Star Tribune editor Nancy Barnes has told the paper’s columnists to “refrain from partisan political commentary in their columns … at least until after the election.”
To a cynic like me, the moral might be: Play with Katherine Kersten, you’re going to get burned.
Barnes’ memo comes one day after Kersten’s column headlined “Vulgar mockery of Christians: Is this what we want in a U.S. Senator?” The piece lacerated U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken for joking about Christ’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene, God, eucharist wafers, and Catholic cardinals during his days as a satirist.
(Today, in the Strib’s Opinion Exchange online section, Franken’s daughter Thomasin delivered a velvet-hammer response: “If we’re going to have a discussion about my dad’s respect for all religious views, it’s important to note that he has been married to a Catholic — my mom — for 33 years.”)
Barnes’ memo, reprinted below, does not mention Kersten by name. Managing editor Rene Sanchez says the policy was not inspired by one staffer, and applies to everyone from Metro to business to sports.
“We’ve been talking about how we raise the bar in all manner of ways in the last days before an election,” Sanchez notes. “The bar is higher on stories that have allegations in the them; the bar is higher on the analysis we print. The bar ought to be higher for an array of columnists to ‘stand down’ on the kind of column that’s an overtly partisan take.”
While it’s true that papers raise the bar on late-campaign investigative pieces, the slope here is perilously slippery.
Barnes’ ban extends to “any columns on the news pages that support or attack one candidate or the other or take a strong partisan stand.” Can Nick Coleman write about something less fraught than Christ’s crucifixion if he decides to, say, make fun of Sarah Palin’s personal shopper?
Wrapping a political prophylactic around opinioneers blocks the very things they are hired to do — inform, analyze, and yes, provoke — just as public is tuning in.
I mean, I don’t always agree with outdoor columnist Dennis Anderson when he’s fulminating about some environmental initiative, but I gobble down his tart takes and it would stink if he didn’t get his habitat amendment piece in under Barnes’ deadline. And while I never would’ve hired Kersten — not independent enough from “partisan” GOP institutions — muzzling her now potentially undermines every Strib journalist.
The paper should enforce basic standards: accuracy, fairness, etc. I don’t have a problem with the “fairness” bar rising in a campaign’s final days — the bedrock principle there is whether there’s enough time for an issue to fully play out.
But if Kersten’s “Christ on the Cross” attack was egregiously 11th-hour, have her write something else; don’t deny her — and everyone else — the political option outright.
I asked Sanchez this: Why the blanket prohibition when there’s a more classic journalistic answer — editing?
“It’s harder to edit a column because of the license you grant columnists,” he counters.
I have the teeniest bit of sympathy for this. An across-the-board prohibition makes it more difficult for a columnist to scream “selective enforcement” or “partisan bias.” (And some do.)
But as Barack Obama would say — sorry, Nancy — this looks like a hatchet, not a scapel. Hard though it may be to visualize, what if some politician matches Michele Bachmann’s outrageousness in the final days? Columnists for the state’s biggest daily stay mum? This edict reinforces fears that the paper lacks the judgment or the guts to responsibly provoke.
Side note: Barnes’ memo specifically mentions “columns on the news pages” — will Kersten’s blog be covered? (Coleman doesn’t have one.) Sanchez wasn’t sure, but now partisans have a fairly strict 12-day standard to hold the paper to.
As always, here’s the memo:
We embrace strong personalities on our news pages, but as we head into the final stretch of a very intense political season, I want to ask all columnists to refrain from partisan political commentary in their columns on the news pages, at least until after the election.
Readers already have a hard enough time separating opinion from the news and it’s our job to help readers do just that. It’s especially important in the last days before an election.
So, for the duration of the campaign, we will not run any columns on the news pages that support or attack one candidate or the other or take a strong partisan stand.
Please let me know if you have any questions.