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How favoritism fueled a TV news fracas

The dust hasn’t quite settled over last week’s media melee at the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) charter school. Inver Grove Heights officials might still charge a KSTP crew with trespassing, and TIZA leaders could face assault charges for grabbing KSTP’s camera, cameraman attached.

However, a closer look at the incident reveals how favoritism fueled the tinderbox: KSTP’s for Strib columnist Katherine Kersten, and TIZA’s for KARE-11, whose coverage supported the school.

There’s also a bit of journalistic teeth-baring: KSTP reporter Chris O’Connell is none too pleased that the KARE crew didn’t stop the alleged assault, or get his comments when they reported it. For his part, KARE reporter Scott Goldberg says KSTP distorted its TIZA coverage and helped “feed the fire of hatred.”

The run-up
To understand the events of May 19, you have to look at the coverage leading up to it.

Kersten got the ball rolling with a March column accusing the K-8 charter of “being an Islamic school funded by Minnesota taxpayers.” She followed up with April testimony from a substitute teacher who complained about student washing rituals and in-school prayer.

KSTP jumped on the story; it left unchallenged the sub’s claim that events “took her totally by surprise,” even though the teacher later acknowledged she read a Kersten piece laying out many specifics.

Reporter Beth Jett added this devastating kicker: “State law requires the school to fly an American flag during school hours; however no flag flies outside of TIZA Academy.”

Unsurprisingly, threats resulted; TIZA called in Inver Grove Heights cops and the FBI. KSTP ran a perfunctory story on this development; KARE jumped into the breach.

Reporter John Croman’s lengthy report sympathized with the school. He told viewers some threats were “too profane for KARE11 to share,” and credited Kersten’s column with “inflaming some readers.”

Croman all but mocked Kersten’s “Islamic school” designation. He explained that schools must accommodate prayer, and voluntary after-school religious education was not part of the school day – conclusions state investigators would confirm a month later.

Holding a grudge
The day the state released its findings, reporters naturally contacted the school. Goldberg quickly got permission to interview TIZA officials on school grounds. O’Connell got stiffed.

TIZA’s designated spokesperson, who asked not to be named, confirms that officials did not return O’Connell’s calls.

“There was a previous report by a different KSTP reporter that TIZA felt was inaccurate and unfair,” the spokesperson explained. “KSTP showed an unwillingness to correct or modify the report, so they didn’t want to grant KSTP an interview.”

The bone of contention was the flagpole. KSTP had said flag-flying was “required,” but TIZA’s lawyer says he told Jett the law was ambiguous regarding charter schools. KSTP did not include that information; instead, Jett told viewers TIZA director Asad Zaman “didn’t know how to work the flagpole.”

KSTP Assistant News Director Sam Zeff says Zaman didn’t offer the legal rationale. Zaman’s flagpole explanation “was clearly their statement,” Zeff says.

The day after the flag report, the TIZA spokesperson say threats increased “ten-fold” over anything the Kersten columns produced. That night, KSTP’s follow-up report noted the school’s ambiguity position, and that the state education department agreed with the school.

At the school
On the day the state released its report, the school’s stiff-arm didn’t stop O’Connell from pursuing the story. He and cameraman Kevin Bubach drove to the school, taking care to park on a public street rather than the school’s parking lot.

“I wanted to give [Zaman] a chance to call me,” O’Connell says. “I made two calls from the street; he saw us out there. All of a sudden, a police officer comes blazing up.”

The officer represented the first communication from TIZA to O’Connell. O’Connell later told viewers that the officer told him, “the school did not want us there.” On KARE, Goldberg said police “told the KSTP crew not to come on the property.”

Goldberg was already in the school’s parking lot when O’Connell arrived. Even though the KARE crew had permission to tape, Goldberg says he was careful to re-confirm that was OK. “We walked up to the assistant principal, not even taking the camera with us.”

Watching from across the street, O’Connell said he could only guess KARE had favored status – again, no one from TIZA told him, and it wasn’t in the officer’s purview.

O’Connell says when he and Bubach saw the KARE crew fire up their camera, they concluded, “Maybe [TIZA] is OK with it; they’re obviously doing an interview. I’m not feeling confrontational. We said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ We’re rolling and we set foot on their property for the first time. Twenty-nine seconds later, we’re attacked, confronted.”

Anyone who’s played the game “Telephone” knows the moral: messages get garbled in transmission.

TIZA used the cops as the telephone; they obviously feared talking to KSTP directly would result in word-twisting. School officials may have believed O’Connell ignored the police message, which could explain — but not excuse — their willingness to take matters into their own hands.

Of course, maybe O’Connell was overaggressive – I mean, this is a guy who does a stand-up in a hail storm. But because school officials never communicated their refusal personally and directly, they created much uglier publicity.

TIZA had made this mistake before. Zaman had refused Katherine Kersten’s interview requests for months — which didn’t lead to better press, either. The school subsequently hired a PR firm, but they didn’t have the pros on site or taking media calls after the report came out.

TV blame game
Now, about that media catfight.

O’Connell is mad the KARE crew didn’t intervene when Zaman and an assistant principal grabbed Bubach’s camera. “If another person is getting manhandled the way I was, if it happened in front of me, I’d jump in,” he says. “They just kind of stood there.”

Replies Goldberg, “I didn’t see how the scuffle started, and I didn’t know who started it. It would’ve been really stupid to jump into an argument without knowing what the argument was about. It didn’t look like anyone was going to get hurt. I didn’t feel an obligation to do anything other than observe and document.”

On KARE’s tape, Bubach can be heard telling the KARE cameraman, “Dude, shoot this,” which was dutifully done. A clip appeared at the end of Goldberg’s 10 p.m. report, and KARE posted the complete raw footage on its website.

O’Connell is also miffed that Goldberg “talked about us, but never called us for comment.”

Goldberg counters the KSTP fracas was incidental to his report. However, he offered the police view, and should’ve included KSTP’s comment, too.

That is not to exonerate KSTP. For example, its 6 p.m. story never mentioned that the state cleared TIZA of many charges that the station had publicized. The state’s top-line finding: “most of TIZA’s operations are in compliance with state and federal laws.”

Goldberg said his rival’s spin “blows me away. I read the report three times, and the biggest accusation of the three – that it was an Islamic school – was not substantiated by the report. There were no concerns about the curriculum. That was my headline.”

The KARE reporter believes that much of the TIZA coverage “has been unfair. When you’re dealing with something that is topic number one or two in America right now — Islam somehow linked to terrorists — and school kids wearing headscarves, you have to be responsible. It’s too easy to feed the fire of hatred.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Krista Siddiqui on 05/29/2008 - 08:05 pm.

    Thank you for your unbiased reporting. It’s actually very enlightening to see how different news organizations will view/twist different issues. I have children at TIZA and know very well what goes on there. I was appalled by the way the strib and KSTP reported on the story. Their skewed views put my children at risk and I was more than happy that KARE 11 saw fit to show the other side of the store (which happens to be the true side). I was at the school the afternoon of the altercation and KSTP was trying to stop our cars on the way out of the parking lot for a comment. Needless to say, I kept on driving. It was more than obvious that they knew they weren’t wanted there, yet they were doing everything in their power to try to get someone to speak to them (how can they twist our words to suit their means if we don’t give them any). Anyway, it’s nice to know that there are media outlets out there who are looking for more than a ratings boost!

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