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Nurses union blasts Star Tribune, KARE: ‘We don’t need the mainstream media to tell our story’

The Minnesota Nurses Association is furious about allegedly unethical behavior by the Star Tribune.
With a Monday vote on an open-ended strike looming, a union spokesman vows to call out the Strib and other media outlets via the MNA’s blog and s

The Minnesota Nurses Association is furious about allegedly unethical behavior by the Star Tribune.

With a Monday vote on an open-ended strike looming, a union spokesman vows to call out the Strib and other media outlets via the MNA’s blog and social networks — and also withhold information from the offenders while giving scoops to rivals.

The latest flashpoint is a Strib story that includes quotes from what the MNA says was a closed-to-the-press union membership meeting Wednesday. The piece, written by Josephine Marcotty and Chen May Yee, includes passages such as:

One nurse stood up and said, “I’m a young nurse and I talk to a lot of young nurses.” She said she was worried that some would cross the picket line.

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MNA spokesman John Nemo says the media organizations were informed via press release that the meeting was closed.

“We have made every rank-and-file member available to the press,” he says. “I’m a former AP reporter, and I knew reporters would talk to nurses leaving the meeting. But [the meeting] was a place for them to speak up without fear of being in the newspaper. Sneaking into a meeting is a low-ball, low-class thing. Why don’t they sneak into the hospital CEOs’ meeting?”

Via email, Marcotty gave this statement:

“I went to the nurses meeting at Fairview about 8:30 a.m., which is when the meeting was supposed to end. I stepped into the room to see if the meeting was still going on. (There were no windows.) I stayed for a few minutes, long enough to hear the two comments I used. I left and waited outside to talk to nurses. I introduced myself as a Star Tribune reporter to everyone I talked to. Only one nurse declined to speak with me.”

A competitor, WCCO reporter Esme Murphy, says she clearly understood the nurses’ meeting was closed-door, and wouldn’t have tried to crash it.

“I feel like the situation for nurses is very difficult; they are facing tough decisions about going on strike in a tough economy,” Murphy says. “A lot of these nurses are struggling. I feel people have a right to have private meetings without reporters present.”

In any event, Nemo vows payback. “I told the Strib I’m cutting them out of the scoops. On Monday, they’ll have to wait for the strike vote. I’m giving it to [Pioneer Press reporter] Jeremy Olson first.”

He makes even that sound charitable: “We don’t need the mainstream media to tell our story. We built our whole campaign around social networking — 10,000 fans on Facebook, and gets 8-10,000 hits a day. It’s not 1988 any more. ”

Not exactly winning friends and influencing coverage, at least with those on the outs, I observed.

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“With reporters that do a shitty job?” Nemo responded. “We have people begging us for stories. Do other entities play ball with every single reporter? Does Pawlenty return calls from Doug Grow? We’re not asking for biased coverage, we’re asking for fair coverage. Maybe it’s p.r. suicide to pick a fight with the state’s biggest newspaper, but how could it get any worse?”

Laying out the favorites
The spokesman — whose media career also included stints with the Arizona Republic and Christian station KTIS in the Twin Cities — in unafraid to lay out his full media hierarchy.

On the TV side, channels “4 and 9 have done fair and balanced stories, 11 hasn’t, and 5 is kind of clueless.”

Meanwhile, MPR earns Nemo’s praise, and “Olson, despite the Pioneer Press editorial that ripped us, is kicking [the Strib’s] butts up down and sideways — slaughtering them.”

Nemo admits having a beef with the Minneapolis paper before the latest dust-up.  He criticizes the Strib for including pushback from national academics to some of the nurses’ fundamental staffing complaints.

“They’re doing what the Strib likes to do, the navel-gazing story,” Nemo says. “Let’s discuss the nursing flow at bedsides with someone at Vanderbilt. When I was in journalism at St. Thomas, some of the worst teachers were academics, and the best were practitioners.

“We’re asking them to cover the story: Is it true what the hospitals are saying, are they staffed properly? Instead, they’re running the hospitals’ points and not telling the story.”

Says Star Tribune health team editor Dave Hage, “[T]his has been a contentious story from the beginning, and both sides have tried vigorously to influence our coverage. From the beginning we have worked hard to step beyond their perspectives and do our job: to serve our readers and the broader public interest.”

As for the complaint that Strib reporters don’t go into management’s lair, Hage notes, “Our reporters went inside North Memorial Hospital, Abbott Northwestern and United Hospital last week — uninvited by management — and produced valuable reporting that showed the effects of the strike and the events that unfolded as nurses tried to return to work. Our reporters identified themselves as journalists and left when asked.”

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Bearing down on KARE
The Strib isn’t the only organization experiencing a Nemo depth charge; on, he has publicly blasted KARE11 reporter Scott Goldberg for running two stories on whether hospitals could fire striking nurses. Nemo — noting no such threat has been made — believes the scenario is extremely unlikely. “Monkeys could also fly out of my rear end as I type this,” he wrote on the MNA blog.

Goldberg is unbowed. He says that as nurses ponder a strike vote, they’ve told him they’re unconcerned about losing their job because federal officials will uphold the union’s claim of unfair labor practices, or ULP.

“The National Labor Relations Board won’t make that determination for weeks and months,” Goldberg says. “So [nurses] are heading into a vote without knowing whether their jobs are protected on the picket line.”

MNA leadership, Goldberg adds, “thinks it’s ULP because they’re calling it ULP. They think the only fair coverage of this strike is supporting their talking points.”

Says Nemo, “He told me he thinks the union is lying to members, and I just said there’s nothing further from the truth. Look at the social networking.”

Indeed, a couple of comments accompanying Nemo’s KARE blast strongly question the union’s confidence the ULP issue. Still, the issue might not have gained prominence but for KARE’s reporting.

Goldberg says never claimed the MNA was lying, but told Nemo the union was “misleading members” about the certainty of the ULP.

As to the larger picture, he says that the MNA may feel bigger stories lie elsewhere, but that doesn’t account for a media organization’s news judgment. “We’re always looking for angles on a story we’ve been covering for days,” he says. “We’re going to challenge things we don’t think are right. It’s really simple stuff they don’t understand.”

Unlike WCCO’s Murphy, Goldberg says he wasn’t aware Wednesday’s meeting was closed to the press, even though he didn’t try to get into it.

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Still, despite Nemo’s blasts, Goldberg corroborates Nemo’s statement that the MNA hasn’t put up barriers to talking with members outside of meetings. Nevertheless, the KARE11 reporter worries that MNA spokesman’s tough talk may get in the way of complete coverage. “After Nemo’s blog and anger at our reporting, it might get more difficult.”