Star Tribune metro columnists go two months without writing about general election

12:05 pm. Tuesday update: Gail Rosenblum’s comments appended to the end of this piece.

I’m not sure there’s a major metropolitan daily with this track record: The Star Tribune’s metro columnists have written zero about the 2010 general election in its final two months.

Jon Tevlin and Gail Rosenblum have not covered the race since a few days after the Aug. 10 primary. Even then, the approach was small-bore: Tevlin wrote about a teen Minneapolis school board campaign volunteer Aug. 17; Rosenblum wrote about Independence Party guv-primary loser Rob Hahn Aug. 14.

In 2008, Strib editor Nancy Barnes sent a memo demanding columnists refrain from “partisan political commentary” during the campaign’s final weeks. Back then, her metro columnists were political warriors Katherine Kersten and Nick Coleman. Both were out within a month, relegated to the Sunday editorial section.

This year, Tevlin and Rosenblum have extended the political prophylactic from weeks to months. Avoid the hacktacular, sure, but political eunuchs?

Columnists have the most freedom to communicate what things really mean, and Tevlin and Rosenblum both have the ability to absolutely nail an issue. For example, Tevlin’s July 6 column on Tom Emmer’s “tip credit” was a devastating, definitive portrait of ludicrousness, deftly mixing reporting and wit.

Neither writer is a bomb-thrower — a reason each was promoted. Rosenblum explores issues through personal portraits; Tevlin likes mucking around in side streets and Ponzi schemes. But the Nov. 2 winners will have a lot to say about how real people live their lives, so couldn’t they devote a column or three to what’s going on?

Tevlin — the first to reply — isn’t apologizing.

“I am not a ‘political junkie,’” he says. “I simply find it more interesting, say, to sit down with Ponzi schemer Michael Catain for an exclusive interview, or write about the Good Samaritan who was beaten nearly to death with baseball bats — so that people send him money, which they did. To me, it beats another screed on these tedious, unending campaigns.”

Absolutely. I don’t want Tevlin and Rosenblum becoming Keith Olbermann and Laura Ingraham for three months.  A broad portfolio — even during election season — is fine, but the combined silence for two months is odd.

Tevlin makes it clear the choices are his, and coincidental. “I have not been told to stay away from politics in the waning days of the campaigns. My editors simply told me that they trust my judgment.”

He quipped that I chose my time frame to fit my thesis. During the summer, he’d written about Target’s MnForward contribution, anti-Emmer immigration protestor Robert Espinosa, and pandering for the senior vote.

Actually, those columns were why I was asking, I replied. All were written before the primary, when fewer readers were paying attention. My time frame was the general election campaign, when many more folks tune in and vote.

Tevlin says he’d taken some post-primary time off, which reduced his opportunity to hit political targets. He noted another factor: The Strib editorial section has several “excellent political commentators,” and they often cover topics he considers. “If we have covered a topic thoroughly I’m not likely to do yet another column on it.”

That’s fair, though there are a million political stories and insights unwritten — especially given the editorial section’s Horner crush and the tendentiousness of many op-ed columnists.

Perhaps alluding to the 2008 controversy (which featured a Kersten attack on Al Franken headlined, “Vulgar mockery of Christians: Is this what we want in a U.S. Senator?”), Tevlin adds, “It’s certainly possible I will write a political column between now and the election, but I don’t think the Metro cover is the place to endorse a candidate or do a last minute hit job.”

He continued, “Timing plays a bigger part in topic selection than I like. For example, I talked to my editor about doing something on Rep. Bachmann’s search for stimulus money, but I already had one written for tomorrow and I don’t write again until next Tuesday. I’m not sure it will be fresh enough then.”

As it turns out, tomorrow’s column is about businesses who give to politicians. Way to mar another columnist’s beautiful thesis, Tevlin.

Update: here are Gail Rosenblum’s comments, which to a certain extent mirror Tevlin’s:

I do have one politically focused piece pending, and I did write an open letter to Gov. Pawlenty on Sept. 2 that got tons of feedback. I am sorry that I’m causing you headaches, David, but my goal is to remain as authentic as possible in this very challenging new role. Writing pointed political missives is not my strength and I would sound inauthentic if I tried to change that reality. Tapping into the human side of news stories is a much better fit for me personally and professionally.

My editors have been extremely supportive of me from the get-go, as have readers. There are many, many ways to be a strong columnist, David, one with a strong voice sharing what matters. My voice is not your voice.  

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 10/19/2010 - 12:28 pm.

    A cynic would point out that in a year when Karl Rove and the Chamber of Commerce are dumping $100 million worth of blatantly false ads into the system, an anonymously owned pro-Wall Street newspaper might find it politically advantageous to not scrutinize campaign ads or candidates.

  2. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 10/19/2010 - 12:48 pm.

    So the editor says “Refrain from partisan commentary”, and Tevlin and Rosenblum, who had theretofore been trading licks on who could bag harder on Republicans, fall silent.

    I’m tracking so far, right?

    Hey, Jon and Gail – I have quite a few stories nobody’s covered. Mark Dayton’s transcripts at Amherst might be a fun place to start. Or his reasoning for quitting in mid-school-year, after working about 30% of the time. Or perhaps a little insight into all his stints in rehab. They’re pretty much virgin turf!

    I live to serve!

  3. Submitted by Paul Scott on 10/19/2010 - 04:04 pm.

    I’m with you on this David. Their reasons for covering soft stories and human interest topics may be genuine but it seems like a missed opportunity to talk about something front and center. Also, it effectively delegates the talk about the election to the Op-Ed page, which I’m not sure, but I think, REALLY REALLY WANTS YOU TO VOTE FOR TOM HORNER!!! Because making the rich pay their fair share is divisive and bad for their friends at Medtronic, Cargill, Target, 3M, etc…oops, I mean “the ee-kon-o-mee…”

  4. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 10/20/2010 - 09:13 am.

    I was ordered, near the end of my column writing days in the Strib Metro section, NOT to write about the inauguration of Barack Obama in January, 2009. Astounded, I replied that the inauguration of our first black president was an historic event. I was told again, more forcefully, that I would not be allowed to write anything about it. Apparently, the editors were afraid I might approve. So Mr. Brauer is a little late to the party: This train wreck occurred two years ago.

  5. Submitted by Jason Walker on 10/20/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    I’m not sure I’d be eating up everything Tevlin and Rosenblum wrote if they did cover the election, but I’d at least read them more. Not because I have anything against them or their abilities, but I just don’t care about yet another human-interest piece posing as a column.
    What stinks about it is, I think they both have real talent and would write great columns that actually offered reasoned opinions. Oh, well.

  6. Submitted by Bruce Adomeit on 10/22/2010 - 01:56 pm.

    David,

    You want columnists to write about this fall’s election? Check out Dennis Anderson’s column on p.3 of the Friday Strib sports section (Oct. 22). Here’s my favorite snippet:

    “… the governor in this state, however good his intentions, often is hamstrung by legislators who at times wield great power, if only to ward off progress. A paradox, this, the power, because many of these same lawmakers are otherwise unemployable, given their penchants for double-dealing and back stabbing. Which might be expected, given the job’s compensation. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

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