Last week, KSTP-TV announced it would run a disclaimer on any news story mentioning MnForward, which backs Republican Tom Emmer for governor. KSTP’s corporate parent, Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., donated $100,000 to the group.
Today’s question: Should MinnPost run a disclaimer any time it runs a Mark Dayton story?
In this case, the media-politician cash flow operates in reverse: the DFL gubernatorial candidate donates to us. According to MinnPost editor and CEO Joel Kramer, Dayton has given $4,500 to MinnPost since its 2007 inception.
Some Emmer supporters see even deeper ties.
Two weeks ago, Mitch Berg wrote that members of the Dayton family and Dayton’s ex-wife, Alida Messenger, had donated $851,000 this cycle to two DFL equivalents of MnForward — Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) and Win Minnesota. (You can find their campaign finance reports here.)
Another donor, former Star Tribune publisher John Cowles, gave Win Minnesota $25,000.
Cowles is among MinnPost’s founding donors, contributing over $100,000. David Dayton appears to be the only family member who has given to Win Minnesota and MinnPost this cycle; we’ve received between $450 and $700.
Finally, our board includes Tobin J. Dayton. Toby Dayton, the president and CEO of JobDig, is Mark’s cousin and a generous MinnPost donor — $41,000 all told — though he and wife Mae haven’t given to ABM or Win Minnesota. Three other Daytons who gave MinnPost $2,100 (Judy, Bruce and Chuck) also eschewed the two political groups.
Add it all up, writes Eden Prairie GOP activist Sheila Kihne, and “… shouldn’t MinnPost put a disclaimer on everything they write during this race that they are founded and funded by the same people who are funding attack ads against Tom Emmer?”
To Kramer, MinnPost already does. “We believe in transparency about who our donors are,” he says. “They are all listed on the site, and major ones are listed on virtually every page.”
That’s true; there’s a “house ad” in the left-hand column of the home page and inside pages that lists our big donors, including “Sage and John Cowles” and “Toby & Mae Dayton.” The ad also features a link to our 2007 and 2009 reports, which have much longer donor lists. (Not sure what’s up with 2008, but it’s here.)
Still, is disclosure the same as a disclaimer? Kramer declares, “Donors buy no influence, period,” but we leave it to motivated readers such as Berg and Kihne to connect the dots. We should do it ourselves — at least when MinnPost receives operating support from major politicians it covers. And that disclaimer should be linked more directly to the stories we write.
Dayton is not alone
As it turns out, Dayton is not the only 2010 gubernatorial candidate who’s been a MinnPost benefactor. DFLer Matt Entenza donated $1,200 for our 2009 fundraiser, MinnRoast. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner has given $1,950 in several donations over the years. Horner’s communications firm, Himle Horner, donated $200 for this year’s MinnRoast. And DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher has contributed $20.
Kramer believes the combined amount is so low — $8,100 total — that we don’t need to disclose that in every gubernatorial story. The amount represents two-tenths of 1 percent of MinnPost’s $3.5 million-plus gross revenues since inception, he notes.
At the time the KSTP news hit, Hubbard had donated 22 percent of MnForward’s funds. (The figure is under 10 percent now, as companies like Pentair, Federated Insurance and Best Buy have kicked in contributions.)
I asked Kramer (who rules out returning the donations) if there was a “magic number” for constant disclosure. He suggested 10 percent, adding, “No single source donates anywhere near that large a portion of MinnPost’s budget.”
That standard means someone could kick us tens of thousands of dollars, and you wouldn’t know unless you read the donor reports. Such a gift might be a nice problem for us to have, but I think Kramer’s benchmark is far too lax.
By the way, Cowles, a prolific contributor to many civic causes, accounts for 2 percent of Win Minnesota’s funds. Kramer adds that Toby Dayton shouldn’t be roped into the argument.
“Toby is Mark’s cousin. I am not aware of any conflict-of-interest policy or even discussion that includes cousins. Toby and Mark happen to have the same last name, but obviously many cousins don’t — and I haven’t the slightest idea who our donors’ cousins are.”
Are all donations alike?
Kramer also sees a difference between Mark Dayton’s contribution to us and Hubbard’s donation to MnForward.
“A donation from a news organization or its parent shows the donor’s support for a candidate, while a donation from the candidate shows support for our nonprofit news enterprise,” he says. “It is no different from a high-quality newspaper writing about its advertisers. The advertising is separate from news, and the news stories generally don’t mention the advertising relationship.”
I’ve argued the media should report more about their political revenues. Still, donations are different than ads; the latter is at least a payment for services rendered; a donation is more ambiguous. When Kramer says, “Donors to MinnPost have no influence on our coverage,” he’s saying the same thing politicians say about campaign contributors during a key vote.
As a MinnPost employee, I can attest to the integrity of my shop, and that my foibles and worldview are my own. However, as a journalist, I’ve written many times about “the appearance of a conflict of interest.” To me, it’s another argument for more explicit disclosure on our part, so readers can decide.
Kihne has already rendered a verdict. Of MinnPost, she writes, “They are a completely non-credible ‘news’ source as far as this race goes.”
Completely non-credible? Responds Kramer, “Activists downgrade any coverage they don’t like. That’s their privilege. We do call them as we see them. Last week, one reader canceled her subscription to our daily email, because she said our pro-Pawlenty slant made her sick. The only time we were challenged at the Minnesota News Council, it was by the DFL Party.”
To me, the email-canceling reader is as over-the-top as Kihne is about our non-credibility. That said, while we have bitten the DFL, we bite Republicans more — I know I have. I believe that, whomever gets bitten, we chomp with intellectual integrity — facts, interviews, accountability — even if you disagree with the analysis.
Kramer puts it this way: “Our writers write based on what they learn in our reporting and what they think, building on their experience and their values. They have no agenda to support any candidate or any party.”