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Should MinnPost run a disclaimer on its gubernatorial coverage?

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.”

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/27/2010 - 12:53 pm.

    Yep, I think disclosure is called for – if for no other reason than to blunt the edge of criticisms from folks like Ms. Kihne, whose criticisms, like those of most advocates from any point on the political spectrum, are largely based on disagreement with the conclusions of the writer(s).

    Lately Republicans mostly make fools of themselves without any assistance at all from local media, but there are Democrats that manage to do that, too, so it’s a kind of nonpartisan idiocy that infects some members of the political class regardless of their particular party affiliation.

    In any case, it should be fairly easy for MinnPost to list donors of any significance in a prominent place on the home page. I add that “significance” caveat because Margaret Kelliher’s $20 doesn’t strike me as significant. If MinnPost can be bought for $20, things in Minnesota are MUCH worse than I thought…

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/27/2010 - 01:16 pm.

    I don’t know why Kramer is so resistant to disclosure. Rather than arguing that the amounts donated are too small to be worth disclosing, why not just disclose them and remove any grounds for criticism? Put a disclaimer on every at the end of every article on the governor’s race (or any other news where there is a conflict of interest) that takes you to a list of donors and an explanation similar to this article.

    Set the bar higher than everyone else.

  3. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 07/27/2010 - 01:38 pm.

    Yes, run the disclosure.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 07/27/2010 - 01:55 pm.

    IMHO, No.

    In a comment on Mr. Black Ink’s July 9th article about Entenza, I pointed out, “Dayton, whose 2009 tax return (statement 6A) shows $3K given to MinnPost, has received favorable press here.”

    I don’t trust media outlets to spoon feed me such information; I will ferret it out for myself.

    I do think that MinnPost would benefit from a regular columnist who doesn’t lean left. That would be refreshing. The spirited discussions in the Comments that occur are started by less than a handful of people with a center or right-of-center ideology.

  5. Submitted by Joe Williams on 07/27/2010 - 01:55 pm.

    I think that any news organization can parse out the different sections of their reporting in the same manner that some cable news organizations have before: The news section aims to be non-partisan, opinion sections are not necessarily so.

    I can imagine that it is difficult to present yourself as non-partisan, especially when news junkies are on the lookout for a partisan bent. I have always appreciated Nate Silver’s take in regard to the issue which can be found here:

    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2008/03/frequently-asked-questions-last-revised.html

    I don’t believe that MinnPost slants completely to the left, although I haven’t seen much from Mr. Bonafield in a little while. Why not add some sort of disclosure, as appropriate? It won’t change everyone’s opinion, but the question being asked is relevant, nonetheless.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/27/2010 - 03:12 pm.

    I love to rip on you Dave, but let no one say that I won’t give credit where it’s due. This is an honest self examination.

    As to whether MinnPost should disclaim it’s ties to leftist politicians and/or special interests…meh, why waste the effort.

    No one that ever visits this site mistakes it for a non-biased news source, and other than the rather smug tagline, I must say that MinnPost doesn’t make too much of an effort to deny it’s mission.

    So from one cog in the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, I say go ahead and do what you do best, and “we’ll” continue to set it straight.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/27/2010 - 03:28 pm.

    As long as MinnPost sticks to fact and evidence based reporting and quoting directly from attributable sources, I have no trouble with whatever “slant” others might believe they see (but then, I do believe “truth has a liberal bias”).

    When MinnPost starts doing constant negative blather and hit pieces based on rumor, innuendo and anonymous sources as well as such as sleaze magnates Breitbart against Republican candidates, as Weasel News so clearly does from the other side, I’ll start worrying about your level of “bias.”

    Let’s face it, there are those, especially on the conservative side who shout “bias” regarding any article that reveals their favorite celebrities and candidates in an unflattering light, even if there’s nothing in the article but direct (and intact) quotes, given fully in context.

    If you can’t tell the difference between Weasel News and actual news, then you have a decided problem telling the difference between your own favorite perspectives and factual reality. In short, you’re the one with the problem, not those you accuse of bias.

  8. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 07/27/2010 - 06:12 pm.

    If Minnpost enjoys tax-exempt status they should not post the disclosure or even write about it. In my opinion Minnpost is already in violation of Revenue Ruling 2007-41 for having part of its activity directed at opposing a candidate for public office, think Rep Bachmann as an easy example. More importantly the disclosure would further assist Revenue Agents under PACI, see the link below and tell me that Minnpost wouldn’t fail on multiple accounts. The last thing this site needs are more links to DFL homepages. At least make the Agents work for it.

    http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/paci_cover_memo_with_sign.pdf

  9. Submitted by B Maginnis on 07/27/2010 - 06:45 pm.

    How about this:

    “MinnPost employs ONLY such(far)lefty “journalists” such as Black, Grow, Schmickle, Hawkins, Sparber, Lambert and Brauer, and is run by obviously and admittedly lefty “management”, supported by loony left “philanthropy.

    Therefore, if you are looking here for anything resembling “fair discussion” of the issues facing us, i.e., the deteriorating state of our city, state or country, due to leftist social policies and Marxist fiscal policies (attempting to)run amok, (except as it relates to the dilemna of pictures of 14 year old runaways), you’re barking up the wrong teleprompter.”

  10. Submitted by John Edwards on 07/27/2010 - 07:45 pm.

    I think it would be equally helpful for voters to know how much the gubernatorial candidates have donated to Minnesota Public Radio. As a Star-Tribune Jan. 4 2008 story (MPR Shuns MinnPost Underwriting Offer) reveals, the two organizations are fierce competitors for the same group of left-wing contributors. I, of course, do not think those donors influence MPR’s programming (or MinnPost’s coverage) any more than KSTP’s contribution to the Emmer campaign, affects that station’s political reporting (hee hee.) Call me suspicious, but could there possibly be a connection between Mark Dayton’s deflated investment portfolio and the $5 million anonymous gift MPR received a year ago November?

  11. Submitted by John Olson on 07/28/2010 - 07:05 am.

    One can disclose until an August snowstorm hits, but the reality is the vast majority of media outlets will forever be accused of having a liberal bias. Most readers are not going to care one way or the other.

    The four people that cry for full disclosure (presumably with footnotes, annotations, weblinks, etc.) are the same ones who will continue to rant anyway. Omit a zero or link to a webpage that no longer exists and the conspiracy theories will rekindle.

    Put your resources into providing coverage that the majority of us will simply read. You already list your donors. Carry on.

  12. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 07/28/2010 - 08:01 am.

    DB – How about this… Minnpost changes its status from tax-exempt to taxable and they can become the liberal version of BigGovernment.com. My argument is two fold.

    First, I want to know that this organization (which supports revenue enhancements at every level of government) is not only paying its fair share but is also not reducing the tax burden for its supporters. Seems to be something hypocritical about supporting increased collections while taking a deduction to support your position.

    Second, how does Minnpost’s political leaning taint individual contribution limits? What do you do if you are wealthy and you have reached the maximum individual campaign contribution for your favorite DFL candidate for governor, say Toby Dayton? Maybe give to Minnpost.com, a tax-exempt entity for which no contribution threshold exists that will guarantee something similar to Emmer Watch 2010? Plus you can receive a deduction on your individual tax return. Sounds to good to be true.

  13. Submitted by David Brauer on 07/28/2010 - 08:22 am.

    Joseph –

    Your link in #8 is only a cover letter. Try again. The report identifies political contributions directly to candidates. Whatever you think of MinnPost’s coverage, we don’t do that.

    As for the BigGovernment.com analogy, that’s pretty much of a joke. We don’t Breitbart videos, for example. We’ve had plenty of stories criticizing Dems, do publish non-Dems, and, well, exhibit integrity in our reporting (and openly admit mistakes when we fall short).

    While individual writers may have no problem with raising revenues, MinnPost doesn’t endorse that position (or any other), so I doubt we’d adopt your business plan.The tax laws do not require some sort of artificial balance in coverage, by the way, so we can criticize Congresswoman Bachmann’s less factual utterances – repeatedly, if those utterances come machine-gun-like.

    In a world where the Center of the American Experiment is a tax-deductible institution, I think our status is safe.

  14. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 07/28/2010 - 08:58 am.

    As long as we are discussing media full disclosure, I think it would be wonderful if Star Tribune reporters started identifying themselves as union members when writing articles about union activity.

  15. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 07/28/2010 - 09:03 am.

    David – biggovernment.com was an example of what you could be, call it Media Matters than. Rev Rule 2007-41….

    Issue Advocacy vs. Political Campaign Intervention

    Section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues,
    including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However,
    section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as
    political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an
    audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering
    the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition
    if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can
    identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other
    means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party
    affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography.
    All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the
    advocacy is political campaign intervention.
    Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political
    campaign intervention include the following:

    • Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public
    office; Pawlenty/Bachmann

    • Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more
    candidates’ positions and/or actions; Glean v.s. Bachmann

    • Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by
    the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of
    any election; – Pawlenty Watch

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/28/2010 - 11:30 am.

    Joseph makes some interesting points, but speaking again just for myself, I’ll take on the papspew as it comes; it doesn’t bother me where leftists put their money.

    I leave that manner of vindictive childishness to the care of wacky crews such as the Targeteers and their cheerleading section.

    Cheerleading sections, hmmm….of which Minnpost is a member.

    Pot meets kettle, Dave?

  17. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/29/2010 - 03:28 pm.

    On disclosing and disclaiming, and where to draw the lines, my suggestion is that if there’s any doubt, disclose. We don’t need a long disclaimer on every article, but there’s no harm is an article on Dayton, Entenza, or Horner links to a disclaimer or article on their donations.

    Please don’t take seriously the idea of becoming a liberal biggovernment.com. Liberals don’t need or want that any more than we want a liberal Fox News. We want accuracy, and if the facts are uncomfortable, so be it. I expect a liberal leaning publication not to make things up like conservative media, or hold back uncomfortable facts, but to pick up stories mainstream news ignores or covers inaccurately, but which deserve our attention.

  18. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 08/01/2010 - 09:36 am.

    Should MinnPost disclaim stories? Like Tom says, I don’t think there’s a sentient news consumer out there who doesn’t know that the MinnPost and much of its staff comes to the table with a bias. And I’m fine with that – the Times of London, LeMonde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, and Telegraaf all have institutional biases that the reader considers when reading their coverage. The MinnPost discloses (let’s suspend my natural distrust for the moment) its donors; Sheila and I can hammer on you as appropriate.

    I’m a lot less concerned with MinnPost – which is biased but transparent – or MPR, which is biased but makes an effort at balance (at least in the newsroom; their actual programming is another matter), than I am with the Strib and WCCO-TV.

    The Strib’s political reporting has been dodgy to the point of suspicious for years; I’ve caught them on some EXTREMELY suspicious stories. And after over a decade of documented pro-DFL bias and anecdotal-but-consistently too-cute timing, the “Minnesota Poll” should be treated as a disclosable in-kind contribution to the DFL.

    And yet they, unlike the MNPost, continue to demand that we ignore the man behind the curtain and distrust what our eyes and brains tell us.

    I’ll give you a pass on disclosure, David. But the Strib could stand to do some explaining.

  19. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 08/01/2010 - 11:12 am.

    Mr. Ferguson:

    ” expect a liberal leaning publication not to make things up like conservative media”

    Burkett memos. “Racist” Tea party chants. “Avalanche of tea-party violence”. Rush Limbaugh is racist. Don’t even get me started on selection bias…

    …but since you did; look at Rochelle Olson’s coverage of Alan Fine’s “arrest” during the 2006 campaign, and the Strib’s rationalization for omitting the raft of exculpatory details about Fine.

    http://www.shotinthedark.info/archives/008031.html

    And tell me it’s not an in-kind contribution to the DFL.

    Then look at Pat Doyle’s “coverage” of Tom Emmer’s legal and business dealings – which “somehow” managed to avoid mentioning Emmer’s side of any of the “stories”:

    http://www.shotinthedark.info/wp/?p=11604

    Mangling context and intentionally omitting facts that don’t fit a narrative is the same as lying.

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