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Emmer misrepresents the media — did the media misrepresent Emmer?

If you wonder why the media badgers candidates, take a close look at Tom Emmer’s minimum-wage comments.

Tom Emmer looked into the camera and told an untruth.

“There are a lot of people out there who’ve been misled by what I would say is the less-than-forthright mainstream media here in the Twin Cities,” Emmer said in a video released by his campaign Monday, as controversy over his “tip credit” stand lingered. He continued:

[T]he other day I talked with a couple of restaurant owners in downtown St. Paul and they told me that they need some help, that government’s not helping them out too much, and they talked about how much their servers get, and it’s all on tape and all I did was respond to them.

And they said, you know, if it was offered, would you advocate for a tip credit and I said, ‘Yes!’

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But then the next question has not been publicized very well. The next question was, ‘Tom, so you’re saying you’d reduce the minimum wage’ and my answer was, ‘That would be foolish. Absolutely not. We’re not talking about reducing anyone’s wages.’ We’re talking about making sure everyone can be successful. We want servers to be successful, we want the wonderful owners of our restaurants her in Minnesota — I don’t know if people know we lost 300 of them last year — we want them to be successful …

The “tape” — a version posted on Emmer’s own, cross-checked against a DFL tracker’s unedited version, and a transcript —shows Emmer never got a “reduce the minimum wage” question at a July 5 Eagle Street Grille appearance. He never ruled out a wage cut, much less called it foolish.

The closest actual question, from Pioneer Press reporter Bill Salisbury, was, “Are you suggesting you’d repeal the minimum wage law, or just amend it?”

Emmer’s answer: “Well I don’t know you could do that. We’ve talked about that before — not with you — but I think you gotta look at what we’re doing. We got to talk with these (gestures to cafe owners off camera) — that’s why it’s probably more in line with a tip credit that you’ve gotta be talking about. Plus, you know, Bill, you’ve got federal law.”

In other words, Emmer rejects a wholesale repeal of minimum wages, but never says he won’t reduce them.

At this point in the campaign, the candidate has proclaimed his aversion to detail — for example, he won’t flesh out his pledge to cut government 20 percent for another couple of months — and in this case, used his own vagueness as a counterattack.

Within a day of his Eagle Street utterance, with criticism mounting over cutting generally low-paid workers’ wages, Emmer’s campaign issued a statement saying he’d only wanted to freeze tipped employees’ wages at the current state minimum, not cut them.

Then, on, the campaign asserted that the media had misrepresented the candidate. They didn’t call out media organizations who were at Eagle Street — including the Associated Press and Minnesota Public Radio — but some, like the Star Tribune, who weren’t.

The Strib’s July 5 story, headlined, “Emmer: Lower wages for tipped workers,” included this opening sentence: “Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer rekindled a smoldering debate Monday when he said minimum-wage workers who earn tips should have their wages reduced.”

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Reporter Jackie Crosby interviewed Emmer separately; her evaluation was later echoed by the Strib editorial page and picked up a Mankato Free Press business columnist. A couple of days after Eagle Street, MinnPost writer Doug Grow also wrote that Emmer “believes that minimum wage workers who receive tips should have their minimum hourly wages reduced.”

Says Emmer communications director Bill Walsh, “The guys who were at the event got it right. The issue is there was no proposal, and the media filled in specifics.”

Crosby says she never asked specifically about reducing wages, and Emmer “never talked about lowering the minimum wage. We talked about the tip credit. He made many points in our conversation — about this hospitality survey saying servers earn $15.43 an hour, about high menu prices, that he wanted a ‘win for everyone’ — and that [Eagle Street owner] Kasel supported his workers but wanted to stay in business.”

While Emmer passed on two chances to say he was talking freeze, not cut — at Eagle Street, and in his conversation with Crosby — Walsh argues that Emmer never said he’d reduce the minimum wage, as Crosby wrote.

But that’s a clearly common-sense interpretation, Crosby asserts: “Every reason Rep. Emmer gave for supporting the tip credit was rooted in his expressed belief that businesses were being burdened by having to pay their servers the full minimum wage. And every one of those reasons was spelled out in the story.”

As Walsh noted, no story featured a quote from Emmer literally saying he’d cut worker pay — even though the candidate said at Eagle Street that “something has to be done” about “the very people that are providing the jobs and investing not only their life savings but their family’s future” making less than tipped employees “earning over $100,000 a year.”

If you wonder why the media badgers candidates at times, this is it: Leave them an inch of wiggle room and they’ll take a mile of what-I-really-meant.

As KTCA’s Mary Lahammer reported, Emmer had proposed abolishing the minimum wage in 2005, so he has a track record on the wage-cut issue. Lahammer also noted GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers’ claim that the Minnesota Restaurant Association has a freeze proposal on the table. (The industry proposed something similar in 2007, according to Business Journal; a 2009 “Super Wage/Tip Credit” plan would freeze those at federal minimums if they earned over $12 an hour between wages and tips.)

Meanwhile, the Star Tribune’s Rachel Stassen-Berger pithily observed that if Emmer’s now proposing a freeze, it would provide little or no relief to his job-providers. A freeze means a tip credit wouldn’t be created until the next time the state raised the minimum wage — yet Emmer opposes raising the minimum wage. That, Stassen-Berger wrote “makes the tip credit idea moot.”

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As I’ve noted, the tip credit issue isn’t the most important one facing the state. I find the issue fascinating because it’s a real-world test of the economic populism sweeping the country, and, for Emmer at least, it’s a test of character under pressure. Telling a falsehood about what you were asked, and how you answered, isn’t a great way to pass.

At the same time, the media needs to be careful about filling in blanks left by the intentionally vague, while probing for details to remove all doubt. I include myself in this prescription, by the way.