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Did Minneapolis cops ‘plant’ a story in the Star Tribune?

The Strib’s highly readable four-part series on alleged Minneapolis police corruption has been rich with detail about the department’s inner workings, but Monday’s installment seemed to indicate the paper — and Strib readers — had been the victim of police disinformation two years earlier.

According to the Monday piece, a 2007 story “describing a raid on a brothel. … The story had been planted by police as a smokescreen … [I]t was publicized intentionally to confuse cops who may be have been on the take that a rumored corruption probe was really about prostitution, not cops taking bribes.”

Whoa. “Plant” is a loaded term, implying that police dictated coverage and, at worst, got false information into print.

I went to the archives and dug out the original story, published July 7, 2007 with cops reporter David Chanen’s byline.

This clearly wasn’t a phony event, or press-release journalism: Chanen was an eyewitness to something real; his 1,138-word piece led with a 41-year-old 3M engineer “in his underwear, arms behind his back in handcuffs,” with vivid photos detailing same.

At the time, Chanen wrote these were the first of several planned raids on local brothels targeting prostitition and human trafficking. And indeed, the raids kept coming, eventually earning coverage in the New York Times.

“It was a real live bust,” Chanen says of the July 2007 incident. “I didn’t know they were doing this other investigation at the time. But the information [in the 2007 story] was 100 percent legitimate.”

Chanen acknowledges he had a longstanding reporter-source relationship with Minneapolis investigators Sgt. Grant Snyder and Sgt. Matt Wente, who worked on the human-trafficking case and — unbeknown to Chanen — on the internal affairs probe of several cops fingered by a sketchy drug dealer.

As any media-watcher knows, the police regularly offer ride-alongs to various TV and newspaper reporters for high-profile, reputation-burnishing busts. While these stories run the risk of being excessively friendly to the originating source, I wouldn’t call them “plants,” even if the motives were different in this particular case.

Hindsight being 20/20, I’d have left out the loaded and confusing term and just gone with “publicized intentionally to confuse” the suspect officers. As Monday’s story indicated and investigative editor Kate Parry confirmed, internal affairs documents establish the “smokescreen” strategy.

Seeking the cops’ confirmation of all this, I called police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia, who said “I’m learning a lot about it from the paper.” He referred me to Assistant City Attorney Jim Moore, who in turn said his office knew “absolutely nothing” about the circumstances surrounding alleged media manipulation.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 04/21/2009 - 03:28 pm.

    Well, you’re right. If one of the purposes for pointing a reporter at a real news story — something that’s actually happening — isn’t just to get the reporter to cover that thing, it’s not a “plant.”

    That said, it’s hardly surprising that Jesse Garcia Version 3.0 was out of the loop; it’s not his job to be in the loop, but to be the press flack for the brass. If they wanted the information out, they’d have had him issue a statement.

  2. Submitted by rachel sheridan on 04/21/2009 - 04:57 pm.

    The series they have been running is very good! This is what newspapers are supposed to be doing.

    Good for the Strib! And Minnpost! And the PP! I don’t think we thank reporters enough.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Brady-Leighton on 04/22/2009 - 09:38 am.

    this is good journalism. i found that point in the coverage fuzzy and pretty concerning because it sounded like they pretty much fabricated the prostitution episode. i greatly appreciate the follow-up with David Chanen.

  4. Submitted by Dwight baker on 04/22/2009 - 11:37 am.

    I like the word disinformation, down here on the border we call that a LIE. But I suppose my guys and gals up there in Minnesota are more proper than some of us down here.

    Well, looks to me like with the COPS telling lies and the hub bub of an election that went wrong for the looser, if I was the governor I would give everybody off this coming Friday at NOON with pay.

    You know mental anguish is a hard thing on us down here and I suppose the same as up there in the frozen tundra part of America.

    Dwight

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