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The Star Tribune’s war on MPR, continued

Wednesday’s Star Tribune featured the fifth piece since October questioning MPR’s taxpayer support.
By David Brauer

Reading my Star Tribune Wednesday, I realized these folks will not let up on Minnesota Public Radio.

Since my October report on MPR’s use of Legacy Amendment funds for a news-syndication service, the Strib has now run at least five pieces questioning its competitor’s taxpayer support: a business story with Strib Board chair Mike Sweeney’s criticism; Sweeney’s op-ed; the conflict-of-interest investigation; a weekend editorial; and Wednesday’s editorial out-takes.

Now, I’m experienced at watchdogging a rival, so while bemused, I’m not outraged. I could take issue with a few facets. One should always view communiques from the business side warily. And Jill Burcum’s editorial distilled the impotence of the beneficiary-stacked advisory group at the heart of Mike Kaszuba’s conflicts piece: “The panel did not make specific spending recommendations, nor are lawmakers bound by its report. Members also could not direct money to themselves.”

But in the end, I like newspaper crusades. While this one is not of optimal magnitude, the paper did highlight bad governance and the “mission creep” that defines MPR News subsidies as preserving “Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage.”

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I know many folks feel MPR should get zero Legacy dough because of its size, influence and ability to fund projects on its own. That’s a philosophical debate; the amendment is silent on those aspects. Strib readers might also be left with the impression that there’s nothing legit about MPR’s Legacy grants. But a Historical Society partnership digitizing MPR archives is undeniably history, and so are the music broadcasts, sending the Current’s signal to new Minnesota markets, and arts events. You can see MPR’s list and their framing here.

That’s not to say there aren’t red flags a-fluttering. As I understand it, the Current’s expansion will be via HD signal … raise your hand if you know anyone with a radio that can pick those up. Then there’s this: “The development of new Minnesota-based programming aimed at a national audience. … to bring the state’s cultural richness and ideas to listeners across the US, to connect Minnesota to the national dialogue, and to create national broadcasting jobs in Minnesota.”

As chauvinistically lovely as broadcasting our ideas to the nation is, a show that’s merely based here isn’t what voters had in mind. Another Speaking of Faith, Splendid Table or Weekend America likely clashes with the amendment’s expressed purpose of “arts, arts education, and arts access and to preserve (emphasis mine) Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage.” 

To be fair, the national show could well contain an arts/culture component; Minnesota Today, the statewide syndication service that has the Strib’s undies in a twist, definitely does. When that service is fully running this spring, it will contain a statewide arts calendar and cultural coverage. Still, news is clearly the dog that wags the tail, or the fig that wears the leaf.

Coincidentally, MPR’s most questionable initiatives explicitly tout jobs. (Minnesota Today produced two.) If you remember the 2009 session, state employment levels were something of a problem. I’m sure there are those of you who can ably argue that money spent on smaller organizations would produce more employment. Still, beyond Bill Kling’s ability to control legislators’ minds and MPR’s influence on voters, I wonder how persuasive job-creation was for legislators.

We don’t really know, and that’s been one hole in the Strib’s blanket coverage. That legislature bears collective guilt, but you know there were lawmakers doing the heavy pushing. The five Strib stories have only mentioned one legislator in a critical context: Hermantown DFL Rep. Mary Murphy, and then only briefly. Accountability journalism could’ve been improved by pinning the tail on the donkey, and forcing those folks to bray.