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Rolling Stone didn't slime Michele Bachmann

Lori Sturdevant — a stalwart Strib editorial board civility campaigner — takes Rolling Stone to task for “linking” Congresswoman Michele Bachmann to GLBT suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

Writes Sturdevant of Bachmann: “Her 2004 claims that defenders of gay rights were 'targeting our children' in public school sex education classes were laughably homophobic. Her refusal in 2006 to back state anti-bullying legislation was ill-advised. But that’s a long way from condoning teen suicide, as the article comes close to implying that Bachmann has done.”

The ultimate weakness of Sturdevant’s case can be found in this epic conditional — “comes close to implying.” Doesn’t say directly, doesn’t even imply, but comes close to implying.

So what did Rolling Stone really do here?

The 7,000-word story, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” is subtitled: “In Michele Bachmann's home district, evangelicals have created an extreme anti-gay climate. After a rash of suicides, the kids are fighting back.”

In the body of the piece, fourth paragraph:

What she didn't know was that she was caught in the crossfire of a culture war being waged by local evangelicals inspired by their high-profile congressional representative Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School and, until recently, was a member of one of the most conservative churches in the area.

Nineteenth paragraph:

At churches like First Baptist Church of Anoka, parishioners believe that homosexuality is a form of mental illness caused by family dysfunction, childhood trauma and exposure to pornography — a perversion curable through intensive therapy. It's a point of view shared by their congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has called homosexuality a form of 'sexual dysfunction' that amounts to 'personal enslavement.' In 1993, Bachmann, a proponent of school prayer and creationism, co-founded the New Heights charter school in the town of Stillwater, only to flee the board amid an outcry that the school was promoting a religious curriculum. Bachmann also is affiliated with the ultraright Minnesota Family Council, headlining a fundraiser for them last spring alongside Newt Gingrich.

Near the end:

That denial reaches right up to the pinnacle of the local political food chain: Michele Bachmann, who stayed silent on the suicide cluster in her congressional district for months — until Justin's mom, Tammy Aaberg, forced her to comment. In September, while Bachmann was running for the GOP presidential nomination, Aaberg delivered a petition of 141,000 signatures to Bachmann's office, asking her to address the Anoka-Hennepin suicides and publicly denounce anti-gay bullying. Bachmann has publicly stated her opposition to anti-bullying legislation, asking in a 2006 state Senate committee hearing, 'What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression?... Will we be expecting boys to be girls?' Bachmann responded to the petition with a generic letter to constituents telling them that 'bullying is wrong,' and 'all human lives have undeniable value.'

Now, I would vote twice against the congresswoman if it were legal, but would anyone contest that Michele Bachmann — who got her start as an education culture-warrior — was an organizer, and exemplar, of a group hostile to the GLBT community?

The story does not say — and does not imply — that Bachmann condones the suicides. What it does say is that she fought legislation that might have helped, and turned a blind eye to the problem until the mother of a dead kid was in her face.

More broadly, she helped create a polarized, paralyzed community that fought and failed to support very vulnerable human beings.

Is that the same as “condoning” gay suicides? No. But that’s Sturdevant’s word, not Rolling Stone’s.

I can see how the piece triggered Sturdevant’s radar. Strib editorialists seem eager for openings to defend Bachmann — and they’re not always wrong. Sturdevant’s colleague Jill Burcum tirelessly notes that critics and opponents shouldn’t underestimate Bachmann, and was dead-on earlier this year when she wrote the presidential candidate would be a strong debater.

(Remember, Bachmann’s  HPV flub came after a very strong September CNN/Tea Party debate performance most analysts thought she won.)

While I generally agree with Bachmann critics that the Strib (until recently) has been too wimpy about highlighting the congresswoman’s most extreme aspects, I appreciate the contrarian instinct that might be motivating Sturdevant.

Several  in the media use “Bachmann” as a hit-whoring crutch — consider City Pages, which never met a Bachmann triviality it didn’t blare, or our own Daily Glean, whose “our gal” mentions too often seem forced. Hell, consider Matt Taibbi’s ripped-off pastiche in Rolling Stone last June. I’m willing to bet this post gets more hits than yesterday’s more deeply reported piece on money and media disclosure.

You can argue Rolling Stone’s “Bachmann” subhead was gratuitous, since she is a necessary, but not primary, figure in the story. I don’t have a problem with it; Bachmann has made herself a brand name for GLBT intolerance. There's enough local linkage to use her name as shorthand for national readers.

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