Strib editor to columnists: Stop being partisan starting … now!

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.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Laurie Zelesnikar on 10/24/2008 - 10:50 am.

    Thank you for yet another reminder of why about a month ago I deleted stribdotcom from my bookmarks and replaced it with MinnPost. It’s nice to be written to as an intelligent rational thoughtful discerning reader. Such a tonic. Keep it up!

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/24/2008 - 11:16 am.

    One can only wish that Fraken would take his Christian mockery down to the local mosque and mock Allah. Then we will see who gets the last laugh.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/24/2008 - 01:34 pm.

    I hate to join the chorus on this one, but it seems like the Strib is doing everything in its power to marginalize itself as a news & information source. I’ve never thought of it as a great paper in the 15 years I’ve lived here; it now seems to be slipping from mediocrity into irrelevance.

  4. Submitted by Jason Walker on 10/24/2008 - 01:59 pm.

    I’m so sure that “all” columnists need to be reined in. Reusse and Neal Justin were probably just about to throw their two cents in on the election. Give me a break. This is obvious muzzling of Kersten. And if you need to muzzle her for fear of what she might say, why even have her on the payroll?
    The Strib needs to just grab some cojones and give Kersten the boot. She has no business being any major newspaper’s columnist and has no journalistic integrity or visible reporting skills. I don’t blame her – she is what she is. But it’s gone on long enough. She’s the Michele Bachmann of the Strib: A complete embarrassment.

  5. Submitted by Tim Bonham on 10/24/2008 - 04:55 pm.

    I dropped my subscription to the Tribune several years ago (pre Star-Tribune merger).

    And they keep doing things like this that just reinforce my decision.

    I even turned down the nice young man delivering the paper when he wanted to give me a free copy — I told him to give it to someone else who might possibly subscribe, because I would not.

  6. Submitted by Craig Tacheny on 10/25/2008 - 10:20 am.

    I think this sort of censorship is absurd. Read here and let me know what you think.

  7. Submitted by Kevin Judd on 10/26/2008 - 04:44 pm.

    Imagine telling James Reston: no more articles about Daley.

    The divided columnists are symptomatic of our divided society. The Strib has a set of articulate columnists representing most of the major streams of our current national debate. Give them their own page if you want, but why muzzle them? The views articulated by Kerstein, Keillor, and Coleman, each represent major groupings of voters.

    Of course we don’t agree with them all. Isn’t that the point?

    Let them talk!

  8. Submitted by Eric James on 10/26/2008 - 05:23 pm.

    It’s a love hate relationship with the Strib and I. I can recall as a kid salivating over the Sunday edition each week as it was delivered. My father really enjoyed reading it even though he watched news like a hawk anyway. As I got older I always thought they had a great balance of quick current events front page news to indepth after-the-fact issues. It definitely shaped my world view in my childhood and teenage years so I can’t dismiss it so eagerly. But starting a few years ago I just feel like the paper is so dull, so mediocre. Both the online and paper version seem so “empty” and lithe that I just can’t read it. And their editorial inability to crosslink to other relevant stories (other than makes it even more isolated. Hasn’t the Strib traditionally had intense and engaging writers which made it juicy to finally reach the Op-Ed section? Those days are gone. And the current staff is not helping them return.

  9. Submitted by B Maginnis on 10/27/2008 - 09:53 am.

    Say, who do you suppose CJ is endorsing?

  10. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/27/2008 - 10:02 am.

    BD – now we’ll never know unless Fox9 lets her go there!

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/27/2008 - 09:19 pm.

    The Barnes “demand” is at best CYA ! Journalism must still be factual unless it tells us it’s otherwise. It seems to me that the Coleman Keillor columns do just that. Lots of first person “I” Kerstan attempts to disguise her political agenda as reportage is a farse. Get the Cajones Barnes – Edit or remove. I’ve already removed my suscription and thrown my cash to MinnPost.

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