. The irony with this incident is that Souhan, filing from the sports/entertainment department, over-exercised one of the last remaining licenses left to push an informed, personal point of view in regional newspapers. He over-played a license the Star Tribune and other papers have steadily hobbled in their metro and opinion pages.

Boiled to its essence, the criticism of Souhan is that his tone was cloddish, an affront to both epileptics and common decency. And it’s easy to see how readers got that impression.

Here are some of the problematic lines and why:

” … where the University of Minnesota’s football program, and by extension the entire school, became the subject of pity and ridicule.” (Is “ridicule” really the word you’re looking for here? “Ridiculed” by who? What sort of thoughtless yob sees any level of humor in an epileptic seizure? What percentage of even our local, get-a-life football fandom engages in that kind of “ridicule”?)

“Kill suffers a seizure on game day as the coach of the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium exactly as often as he wins a Big Ten game. He’s 4-for-16 in both categories.” (Souhan’s working a context where Kill’s health issues are bad for the football program. But by elevating Kill’s winning percentage to the same level of concern as his health diminishes the appearance of concern for the latter. It’s what you call “playing too cute for your own good.”)

“No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.” (College sports’ money issues are legendary and scandalous, even in a football wasteland like Minnesota. But again, mashing the two together — money and a man’s health — is callous, at best, and asking for trouble. Besides, as at least one commenter noted, fans pay top dollar every weekend with some expectation that they’ll see a 20 year-old kid carted off the field with shredded knee or worse.)

“Kill is unable to fulfill his duties.” (Really? I don’t think Souhan came close to proving that point. Or even trying.)

What I mean by the special license sports columnists have is this. They are writing for a heavily male audience that enjoys provocative writing reflective of a “man’s world”, i.e. a place where you call ’em as you see ’em, where lousy performance and incompetence are ridiculing offenses and where everyone’s tough enough to play again tomorrow after getting their feelings hurt. Look around the sportswriting landscape today. It’s one of the more talent-rich and compelling landscapes in the mainstream press because writers aren’t pulling punches, slathering their copy with consensus-conscious euphemisms and turning a blind eye to hypocrisy and incompetence. The contrast, as I say, with most papers’ metro and opinion columns is pretty damned stark.

But every provocateur risks going steps too far. It’s very much the nature of the broader media world today, outside stodgy daily newspapers. There’s career traction in upping the ante on “calling ’em, as you see ’em.” Hell, push it further and there might even be another paycheck in it, from sports radio, which is far less concerned with hurting feelings and sounding cloddish than mom and dad’s morning paper.

Souhan, who is still living in the shadow of Dan Barreiro, a guy who flexed a dagger with the best of them and has been well rewarded for it, simply “over-exploited” his provocateur license. It happens when you try to push itr “to the next level” to borrow a tired sports cliche. But there was no need to flex tough with an epileptic.

But my larger point here is the irony that Souhan style calling-out of sacred cows is now entirely the province of the sports department … where adults write about games.

The Star Tribune, which memorably prohibited its columnists from writing about the final stages of the presidential campaign in 2008, has taken a route much like every other regional, second-tier paper, avoiding partisan controversy by focusing on stories and themes with much higher levels of consensus. This, as I’ve said before, despite the presence of Michele Bachmann, and to a (slightly) lesser degree, Tim Pawlenty, people who should have been to any healthy “call ’em, as you see ’em” newspaper columnist what Les Steckel, Norm Green, Mike Lynn, Ron Davis and J. R. Rider have been to the sports department.

The fair question has always been, “Are you exercising journalistic responsibility by ignoring or grossly under-playing flagrant, unprecedented dysfunction and dishonesty by the highest-profile characters on your beat?”

It’s hard to get too upset over an outburst from the toy department, when the adults are hamstrung by their unwillingness to get seriously tough with people who actually matter.

A Little Transparency Please for the “American Experiment”

NEW SLAUGHTERHere in Minnesota, there’s an organization called The Center of the American Experiment. It describes itself as ” a nonpartisan, tax-exempt, public policy and educational institution”, which means it must live by a fairly strict set of guidelines to avoid taxation. Despite being “non-partisan” the Center is an avowedly conservative collection of people formed into what is commonly described as a “think tank.” The best known face of the group is Katharine Kersten, former full-time, now part-time Star Tribune columnist.

The principal executive and flesh-presser is founder and president, Mitch Pearlstein, an affable, engaging character who has managed to keep the group’s visibility higher than most of its ilk for 25-odd years. Well, Mitch is currently engaged in and I suspect enjoying a public tussle with one of the great conservative betes noires of his time, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, he of stifling-the-freedom-of-our-money-lenders-to-do-what-they-need-to-do-on-behalf-of-The People fame.

In a nutshell Durbin wrote Mitch a letter asking him to reveal, publicly and transparently, the Center’s financial relationship with the, some say, (hell, I say), notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Durbin correctly smells the ALEC’s territory markings all over the “Stand Your Ground” laws that suddenly/simultaneously blossomed in practically every state in the country, red states first.

Mitch is outraged! So much so he fired off a commentary in the Strib this past week accusing Durbin of everything short of being an agent for the Stasi. (As I say, this sort of “heavy hand of big government” is red meat for The Center, so you can hardly blame them for making an assault on their fundamental freedoms a cause celebre.)

A couple of choice moments from Mitch (and COO Kim Crockett’s) piece.

Continue reading “A Little Transparency Please for the “American Experiment””

Let’s Check our Stadium Chump-dom on the Replay

NEW SLAUGHTERThe decent thing to say would be that since all of us blunder from time to time we shouldn’t get all fiery righteous when our elected leaders screw the pooch, even in a really big, major league way.

But I won’t go there. Decency is above me. There were enough of us a year ago screaming that the NFL and the Wilf family were playing us and our top-tier politicians for provincial chumps that we get this moment. We get to screw the phony compassion and tolerance bit and enjoy a moment of sweet, sweet vindication.

Over the past week it has been revealed first by Jean Hopfensperger at the Strib and then amplified by Tim Nelson at MPR (who has followed the Vikings stadium financing saga better than anyone else in the local institutional media) that the state took it’s patently absurd estimates of likely revenue from expanded, electronic gambling … from the gambling industry intent on selling them the iPad-like machines needed to play. As you may have followed, the Dayton administration first said it was unaware of the source of the numbers that showed the state raking in an easy $67 million a year from a new feeding frenzy among barflys and rubes.  More than enough to cover the $348 million “share” the state (i.e. you and me) agreed to kick in to build the Vikings/NFL a new Xanadu-like football palace. Hell, Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans, an otherwise bright enough guy, even called those numbers “conservative”.

Ignore the fact no one had ever attempted to close a $348 million hole in a $970 million deal with this gimmick before.

After Dayton’s office offered that unfortunate “unaware of the source” explanation, Nelson checked the files and re-discovered a two year-old statement … by the Dayton administration … acknowledging that the aforementioned (absurd) numbers were coming from some gambling outpost in Florida. At which point the Team Dayton story switched to something like … “Well there were so many numbers flying around back then who could possibly keep them all straight?”

(And I ask you for chrissakes, Florida? Gambling experts? … in Florida? Mullets, dead manatees, shirtless hillbilly meth-heads hiding under double-wides? And no one was suspicious enough to get a second opinion? What if I said a Russian guy I know has a trunk full of Rolecks watches? Do you start lining up in the parking lot with rolls of Twenties?)

Continue reading “Let’s Check our Stadium Chump-dom on the Replay”

Where Have All the “Reader Advocates” Gone?

NEW SLAUGHTERAmong the things that continue to amaze me is how little thoughtful, generally well-informed people care about the steady demise of newspapers. It may be that after a half decade or more of hysterical death knells such people have stopped believing the Star Tribunes and Pioneer Presses of the world are really going to go away.

Or … it may be that even the thoughtful and generally well-informed have lost whatever emotional attachment they once had to papers, which is odd considering how the internet with its “comment”-ability would seem to offer more ability than ever for readers to interact — emotionally and otherwise — with those that deliver the news (as those that deliver news define news).

Word that the Washington Post has joined the list of papers dismissing their ombudsman — the allegedly independent voice that both solicited reader complaints and issued a judgment on the quality of the paper’s work —  seems like a good moment to address what’s wrong here. Largely, I’m in agreement with veteran media writer Jack Shafer, who writes:

“As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired …

But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post.  … No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.”

You will not be surprised to learn that neither of our two local dailies has ever turned such responsibility over to someone who wasn’t one of their paid and trusted employees, someone who could be counted on to “over”-represent the paper and apply team-think opacity rather than embarrassing transparency.

The reason for papers’ disinterest in the sort of brave and bold oversight Ben Bradlee suggested echoes a couple recent threads here on The SRC. Namely, the discussion after Bob Woodward’s pissy overreaction to a White House e-mail, and our new policy moderating the worst of the trolls.

Point being no one anywhere likes being told, in public, that they’re wrong, or that they’ve screwed-up, least of all journalists. Reporters and editors have extraordinarily high regard for their probity and wisdom, and already feel perpetually embattled by both cloddish know-nothings and smart-ass ideologues eager to witness their final fiery impact.

If there’s a walking hell worse than the person who outs a reporter for laziness, a breach of ethics, or an entire big city paper for timidity in the face of great civic peril, or gross conflict of interests (**VIKINGSSTADIUM!!**) I don’t know what it is. Maybe a snitch in the Baltimore drug trade. The social/professional peril for that person is nigh on to mortal. But it is what has to be risked to be of any real value, if  “reader advocacy” and “transparency” mean anything besides corporate buzz-blather for “return deflective fire”.

The reason neither local paper bothers with even the pretense of formal, regular, ongoing public accountability is that done badly and irregularly, it only serves to feed its enemies, the PowerLines of the world, adversaries determinedly selling the “reckless liberal bias” meme to their retrograde readership.

But that is almost precisely the reason to have a fully independent ombudsman, on duty throughout the day every day, rather than beard-stroking once every other Sunday. Here at SRC and other good blogs (if I must say so myself) our new “moderation” serves first to block out the worst of the socially maladjusted numbskulls, the inflamed clods who soil the punch bowl for everyone involved, while our interaction, generally speaking, has the intended effect of clarifying gaps in our original posts. (It doesn’t always work that way. But then we’re not always sober, unlike everybody working in newspapers.)

If the Star Tribune parked a Ben Bradlee-style ombudsman on its comment lines, sifting through the most trenchant complaint or observations and offering near-real time response, I kinda think the paper would win national kudos for getting its big boy/big girl pants on right and showing genuine courage in the face of enemy fire. Moreover, based on the comments we can all read on the Strib site, the majority of the complaints border on rank, ideological nonsense and can be easily dismissed with withering authority.

On the occasion that the paper or a reporter really shanks one into the woods … well, it’s not like no one noticed, and they only look worse when they send a hapless employee apologist out to explain how tough it is to do “great journalism” under deadline pressure and the vital need to sustain “open lines of communication” with powerful local business interests.

Just as no one gets ’em all right, the public institutions that try to imply a reputation both beyond and immune to reproach is really only baiting its enemies and dismaying its allies.

Post-Sandy Hook, an Acid Test for Actual Leadership

NEW SLAUGHTERMuch like how the word “hero” has been devalued by slapping it on every kid who scores a goal in PeeWee soccer, instead of remaining exclusive to people who risk life and limb to save or protect someone or something else, the word “leader” has also been diminished in recent years. An indispensable (and irresistible) tic of marketing jargon, “leader” today has been pretty much reduced to describing anyone who “wins”, which is to say “leads” in ratings, sales, revenue, page views, and Twitter followers.

Excuse me, but I prefer a bit more cred in my definition  of “leader”. I want something that has a fat chunk of the old school criteria of “hero” wrapped up in it. Where “leader” described, for example, a person who dares to take the first step into a dangerous, perilous environment because it’s the right thing to do and because … someone has to show courage and risk pain to get the tough things done.

President Obama gave another moving speech Sunday night at the memorial for the kids and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School. But after delivering four of these eulogies in four years (and passing on literally a dozen other “opportunities”) I don’t know what the guy can possibly say the next time, beyond, “This shit has got to stop.”

To date, Obama the deft politician, has played the far margins of America’s highly irrational gun “debate”. Every strategist has no doubt told him that there is no “winning” in any attempt to legislate sanity into the sub-culture of gun obsessives, people who regard their “right” to own and stockpile home arsenals as an imperative equivalent to breathing. Even at this moment, after his unspecific call to do “something”, Obama has to be calculating the effect of merely hinting at new controls on assault rifles, high-capacity ammo clips, hand guns, registration loopholes and internet ammo sales.

If his election in ’08 (and again last moth) setting off a buying frenzy among the country’s gun fetishists, convinced without reason that a socialist, liberal, black, Kenyan Muslim was going to send Black Helicopters full of ATF agents to confiscate their AR-15 squirrel-hunting rifle, you can only imagine the hysteria that will follow word — via Rush Limbaugh, FoxNews and local outlets like Phoenix’ “Gun Talk Radio” — that the bastard was actually making a move. By day’s end, every ammo warehouse in Pahrump, Nevada be stripped clean, and crowds out front would be milling ravenously, like extras from “The Walking Dead”.

Perhaps even worse, a serious, coordinated move on weapons of mass human slaughter would have the political effect of sucking the air out of every other thing Obama wants to accomplish in a second term. What he is weighing, I suspect is that lacking a constructive agenda of their own, Republicans, led by their “entertainment news complex”, have only obstructionism as a means to impact legislation. The GOP’s radical base would love nothing more than a fight over “constitutional rights” as a way to avoid dealing with genuine tax reform, entitlement spending, climate change … and every other thing we need the government to act on.

But upon the bodies of 20 bullet-riddled grade schoolers (and their teachers) Obama may have arrived at a point where he has no choice. Playing the deft political game of strategic avoidance isn’t going to cut it anymore. We may have reached a point where not just his base, but a critical mass of the “reality based” public will hold his legacy accountable if he fails to make a serious, concerted effort on gun control. An effort to defeat the roiling, semi-to-outright fanatical subculture that to date has successfully obstructed every attempt to put the United States on a civilized, first-world, 21st century legal footing regarding private gun ownership.

But we the public have good reason to expect effective leadership from others in addition to Obama. The regularly pilloried news media — credible institutions like daily newspapers and affiliate TV news rooms — are also in a position of having to put some skin in a risky, fight-worth-having. I note the Star Tribune this morning editorializing against assault rifles, high-capacity clips and the familiar litany of flabbergasting absurdities in our gun “laws”. Thank you, for that. But the Strib might be well advised to make the peeling of the onion of gun obsession a major commitment over the coming months.

Likewise, TV news, which floats on a marketing plan of neighborliness and fraternity while simultaneously lubricating its revenue stream with ghoulish coverage of any kind of mayhem that delivers “hot pictures”, is going to have to decide if it’s going to be part of the solution or just continue playing professional empaths to the latest appalling tragedy. It’s nice that all the local anchors demonstrate paternal concern after every one of these atrocities. But it would be far more helpful if they actually acted like the “leaders” they constantly promote themselves as being and also took a public stand in support of correcting gross misperceptions about violence in America, (we’re safer in our homes than we’ve ever been), if not the regulations most of the reporters, anchors, and news directors know are long, long overdue.

While I seriously doubt TV stations will get anywhere near such leadership, and newspapers will largely wall it off in earnest editorials, everyone effected by this kind of home-brewed terrorism needs to be honest about who were dealing with and what we’re afraid of.

Everyone can pick their favorite research, but the most credible is clear that an obsession with guns has profound psycho-sexual roots in feelings of inadequacy, marginalization, lack of power over personal fate, graspings for respect and authority and of course some level of paranoia. These aren’t  just references to the Jared Loughners, James Holmes and Adam Lanzas of the world — clear psychological basket cases — but fundamentally anyone who stockpiles ammo, “collects” assault rifles and makes the manifestly irrational argument in favor of military killing machines, high-capacity clips, internet ammo sales, etc.

Moreover, as I’m certain Obama well knows, the crowd who makes these pro-assault weapon arguments (otherwise known as the “arm the teachers” argument) is essentially the same crowd also making irrational, emotion-based arguments denying human-caused climate change, insisting only tax breaks for the wealthy and social cuts for the poor (and mentally unbalanced) can pull us out of recession, that “legitimate rape” prevents conception, that evolution is an unproven theory and on … and on.

The time for a “public dialogue” with this crowd is over. That dialogue, really an eye-glazing ranting match, has been had ad nauseam. There is no productive point to it. Their arguments were long since exposed as fallacious and nonsensical.

But that crowd can still do plenty of mayhem. They form the basis of the “primary challenge” scenario that terrifies every Republican incumbent. They will empty their bank accounts to support everyone taking a harder, tougher, crazier stand than the guy wobbling in the face of being shamed into voting for the right thing.

Politicians and anyone else daring to promote themselves as a community leader is going to have to suck it up, gird themselves, take the flack — and hit to advertiser dollars, if … if … they have any conscience about being a responsible citizen.

Over the past decade, counting the build up of the intelligence industry and two wars in the Middle East, United States taxpayers has spent well over a trillion dollars fighting terrorism, which is generally defined as any act that injects a pervasive fear into the population. So what else to do you call this gun insanity? What has to stop first is the craven pandering to and avoidance of a political subset most notable for their irrational fear-mongering (with, As I say, rates of violence ironically declining in all Western cultures), hot button hysteria and the willingness to support their most cherished single issue with their checkbooks.

Genuine leaders will have to isolate this sub-culture, by calling it out for what it is, and then take the fight directly into its face by laying out how the rest of us — including cherubic grade schoolers — are being held prey to their paranoia.

U Learn from U10?

On the anniversary of the I35W bridge collapse, I still wonder if Minnesota collectively learned the lessons that will help us prevent future infrastructure disasters.  I’m just not sure the news media was at its best on this story, as former Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman points out today on his blog.  The Star Tribune’s Tony Kennedy did uncover photos of the bent gusset in the investigation file, and that was some terrific journalism.  But that story begged for important follow-up questions that I’m not sure ever were posed.

The questions I had on November 14, 2008 when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came out with its final report are the same questions I have today.  And four years later, I worry that a smaller group of news reporters has even less capacity to investigate such complex stories than it had then.

For old times sake on this sad anniversary, my earlier bridge collapse questions from my November 14, 2008 post follow.  They weren’t comfortable to pose then, because no one likes finger-pointing.  They are no more comfortable to pose now.  But if we want to learn from history, the questions have to be asked…

U See U10, U Fix U10?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that the I35W bridge collapse was caused by undersized gusset plates and oversized construction load, and that corrosion did not cause the collapse. I’m as far from an engineer as you can get, but all of that makes logical sense to me.

But it strikes me that the NTSB made an error of ommission. It failed to explore why no steps were taken to address a gusset plate that was known to be badly warped, more than four years before the collapse.

Some terrific investigative reporters at the Star Tribune discovered that Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) bridge inspectors had a June 12, 2003 photo of a very warped U10 gusset plate in their inspection file. U10 is the plate that NTSB says failed.

That part of the process seemed to work well, and we should be comforted by that. Inspectors spotted and documented a major problem.

But then what? Did the inspector report the problem to superiors? Did the inspectors’ superiors discuss options for strengthening the warped plate? If strengthening or replacing was technically infeasible, did MnDOT consider closing the bridge, as they have in the face of similar problems in St. Cloud and Hastings?

Assuming the plate couldn’t be fixed, why didn’t someone at least warn against parking several tons of construction equipment — reportedly the largest load the bridge had ever borne, equal to the weight of a 747 jet — directly on top of the badly warped U10 gusset?

These are legitimate questions that the NTSB seems to have bypassed.

Think of it this way. Imagine if a doctor spotted a tumor, stuck a PET scan of it in the file, labeled the tumor an unfortunate biological design flaw, and took no further action to prevent further damage from the flaw. The doctor would be 100% correct; the tumor is a design flaw, and not her fault. But the doctor would still need to explore all options for removing, killing or slowing the tumor.

And so it goes with MnDOT. The NTSB seems to have done excellent work examining the strictly technical issues behind the collapse. But for whatever reason, it stopped short of delving into the human and process issues.

I have no interest in villifying MnDOT. They do amazing work that keeps us safe, and keeps our society and economy humming along. I just want to see a great agency get better. There was a gap between inspectors seeing the flawed U10 gusset plate and MnDOT doing anything about it. To prevent future catastrophes, NTSB needs to help us understand the reasons for that gap.

The Power of a Summary

Hospitals generate reams of patient safety-related data.  But that alone doesn’t make them accountable.

There is power in that data– the power to arm patients and purchasers with the information they need to demand better.  But in the unorganized, unsummarized aggregate, the data are not so powerful. Not to patients anyway.  Obviously, individual patients don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to decipher, organize, summarize and promote the hospital data on their own.  Therefore,  the hospitals’ data are effectively invisible to them.

The hospital data only realizes its potential power in the marketplace when boiled down into something that can be understood by patients at-a-glance, because a glance is all that most of us are willing to give the subject.  Only when boiled down will the hospital data be accessible enough to drive purchasing decisions.

And that is what a national patient safety group called Leapfrog did this week when it summarized hospitals’ patient safety data into school-like grades.  Casting judgements about hospitals is perilous business, because hospitals are fiercely defensive institutions that understandably prefer to promote their miracles over their mistakes.  Though Minnesota hospital leaders were very courageous a few years back to begin publicly disclosing their medical errors, hospital advocates in Minnesota pooh-poohed Report Card Day:

“It’s really a repackaging of what’s publicly available,” (Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) data expert Mark) Sonneborn said.

I really should have tried that one when I was a lad.  “Chill mom, that “D” in Social Studies is actually just a repackaging of information that has been available to you all semester.”

Yes, the data behind the grades is available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  So, if I understood which measures were most meaningful, and I don’t, it would have been technically possible for me to construct the spreadsheet that the Leapfroggers did, and make some kind of a comparison on my own.

But the practical reality is that I never did, and never would.  Life is just too busy to summarize all the data impacting my life.  And even if I was geeky enough to do my own little patient safety data research project, the effort would only benefit me, and not the rest of the country.

MHA is correct that Leapfrog’s methodology is just “repackaging.” But the grades will drive quality improvements much faster than the status quo way of managing the data.  Because whether a hospital got an “A” or a “F” grade, the minute hospital leaders know that easily understood grades are going to be regularly appearing in the hometown news media and competitors’ marketing materials is the moment they start investing more effort, thought and resources into patient safety improvements.    With the advent of publicized grades, they now know that consumers and purchasers will use their new found knowledge to vote with their feet, and their pocketbooks.

Markets work if consumers are informed, and the beauty of the grades is that they are simple enough to do that.  Lifesaving work is most often done by the miracle workers in hospitals wielding scalpels, microscopes, medications, lasers, gauze, latex, disinfectants and needles.  To be sure, these folks are heros.  But lifesaving work can also be done, indirectly, by data jockeys wielding spreadsheets and press releases.  Leapfrog, I give you an “A.”

– Loveland

Corporate Consensus-Think and Scott Walker.

Conventional wisdom says Scott Walker will survive is recall election today by about four points. And that … this will have a momentary energizing effect on Republican hyper-partisans from coast to coast …and create in Scott Walker another of the party’s instant ideological heroes — along the lines of Herman Cain. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and a handful of others who appeared at first glance to embody everything the new conservative movement regards as right, just and fiscally prudent.

The post-mortem on the union/Democrat loss of this election will focus on the weaker turn out among the anti-Walker forces, the lack of a full-bodied commitment on the part of the national Democrats, Barack Obama’s distance from the fray and … I can hope … the puzzling attitude among certain institutions who viewed the whole recall idea as misguided and inappropriate. Nothing represents this attitude better than the Star Tribune’s Sunday editorial, titled, “Wrongheaded recall divides Wisconsin”. And yes, please note the phrasing of the headline.

It was the recall, not Scott Walker’s policies that divided Wisconsin. I wish I could laugh.

The cliche at moments like this is to huff that, “No one reads papers anymore. Who cares what editorials say.” But that “no one” doesn’t include most people who care enough about important, relevant issues … and therefore read newspapers and blogs and involve themselves in the debates of the day.

The Strib says at one point, “Although we disagree with Walker on bargaining rights and other issues, this is not an endorsement of either candidate in the Wisconsin race. Rather, it’s a rejection of a recall system that should be used to remove corrupt officeholders — not to protest legislation passed by elected representatives.

Except of course in Wisconsin “should be used” is actually “can be used”, which means that if you do something that so royally pisses off 930,000 eligible voters you do run the risk of a recall election. What both the Strib and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which endorsed Walker in 2010 and again here in 2012 prefer to gloss over is that Walker never mentioned his intention of moving on collective bargaining rights at any time in his campaign. He has flat-out lied that he did, but has never produced a record of doing so in public, where a voter might hear him.

Imagine for a moment a scenario where a liberal candidate spends a year or more running for election, chatting up editorial boards and slapping backs at main street cafes and then upon winning election announces — out of the blue – a full court press for hefty tax increases on upper income voters. He never mentioned anything about it during the campaign … but he has the votes and rams it through. Would the editorial board be as sanguine? Would the phrase “gross abuse of power” be in regular, prominent use once the parties most effected staged their uprising?

The sad fact with most editorial boards is that their default position is something close to corporate-consensus libertarian. Their business model, and the bubble culture they live in, must be inordinately responsive to established business interests, very few of whom care much about collective bargaining or $8000/year pay cuts for middle class government employees. If those employees, most with college educations and professional training, are reduced to the level of less educated/trained private sector workers … all the better. A libertarian world is by definition a Darwinian place.

Also, and this is one of my favorite perspectives, the tweedy world of middle-brow newspaper editorial boards requires a mindset that only recognizes radical behavior among the unwashed — the Occupy kids and your occasional neo-Nazi. Everything else is politics as normal. There are no alarming insurgencies in American politics. Hence the institutional reluctance to describe a phenomenon like Michele Bachmann as “radical”, or “reckless”, or “absurd”. Ditto just about any manifestation of the Tea Party.

To a mainstream, corporate consensus editorial board there is no upside to acknowledging anything radical –much less taking a principled stand against — a major party politician gaming the election process (lack of disclosure of a primary legislative goal) that favorably impacts vested interests.

With Walker safely reaffirmed, we’ll be interested in the consensus attitude toward his nagging “John Doe” scandal.


We Are Such Chumps for the NFL.

I have some sympathy for Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who so royally stepped in it last week. If you read the Strib — go ahead, rip away — you know that Souhan tore a GOP Rep. by the name of Dean Urdahl a new one for lacking the brains to NOT ask Vikings management why state taxpayers should build a stadium for a billionaire owner. Souhan descended on Urdahl like a starved turkey vulture on a fresh pork chop, basically calling him every name short of a toe-sucking pedophile … without checking the transcript enough to note that Urdahl’s question was couched as “a question a I hear a lot … ” and he ended up voting for the stadium in that particular committee.

So … Souhan spent the rest of his week taking shots from David Brauer, Urdahl in the Strib and the usual newspaper-hating trolls.

But amid an outbreak of the brain-eating contagion known as journalistic group think, what’s a poor sports guy supposed to do? Souhan is a team guy covering team sports for Team Strib, and Team Strib has not been shy about presenting a $973 million taxpayer-financed Vikings stadium as an unalloyed good/benefit/life-affirming necessity for the community of Minnesota. I’ll assume Souhan actually believes what he wrote. But he’s in a job where I very seriously doubt he or anyone of his stature with the paper could get anything skeptical much less negative about the stadium published.

The paper’s beat reporters, Mike Kaszuba in particular, have done a respectable job covering the shifting tides of fate, but the Op-Ed page and Sid and everyone else attached to sports long ago slashed their palms, grasped hands and chanted a blood oath to see only upside to giving the Vikings and the NFL … essentially the same deal the league slapped down in front of our elected leaders months ago. Oh, ten or twenty million has shifted here and there, but fundamentally we’re still talking the largest public subsidy for a private business in the state’s history … and we’re not talking taxpayer cash for a world-class lab to cure cancer … we’re talking about a football stadium/TV studio controlled by one of the wealthiest entertainment monopolies on the planet.

Mainstream news organizations still have this quaint and kinda cute ‘Marcus Welby-ish’ idea that they have an obligation to lead their community through life’s difficult decisions. Not all the time, mind you. There are exceptions.

If it means looking too close at what a noted arts philanthropist has done with his stock options, or how his gargantuan health insurance organization has sucked hundreds of millions of dollars of sheer profit out of a bloated and thoroughly gamed medical industry that kind of discomfiting tale can be told by The Wall Street Journal. Likewise, a warm and nurturing hometown media player wants to lay back on the appalling rhetorical dishonesty of its highest profile politician as she makes a fool of herself running for president. Ditto connecting the dots between the most fervid of the anti-government crowd and the constant government assistance they require to keep the electricity on and their TVs tuned to FoxNews.

Those kinds of things are messy and rancorous and make for unpleasant cocktail party interactions.

But … a gorgeous stadium … a technological marvel … a visual icon … for Our Team? You can’t be pro-active enough!

Let me be blunt. The Strib’s behavior in regards to its drumbeat boosterism for the NFL’s stadium package has been disgraceful, if only for how much they and by extension we look like a bunch of chumps. (Local TV is of course worse. But why would you expect otherwise? The various stations really should dress their anchors in culottes, tight sweaters — the women and men both — and have them shake pom-poms from the news set, for the non-existent level of skepticism they’ve applied to their “coverage”).

What appalls me most is that no one in Minnesota — politicians or mainstream press — seems to have seriously applied even minimal bargaining pressure on the NFL. To hell with the Wilfs, the other 31 owners are the people we’re really dealing with here. There was a time when big city newspaper columnists, sports and otherwise, could be counted on to be skeptical and intensely curmudgeonly about any slick suit who jetted in from the coast making artfully veiled threats about “lists of potential buyers”. Not so anymore. Certainly not in this case anyway. Those writers who aren’t sitting out the fight — over the largest taxpayer subsidy in state history — are all for it, as it was presented to us by the NFL.

Ask yourself, given the bargaining skills evident in this stadium scheme, would you have the Mayor, the Governor or Ted Mondale negotiate a trade for a used Hyundai for you? The concept of leverage is apparently a foreign language to them. And their embarrassing obeisance to NFL royalty should be tailor made for constant, hilarious public mockery.

Reading through reams and reams of stadium coverage and punditry for The Glean over at MinnPost, I was struck last week by a story at Forbes (radical, anti-capitalist, hippie rag) reminding its readers that despite the NFL’s protestations to the contrary, expansion is an option the league at the very least wants to protect, and an expansion fee of upwards of a billion dollars would be a lot … a lot … tastier split among the NFL’s 32 owners than the $200 million relocation fee they might … might … squeeze out of whoever buys the Vikings from Zygi Wilf and “asks” to move them to L.A.

Moreover, if I’m AEG tycoon Phil Anschutz in Los Angeles, and I’m watching the drama in Minnesota, I’m thinking to myself, “The NFL has no choice but to play tough in Minnesota. The league knows it is courting serious financial pain if it doesn’t slap down and snuff out the precedent of using its own money to build stadiums in medium markets. They have no choice but to move the Vikings rather than add more league money to that deal. Well shit, I’m a fool if I don’t play that to my advantage. When a guy has to do something, has no other viable choice, that’s when the worm turns in your favor. I’ll make ’em sweat that relocation fee down to a hell of a lot less than $200 million … just so they can show Minnesota and everyone else who rules this island.”

But instead of anything from our principal leaders or press suggesting we play tougher with the NFL, we get the lamest rationale of all — and this time I’m not talking about how with the Vikings goes our “major league status”. No. The lamest of all is the scary story about how five years after the Vikings leave we’ll pay half again as much or more to build a stadium for an expansion team.

Really? How opaque is the bubble you’re living in if you can even imagine his state will pop for vastly more taxpayer money to lure back an entertainment option 98% of the fans only watch on TV?

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

Minnesotans Shouldering Hidden Anti-Obamacare Tax

This week the Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) announced that its member hospitals paid $226 million in “charity care” last year. The MHA is referring to instances when uninsured and underinsured patients are unable to pay their hospital bills, and the hospitals get stuck with the expenses.

While the term “charity care” is used by hospitals, hospitals don’t end up bearing the whole burden. They make up for the bills substantially by charging more to their insured patients, and insurance companies subsequently shift these higher costs to insurance premium payers.

This post isn’t meant to be a criticism of either the hospitals or the insurers. They would go out of business if they couldn’t shift costs.

Supporters of preserving the Anti-Obamacare Tax.
But it is meant to be a criticism of Obamacare obstructionists. The MHA numbers are a reminder that those who have been aggressively blocking efforts to reduce the number of uninsured and underinsured through Obamacare are responsible for maintaining what is akin to an enormous annual tax on premium payers. An Anti-Obamacare Tax.

Given that a fully implemented Obamacare is predicted to reduce the uninsured rate from today’s 50.7 million people to about 18.7 million, and the number of underinsured people by about 70%, leaders opposing Obamacare in Congress, state legislatures and federal courts are effectively blocking the elimination of a huge annual burden on American households. If the anti-Obamacare obstructionists win, we all keep paying this Anti-Obamacare Tax.

And it’s not a small tax. In Ramsey County, taxpayers are up in arms over a proposed $10 million per year tax for the Vikings stadium. This hidden Anti-Obamacare Tax is much more painful. The Center for American Progress finds “on average, 8 percent of families’ 2009 health care premiums—approximately $1,100 a year—is due to our broken system that fails to cover the uninsured.”

– Loveland

Ham(line) Handed PR

Kudos to Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin for by far the best coverage of last week’s dispute about former GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer’s bid to become a professor at Hamline University.

In last week’s coverage, Emmer was claiming he had an informal handshake agreement, though not a contractual agreement, to teach at Hamline. Emmer maintained that Hamline later reneged under pressure from liberal faculty members.

From last week’s coverage, I couldn’t tell if Emmer was exagerating the firmness of the handshake agreement he and Hamline had actually reached. But in his Sunday column, Tevlin uncovered several Emmer emails that show the claimed Emmer-Hamline handshake was bonecrunchingly firm. There are unambiguous statements from Hamline leaders in those emails, such as “Tom Emmer is going to teach it.”

Tevlin did the by far best reporting on this issue, and he also did the best opining:

I have no idea if Emmer would be a good teacher. He’s certainly not known as an intellectual or deep thinker, but a lot of colleges are convalescent homes for retired or failed Democrats, so he’s certainly not a stretch. I’m guessing he’d give a lot of students the opportunity to hone their arguments, and there’s value in that. My two best professors in political science were a socialist and the then-head of the GOP. They both made me think, and that’s what education is about. Hamline could have handled this worse, but I’m not sure how.

Hamline didn’t break a contract, but it did reveal itself to be narrow minded. They should have let Emmer teach.

– Loveland

When In Doubt, Cry “Liberal Bias!”

In today’s news, Michelle Bachmann is protesting that she is not getting equal limelight in the GOP Presidential nomination debates, and that this injustice is driven by liberal reporters. Her campaign manager:

“We need to show the liberal media elite that we won’t stand for this outrageous manipulation.”

We have to remember where Representative Bachmann is coming from. For the last few years, this junior member of the House has owned the news airwaves. She may have enjoyed more blanket news coverage than any other member of Congress, with the possible exception of congressional leadership. Bachmann has become accustomed to saying outrageous things and becoming the center of attention for days on end. Heady stuff. But now after she says outrageous things at debates, indifferent reporters quickly move to “what say you, Mitt, Rick and Herman?” Getting blown off by fickle reporters is a new sensation for her.

Happier times.
Bachmann’s claim is partially correct. She is not getting equal debate billing with the frontrunners. We didn’t need an email from CBS News to tell us that. As always, candidates showing stronger support in polls are getting the most attention from reporters. Continue reading “When In Doubt, Cry “Liberal Bias!””

Visual Editorializing

I concur with the Star Tribune’s take on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s Newsweek cover photo. The Strib’s Jill Burcum wrote:

The photo isn’t just unflattering. It goes way beyond that, making the three-term Congresswoman look unbalanced. It’s the kind of photo you expect to see in a political attack ad, not on the cover of a mainstream news magazine.

After its photo shoot, Newsweek surely had a large stock of flattering proofs, along with some unflattering ones. Newsweek chose a bad one, and that constitutes a cheap shot.

Burcum also maintains that the Newsweek cover photo decision had a gender component:

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin is also raising fair concerns about unflattering photos of other conservative women, among them Condoleeza Rice. I’d say that the many ghastly shots of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s cankles and pantsuits through the years suggest gender is the issue, not politics.

I agree that female politicians’ looks get over-analyzed. But then again, Mitt’s plastic hair and expensive suits, Newt’s girth, Huck’s weight loss, Pawlenty’s mullet, John Edwards’ dazzling dental assets, Obama’s shirtless beach shots are hardly ignored in the news media.

Moreover, Bachmann is not the first politician to be portrayed by the media in photos that are markedly less flattering their official photo. Some of the others are liberal, and men.

Visual editorializing cuts across gender and ideology. It is more insidious than verbal editorializing, because it is more subtle and subliminal. News outlets aren’t obligated to use leaders’ official glamour shots every single time. But there is no good reason to go out of the way to show them at their visual worst.

– Loveland

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.

The Only Question: Who Gets Rolled in the Vikings Stadium Deal?


– The Mgmt.


The Strib Almost, Just About, Kind of Calls Pawlenty a Liar.


– The Mgmt.

Poll: Perceived Electability May Not Be Horner’s Biggest Challenge


Horn-O-Meter Bursts Onto Political Scene


Three Screeds for the Price of One.


– The Mgmt.


Headline Ruse


Denny and Tom and Tim: How They Get Away With It.


– The Mgmt.


Minnesota’s Reagan?

Former Minnesota House Speaker Matt Entenza’s critics derisively labeled him “Taxandspendza” because he rejected the “no new taxes” gospel preached by Minnesota Taxpayer League disciples.

But now that the DFLer is running for Governor, has he undergone political plastic surgery? Consider his commentary in today’s Star Tribune:

“We cannot simply tax our way out of our deficit; we must grow our way out of it.”

Hey, wait a minute. That sounds vaguely familiar. I’m having flashbacks to the early 1980s. I’m listening to a presidential address, with Oingo Boingo on the turntable in the background:

“Governments don’t reduce deficits by raising taxes on the people; governments reduce deficits by controlling spending and stimulating new wealth.”

Continue reading “Minnesota’s Reagan?”

Will MPR save journalism?

I assure you I’m neither the first nor the last keyboard jockey to ask this post’s titular question, but this article from Ken Doctor has me thinking again about it. (In fact, last time I was on this kick, I was writing about NPR and, a quick check reveals, I used an awfully similar headline.)

Public radio and its audience is growing like weeds — highly literate, well-informed weeds — and Minnesota’s public radio outlet is one of the true trailblazers. And let’s not put too much stock in that whole “radio” label. I listen to a ton of MPR on 91.1 FM, but that’s but a fraction of the content the organization called Minnesota Public Radio pumps out.

It’s hard to deny that, in this age of online journalism and audience engagement through social media, MPR is doing great work. And I’m sure that will continue. But will MPR continue on a path of impressive, intelligent growth?

I can’t help but wonder if much of the growth is simply a matter of MPR just catching up to where it should have been all along. Freed from its radio-only past, perhaps MPR’s new, larger audience is just a reflection of the potential it always had, rather than some “my ever-skinnier newspaper isn’t getting the job done” exodus to MPR. So now that they’re (potentially, theoretically) reaching that point of equilibrium, is there more growth to be had?

As the Star Tribune “bristles at MPR’s ambition,” I look forward to the fight. With any luck, it’ll make ’em all — the Strib, the PiPress, MinnPost, everyone — stronger.

Photo courtesy of .nate via Flickr

Media Misses Health Trend Story Behind Rating

We’re number six! We’re number six!

It’s not exactly the cheer proud Minnesotans are accustomed to when it comes to health. After all, for four years in a row we were the number one healthiest state in the nation, according to the United Health Foundation. Health has always been one of the centerpieces of our vaunted Minnesota quality of life, but this is the third straight year we’ve been trending downward.

If we stopped dropping at number six, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But unfortunately, the future may not look so great either. The Minnesota news media reported on Minnesota’s sixth place rating, but none of them connected the policy dots to describe where Minnesota appears to be headed in coming years. As the liberal policy think tank Minnesota 20-20 points out:

The Governor’s cuts to GAMC (General Assistance Medical Care, a state-funded program for low-income adults who have no dependent children and who do not qualify for federally funded health care programs) will increase our number of uninsured come March 1, since not all GAMC recipients are qualified for the automatic transfer to MinnesotaCare. After the six month grace period is over, it is likely that many GAMC recipients will be unable to maintain their coverage through MinnesotaCare due to the procedural requirements and cost. The discontinuation of GAMC is part of a larger $1 billion cut to Health and Human Services and it remains to be seen just how these cuts will affect other programs.
Most of what Minnesota does well (in the United Health Foundation ratings measurements): low premature death rate, a low rate of deaths from cardiovascular disease, low infant mortality comes from the fact that we have a low rate of uninsured people in the state, but if this changes with the end to GAMC and overall cuts to the Department of Human Services, it is a good chance that there will be negative consequences to our low premature death rate, low cardiovascular deaths, and low infant mortality.

The once proud number one healthiest state is now envious of states in the top five. Will we soon be envious of states in the top ten or fifteen? We get a lot of news stories about the political gamesmanship aspects of unallotment. How about more stories about the quality-of-life impacts of the Governor’s unilateral cutting?

– Lovelandsba nice

PiPress gives the Strib a big, wet kiss

pipress_strib_adBob Collins at MPR’s NewsCut blog has an interesting story from this weekend. Apparently, the folks at the St. Paul Pioneer Press felt compelled to give their across-the-river competitors at the Minneapolis Star Tribune a nice big hug after the Strib clawed its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Click on the image to see a larger version in which you can read the entire text of the ad.

My favorite part? The comments on Collins’ story, which included this gem of a back-and-forth:

Here we are online discussing the apparent fate of 19th century dead tree edition media (ok it was high tech in those days)

Anybody else see the irony?

Posted by MNguy | October 4, 2009 9:58 PM

Yes, we are on an online site. One managed by a radio network, the same guys who were supposed to kill the newspapers in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and who were supposed to be killed along with the newspapers by television in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is indeed ironic.

Posted by Gardoglee | October 5, 2009 12:51 PM

Photo courtesy of MPR’s Bob Collins

Rocket Man

Sack Cartoons Pawlenty rocket man-1Here’s to the Star Tribune’s incomparable editorial cartoon genius Steve Sack.

And i think it’s gonna be a long long time,
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think i am at home.
Oh no no no, I’m a rocket man!
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.
And i think it’s gonna be a long long time…

– Elton John (channeling Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty)
“Rocket Man”

The Seven Words You Now CAN Say On New Media

8mischke0319The shape of the media is obviously changing. Old media is adapting and sometimes expiring. New media is experimenting, evolving, dying and sometimes flourishing. Where it all will land is anyone’s guess.

But one interesting implication of all these changes is that much of the content is now outside the control of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Remember comedian George Carlin’s bit, The Seven Words You Cannot Say On TV?” Well, now you most definitely can say them via new media.

That may not seem like a big deal, but if people speak like they do in real life, maybe they’ll be more real. And more real is very good.

Witness today’s episode of the online show hosted by Tommy Mischke, the uniquely talented former talk show host at KSTP-AM. These days he streams a thoughtful, raw show from, and today he interviewed long-time newspaper columnist Nick Coleman.

This is a more real voice of Coleman than you’ve heard in the mainstream media. This Nick Coleman joked about “spanking hot lobbyists” and the virtues of “commie rectum licking.” This Nick Coleman felt liberated enough to talk about how the Star Tribune, remarkably, forbade him from writing about the historic Obama inauguration. He talked about how his brother, the Mayor of St. Paul, was giving him the silent treatment because of his criticism of the St. Paul Police Department during the Republican National Convention (RNC), and how Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called him an “asshole.” This Tommy Mischke was able to say “bullshit” when he was thinking “bullshit,” and he was able to speak his mind about his opinion that the birther movement is all about racism.

Refreshing and honest, I think. Revolting and too rowdy, the FCC and corporate media management would say.

Anyway, consider checking out Tommy’s new show. It’s still very Tommy. But it’s Tommy Unplugged, and being off the leash particularly suits a unique talent like his.

It’s disheartening to see all of the upheaval in the mainstream media worlds. But humans still want and need information, news and entertainment, so if mainstream media dies off, something will replace it. And my kids may very well grow up with information sources that are much more robust and enlightening than what I grew up with. We are blessed to live in interesting times.

– Loveland

Will NPR save the news?

npr_logo200x200This Fast Company article about NPR — and its ability to kick journalistic ass and take donor names during the thought-to-be unversial media-business downturn — is a great read for anyone who’s intrigued by these “future of journalism” discussions or, more simply, who like a little Kerri Miller in the middle of their mornings.

According to this article, NPR is dramatically larger, in terms of audience and ground covered, than USA Today, Fox News, CNN and so many other “major” media outlets. NPR’s foundation/grant/donor model is working pretty well for the massive radio network, but it’s not without its flaws.

Much of the money flowing to NPR — which does no broadcasting of its own, just content creation — comes from local member stations across the country, like our own KNOW-FM in the Twin Cities. That’s worked pretty well so far, but with the border-bashing advent of the Web, so many of those member stations are now, in ways, in direct competition with the mothership. For example, KCRW is Los Angeles takes great pride in its music shows and performing guests. Now, with efforts including the launch of and the All Songs Considered podcast, NPR is sticking it to one of its largest individual sources of revenue.

There’s also the challenges of adapting content and tone to find a larger audience. As the Star Tribune fades, for example (and yes, the Strib is mentioned by name), will NPR choose to maintain that “makes you feel smart” aura or will it, say, “bone up on the wildcat offense” to fill in the common man gap between the Strib’s coverage and NPR’s reporting?

If anyone can figure this out, NPR can.

I hope.

StarTribune Outlook 2009

Nov. 17, 2008, memo from StarTribune publisher Chris Harte:

“A Preview of 2009

Over the past few weeks, many of us have working intensely on the 2009 Star Tribune budget. Even in normal times, budgeting is often hard and unpleasant. In times like these, it is agonizing.

Against the backdrop of the sudden and unexpected worldwide economic meltdown, we know — with near certainty — that Star Tribune revenue in 2009 will be substantially lower than it was in 2008. That means we will have to continue the aggressive cost reductions we have been pursuing these past two years in order to keep our diminishing revenue aligned with our expenses.

We will have to cut much deeper, and many of the reductions we make will be painful. But we absolutely must get our budget in line with our revenue.

Plus, we still have the compound problem of having to fix an unworkable debt structure. We continue to work with our lenders on what form a debt restructuring will take.

There is just no getting around that these are bleak times — the worst I have seen in the 45 years since my first newspaper job. The only reassurance I can offer is that we are not alone.

A respected industry observer analyzed 12 major market newspapers and wrote the other day that:

“the average profitability of newspapers tumbled 18 1/2 times faster than sales fell in the third quarter of this year … In a three-month period when advertising and circulation sales among the 12 publishers dropped by an average of 10.3 percent from the prior year’s level, the average operating profits of the group in the third quarter plunged by a staggering 198.3 percent.”

And this performance is reflected in the tumbling stock prices of all major newspaper companies. For example, stock in McClatchy [the Strib’s former owner] is selling for just over a dollar a share — down from its peak of $75 just three years ago.

We will survive this unprecedented set of bad circumstances we are in, but we will have to make sacrifices that we don’t want to make. The retail, housing, jobs and automotive markets will all come back at some point. But technological changes and powerful economic forces at work right now are not in our control. And we will never regain the dominance we once had in employment classifieds and many other categories.

This is a perfectly bad storm that we will weather by making the touch choices that keep us on the course to recovery. In making these choices, I outlined a set of principles to the Operating Committee, which I would like to review with you:

1. We must maintain products that our readers and advertisers will find useful enough to buy in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

2. We must reduce every cost we can in all areas of our business, despite the pain, while maintaining the best service we can afford to our readers, advertisers and employees.

3. We must look for other new sources of profitable revenue, always with very careful analysis.

4. We must stop doing things that no longer work well, and question old ways of doing things that no longer make sense.

5. We must develop and maintain the best possible sales force for all our products.

6. We must keep the Star Tribune Company a good place to work, recognizing accomplishments and rewarding the best performance, while as quickly as possible improving weak performance.

7. We must set an example for our teams by our own actions.

8. We must figure out ways to thank people, encourage people, and generally try to motivate people through perilous times.

9. We must try to make decisions and institute changes faster than we have historically.

10. We must keep in mind that what do is critically important to our communities and our state. We make a difference every day.

This is not a comprehensive list, and I welcome your thoughts on other considerations.

I do firmly believe that if we stay true to our highest principles through these challenging times, we will emerge strong and healthy. We will get to the other side by staying true to who we are. That is what has gotten us this far.”

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