On Bonafield, Bachmann and Kersten

So MinnPost is getting ripped for running another non-adversarial Q-and-A between conservative columnist Michael J. Bonafield and a conservative firebrand. Two weeks ago, it was Strib columnist Katherine Kersten; today, it’s Michele Bachmann.

With the caveats that a) I work here and b) I’m one of MinnPost’s many liberals, this is an impossible topic for a media critic to resist. (Especially when an editor needs to justify the story to readers.) So here goes:

The Bonafield pieces have problems that transcend ideology.

First — and this is a MinnPost problem that transcends him — there just wasn’t much new in either Q-and-A. (Did you know Bachmann grew up in a house full of Democrats?) MinnPost won’t justify its existence by providing subjects’ “mostly unfiltered” views (as co-managing editor Roger Buoen wrote this morning) but by providing actual news and fresh insight.

Second, stenography. Look, I’m a big fan of Mark Ritchie, but I’d sooner scoop out my eyeballs than unquestioningly extol the DFL Secretary of State’s virtues. You can be a simpatico journalist, praising what you like, and still probe. Bonafield — and our editors — gave Bachmann some ludicrous passes. Her quote — “I’m a lovable little fuzz ball! I have no idea what [liberals] would have to fear” — is objectively laughable, given Bachmann’s conscious and effective firebrand strategy. Unasked follow-up: “Do you really believe that?”

Yes, we’ve done uncritical Q-and-As with liberal pols, not that lefties complained. Consider this interview with DFL gubernatorial candidate John Marty: with one exception, the questions are non-challenging. That’s not optimal, and as we liberals think about what we didn’t like in Bonafield’s pieces, we need to examine our own double standards. However, the piece at least dives into the details of a policy that hasn’t gotten much coverage — that’s a uniqueness factor.

I’m not asking Bonafield (who I don’t know and have never met) to change his ideology or conduct the same interview I would. But I do think MinnPost editors need to encourage him (and any writer) to go beyond the bromides. I know conservatives (here and in D.C.) who regard Kersten and Bachmann as mixed blessings — in part because their rhetoric can outpace logic, consistency or facts. Both interviews would have been more interesting had our conservative writer delved into those intramural concerns with sophistication.

And yes, folks, we are overcompensating. MinnPost’s writing corps is imbalanced ideologically, and Republicans are working the refs. That’s their job; ours is to listen but not compromise defensible standards. Bonafield sits alone at one end of the teeter-totter; to counterbalance the gaggle at the other end, we apparently let him go further out. Personally, I love the idea of a staffer “with contacts and credibility among conservatives” but that credibility must be built on something other than cheerleading.

I think it’s fine to hear a smart case for Kersten or Bachmann. One of our regular conservative readers, responding to liberal complaints that Black should have interviewed Kersten, commented, “Don’t do it until you get some conservatives interviewing all the liberals that are featured in MinnPost. Fair is fair.”

That’s a great idea. Our editors should encourage Bonafield, an experienced journalist, to grill more liberals. That’s good for us, and the body politic.

But it’s also important to note that Black has tried — many times — to talk to Bachmann when he’s reporting on the congresswoman, only to be stiffed. (Other critical media, like City Pages, only get email interviews of problematic authorship.) From an organizational and journalistic point of view, it sucks that we let Bachmann so freely choose her MinnPost interlocutors.

As with any valid criticism, though, critics can overshoot the mark. In the “fair is fair” category, City Pages’ Kevin Hoffman has grilled our softness as crisply as I’ve grilled his sensationalism. On this subject, I’ve found myself nodding my head at a lot of what he’s written, but his gibe that MinnPost is becoming “the Fox News of Minnesota” is entertainingly ludicrous. At worst, Bonafield is the Colmes to our Hannity. We need fewer patsies of any stripe around here.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 12/09/2009 - 03:34 pm.

    Well, there goes YOUR holiday bonus, Brauer!

    (grin)

  2. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 12/09/2009 - 03:42 pm.

    As the one who had suggested that Eric Black interview Kersten on the Flying Imans story, I would like to clarify one thing. I didn’t suggest Black should interview Kersten because I think he’s a hard nosed liberal (is he?) I suggested that Black interview Kersten on the Flying Imans because he’s done excellent reporting on the subject and would be best able to follow up her wildest accusations with the established facts.

  3. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/09/2009 - 04:08 pm.

    Bingo.

    I don’t have a problem reading the work of conservatives I disagree with. Heck, I don’t have a problem reading conservatives that force me to agree with them eventually.

    I do have a problem with columns that have all the heft of a fluffernutter sandwich. I regularly deride Kersten for this problem, and the last two “codpieces” here have been even worse than her usual routine.

    You want a conservative that you can get into a knife fight with? Go with Mitch Berg or someone like him. It’d be a lot more interesting.

  4. Submitted by Matt Pettis on 12/09/2009 - 04:18 pm.

    I’ve posted media criticism here, especially on Eric Black regarding David Brooks, and so I should post when I approve. This article seems to have genuinely worthwhile criticism. I agree — let’s have some decent adversarial interviews (if you can get the interviewee to accept) rather than the hagiographies for each ideological camp.

  5. Submitted by Paul Scott on 12/09/2009 - 04:20 pm.

    Great review of the entire shebang, David. But what up with the hilarious phrase “of problematic authorship”! Call me Bo-Peep but until you said that I would never have imagined that Bachmann or anyone else in the MN delegation would have the audacity to let an aide do an email “interview.”

    Now that you have raised the possibility, of course, and it does certainly seem possible, I would suggest rephrasing that issue in plain English next time. Something like: “editors don’t want to interview Bachmann by email because they suspect that she lies about actually being at the keyboard, and takes credit for answers that are written by more articulate aides.”

  6. Submitted by John Roach on 12/09/2009 - 04:50 pm.

    You touched on why these interviews go to Mr. Bonafield, and why they are puff pieces, David. But perhaps it needs to be stated a bit more plainly:

    Bachmann and Kersten won’t give face-to-face interviews to local reporters unless they are assured that reporter is properly sympathetic and ideologically “in sync” with them. This is very common with right wing populists these days.

    Minnpost appears willing to do this just so they can say they got the interview; it doesn’t matter that there isn’t any actual content to it.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/09/2009 - 04:55 pm.

    The question I have is why are you overcompensating, or compensating at all? The writers may all be liberals, but does the writing have a liberal bias? There is no “Quite Left” column here, and my take on your pieces and those by Black and other writers is that you guys bend over backwards to try to be fair. Nick Coleman has a comment on Buoen’s piece (#15) that sums up the issue quite well.

    http://www.minnpost.com/insideminnpost/2009/12/09/13943/a_note_about_interviews_with_kersten_and_bachmann

    Buoen completely misses the point and assumes the problem is that the liberal readers simply don’t like the subject matter. There are plenty of places on the web liberals can go and be free of conservative thought. The reason that people go to MinnPost is because (for the most part) the reporting and writing is so good. They are upset that in the interest of being ideologically balanced they are subjected to softball interviews of bomb-throwing conservatives from a guy who would have a hard time making the cut at most high school newspapers.

    This is the same kind of thing that has infected NPR and other outlets – instead of trying to get to the truth, it is assumed that each issue has two equal sides and each side is aired, largely unchallenged. That isn’t reporting. That isn’t news. Its crap, and you know it, David. I like this bit from the “about” section of MinnPost:

    “Our mission is to provide high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota. We intend to focus sharply on that mission, and not get distracted by trying to be all things or serve all people.”

    Guess what. You (meaning MinnPost)have been distracted. You have lost the focus.

  8. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 12/09/2009 - 05:26 pm.

    I find it really interesting that people are so passionate about this.

    Part of the joy of the internet is that you can “turn the page.” Skip it. Don’t read it. If there’s no page views, I imagine the column will disappear.

    I think people feel an ownership of MinnPost that’s really interesting to think about. People are disappointed. Angry. Hurt. It’s fascinating.

  9. Submitted by Stephan Flister on 12/09/2009 - 09:47 pm.

    Skip balance, go for truth. It works really well.

  10. Submitted by Stan Daniels on 12/09/2009 - 09:48 pm.

    I lean conservative but still am not a Bachmann fan. Why am I not a fan of hers? I listened to what she had to say and drew my own opinion.

    That is what drives me nuts about all of the people complaining about the interviews. Yes — political types tend to surface in friendly waters. Bachmann does it, Franken does it, Klobuchar does it, etc.

    I read multiple sources to educate myself. When I read the Bachmann interview on Minnpost, she just reinforced my issues with her. I was able to see through whatever righty bias that people are concerned about.

    We shouldn’t need everything handed to us on a platter. Our job is to consume information and draw our own opinions. Those who insist on constant balance (either way) are just as dangerous as what they are complaining about.

  11. Submitted by LK Hanson on 12/09/2009 - 10:26 pm.

    Bonafield’s fatuous pieces posing as interviews are “gracious living” journalism: A kaffeeklatsch where interviewer and subject are slurping decaf and eating Pepperidge Farm Milanos in tasteful, proper settings. It all smacks of entitlement and that icky smugness so common among these big-haired Republican gals and their guy pals.
    Any reader, I think, would welcome interviews that give some insight into its subject, which Bonafield’s, alas, don’t. Instead, we’re given what, to my mind at least, is like a college newspaper reporter’s breathless encounter with d-list celebrities.
    Let the conservatives rant and rave, as well as the liberals. But please, please don’t subject us to any more of these “interviews”. It’s the mental equivalent of being bombarded by soap bubbles.

  12. Submitted by Adam Platt on 12/09/2009 - 10:58 pm.

    One of the fundamental problems here is that MinnPost is not sure what it is. Is it a place of news analysis and opinion, or is it a hard news source, and what are its obligations within how it defines itself?

    That said, let’s not pretend there is real conversation happening in these interviews with polarizing GOPers. It’s talking points, ad nauseum. The expectation that a combative, informed interviewer could draw Bachmann out into some sort of exposed candor is unrealistic. The advantage of pitching offbeat or philosophical questions is that you might get beyond the talking points into something that gives readers a fresh take. It’s not likely, but it’s not inherently some sort of sellout to go that route.

    I think right-thinking MinnPost readers somehow believe that if just the right questions are asked, people will see Bachmann for what she is. But everyone already does.

  13. Submitted by Christopher Moseng on 12/10/2009 - 06:39 am.

    I hope when Mr. Buoen writes that MinnPost makes its “journalistic judgments independent of any outside influence,” that also excludes such imperfect proxy metrics like pageviews or comments generated. That way lies madness. Just because a piece gets a lot of reloads and generates a firestorm of comments doesn’t make a contribution meritorious. That’s why I stopped reading fark.com, a site that has openly embraced the model of trolling everyone in equal measure (it’s balanced!) for profit.

    No doubt public figures are going to insulate themselves from being “interviewed” by a professed ideologue. That’s why journalists don’t profess an ideology, and cultivate a reputation for fair-mindedness, deliberation, and truthfully informing. And even then, sometimes public figures will not invite them over for a cup of International Coffee—particularly if they have reason to fear that truthfully informing an audience doesn’t benefit them.

    If MinnPost’s idea is to shake up this tried-and-true approach by sending highly opinionated people to interview highly opinionated people, I don’t expect the product to be very valuable even if it permits “special access” to comforted public figures. I re-pose my original comment as a question: would Mr. Buoen sit down to watch an interview between Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, expecting to be edified?

  14. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/10/2009 - 07:14 am.

    “Fuzzball”, scrudball, dustball…thanks for not sweeping this latest empty shell of a story by Bonafield under the rug.

    City Pages is a watch dog with a bite. Hope the editors here have their rabies shots.

  15. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/10/2009 - 08:23 am.

    …and a brief footnote on this bitter cold morning:

    Rest assured, MinnPost is not alone. There are even maggots among the mucho-magnates like Rupert Murdock.

    “Rupert your slip is showing” is a rare editorial over at Asia Times online that may even make a few ‘Liberal’ ears burn and a Conservative break out in giant hives.

  16. Submitted by Ambrose Charpentier on 12/10/2009 - 10:08 am.

    How about having a true lefty columnist – a real communist or even a socialist, or even a labor union person. The lefties we get are all concerned about not looking too far out – something the right-wing folks never worry about. If you’re going to give us pablum from Katherine Kersten, how about some hot sauce from a real far out lefty for seasoning.

  17. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 12/10/2009 - 10:47 am.

    Given Bachmann’s recent “interview” with City Pages and the form of both of Bonafield’s Q and A’s with Bachmann and Kersten, it’s clear that the alternative to softball formats is no interview at all. For all the desire to see “tough questions” asked of these two, I very much doubt that Bachmann would have submitted to a real interview.

  18. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 12/10/2009 - 11:59 am.

    It surprises me that in a quest for “balance”, Minnpost would open the door to what can only be considered poor journalism. The polar opposite of ‘liberal bias’ is not a challenge-free puff piece. Conservatives can also be questioning, probing and tough. It’s fine to try to provide a Conservative point of view in an attempt to balance the preponderant Liberal point of view, but both ends of the spectrum should hew to journalistic rigor, which Bonafeld’s puff pieces fail to do, for reasons that have nothing to do with political conservatism.

    And it is disingenuous to the extreme for Bonafeld to pretend to not know why Bachmann is the the subject of such ire. She peddles incendiary rhetoric on a regular basis- an unarguable fact. I feel in reading his articles that I’m getting a dishonest interviewer and a dishonest interviewee. Again, that has nothing to do with political conservatism.

  19. Submitted by myles spicer on 12/10/2009 - 12:26 pm.

    As a long time reader (since the beginning) and frequent contributor to Community Voices (I did the first one published); I have found Minnpost to be fair, balanced, and impartial. After several years of contact, I have no idea where their editorial position is — vis a vis left/right. And that is the way it should be.

  20. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 12/10/2009 - 12:59 pm.

    David,

    Thank you for reminding us of the important role a good ombudsman has in the news media.

    That’s a subtle “hint hint” to every other news organization out there that has eliminated or neutered the position of ombudsman.

  21. Submitted by Pat Backen on 12/10/2009 - 01:27 pm.

    This column is one of the many reasons I love MinnPost. David takes on his own employer, and calls on them to raise their performance.

    It’s too bad this is a shocking event in this day and age. Before Ombudsman hit the endangered list, their purpose had been scaled back so far as to make them irrelevant.

    Kudos to David and MinnPost for the column.

  22. Submitted by John Edwards on 12/10/2009 - 07:49 pm.

    Myles: Trust me on this one: MinnPost’s editorial views are solidly left wing. Glad to help.

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