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A Kessler Reality Check: pairing news and analysis

When reporters declare a political claim “false,” do they have a duty to repeat that evaluation in subsequent reports?
By David Brauer

Any enemy of “she said/he said” journalism should be cheered by things like WCCO-TV’s “Reality Check,” Pat Kessler’s heavily sourced evaluation of political claims. Newspapers have done this analysis for years, but generally, local TV news has been more faint-hearted.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. On July 17, I declared in Daily Glean that Kessler “pulls a punch.” His sin: judging a pro-business group’s union-election ad “false,” yet ignoring that conclusion in a next-day report, when the DFL called U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman a “liar” for a similar statement.

The following afternoon, Kessler took issue with my linkage on Dan Barreiro’s KFAN show. He said that he couldn’t possibly back the DFL’s “liar” claim.

I agree; Webster’s defines lying as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive”–mindreading that reporters should leave to partisan attackers.

My point was more basic: Kessler had evaluated a political attack and found it wanting; that fact-check should have been referenced the next night, when the issue arguably gained importance. It could’ve been something as simple as an anchor tagline saying, “Last night, Pat Kessler judged a similar union-election claim false. For more, see Check.”

Of course, doing so might’ve unleashed traditional-journalism creepy-crawlies: reporters making themselves “part of the story,” viewer-perceived bias, etc. But journalists are increasingly slipping the bounds of phony evenhandedness to tell audiences what things really mean. Tying in their fact-based, non-ideological analysis only gives viewers a fuller picture.

As Kessler told me when we sat down a few days later at Highland Park’s White Rock Coffee, “I think this is where the business is going: There is so much information … viewers are looking for places that tell them if this is true, false, accurate or fair.”

As it turns out, there were some interesting behind-the-scenes circumstances that complicated Kessler’s “Liar Night” report.

A brief issue recap
Pro-business groups have recently peppered the state with ads attacking Al Franken for wanting to “eliminate the secret ballot for workers” — the claim Kessler judged “false.”

Currently, if more than 30 percent of workers sign union-recognition cards, management can insist on a secret-ballot election. A Franken-supported proposal, the Employee Free Choice Act, mandates that if 50 percent plus one worker signs the cards, there’s no such election: The union is recognized.

However, the conservative Heritage Foundation (which opposes the act) notes that the secret ballot is still an option if 30-50 percent of workers sign cards.

Officially, the business groups are independent of Coleman. However, the day after Reality Check ran, DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez called Coleman a “liar” for this senatorial statement: “What it’s about is taking away the right to a secret ballot in a union election.”

Coleman’s verbs may be a hair softer — “taking away” versus “eliminate,” but I think they’re the same, practically speaking.

Literalists — let’s include Kessler, the DFL and me here — say the Coleman camp’s clear implication is that the secret-ballot option gets axed. That’s objectively false.

However, Coleman and the business groups emphasize the proposal’s practical effect: In the 50-percent-plus-one scenario, the secret ballot is “eliminated.” (Union organizers would pressure workers into signing, they contend.)

Kessler says that’s a nuance too far. “They are saying it directly eliminates the secret ballot. If they said ‘the practical effect is to eliminate the secret ballot,’ that’s one thing, but they don’t.”

An attack delayed, not derailed
What I didn’t know is that Kessler was preparing quite a roundhouse the day of the DFL attack.

In 1997, then-Mayor Coleman signed a City Council resolution urging local businesses to stay out of union elections and allow recognition via card check. In other words, Coleman would have given workers the same power he now assails Franken for supporting.

Kessler says he had a copy of the resolution, plus supporting documentation. However, the Coleman campaign challenged the document’s veracity, he says. Opting for certainty over immediate scoop, Kessler decided not to air the info that night.

His caution left the “Liar Night” story without a “gotcha” and made it appear wimpy to the likes of me. I think WCCO should’ve reflexively referenced “Reality Check” because the reports were related. But I have a bit more sympathy for the omission given they were expecting something bigger.

Kessler went to City Hall the next day, confirmed the resolution’s authenticity, and wound up giving Coleman his lumps two days after the original Reality Check aired. This time, he didn’t shy away from his conclusion two days earlier, stating, “The bill — making it easier to organize unions — does not eliminate the secret ballot.”

* *

A Brauer Reality Check
Last week, I made a couple of errors in a grab-bag of small items.

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I wrote that the Star Tribune’s new labor contract had no layoff protection. That’s technically true, but the contract does require ownership to offer newsroom troops buyouts before any layoff round. (At least two weeks of salary for every year of service, up to 40 weeks.) That raises management’s upfront costs if it wants to reduce jobs, and arguably qualifies as a disincentive. As Kessler might say, my original analysis was MISLEADING.

In an item on the Pioneer Press’s newly shrunken Monday and Tuesday papers, I said current owner Dean Singleton canned the Washington bureau when he bought the paper in 2006. While the PiPress had access to previous owners’ Washington bureaus until then, it pulled its last on-staff Washington reporter out in 2005. In Kessler-speak, my original contention was FALSE.

My apologies.