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Not everyone sad to see the Minnesota News Council go

Note: Correction on the Star Tribune Foundation appended. Also see end of story.
Last week, the Minnesota News Council closed up shop.

Note: Correction on the Star Tribune Foundation appended. Also see end of story.

Last week, the Minnesota News Council closed up shop. In its final hearing refereeing disputes between the media and public, it narrowly vindicated MinnPost in a story critical of DFL party leaders.

That hearing — fourteen months ago — was the Council’s only one since 2008.

News Council chair Tony Carideo
News Council chair Tony Carideo

The groundbreaking chimera of media pros and citizen jurors, founded during the “Good Life in Minnesota” 1970s, did do more than adjudicate disputes. Says former executive director Gary Gilson, “Its mission also gave equal weight to helping news outlets avoid lapses that led to complaints and undermined public trust.”

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But the plain evidence is that the public didn’t rely on the News Council like it used to. Although the hearing count ranged between four and six annually until 2008, complaints fell from 142 in 2003 to 50 in 2008, 35 in 2009, and 25 in 2010.

The falloff mirrored a collapse in the organization’s budget. Though Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum wrote a noble valedictory for the Council, her paper likely started the ball rolling. “The first big hit was the loss of Star Tribune Foundation support at the top level,” says Sarah Bauer, the Council’s final executive director. “We used to get $15,000 from there.”

McClatchy Co., which sold the Strib in 2007, killed the foundation, which ended the donation. (A few months later under new ownership, executives got rid of the newsroom ombudsman, who fielded public complaints and focused on internal accountability.) Bauer says Pioneer Press support — in the $5,000-$7,000 range — never went away, but contributions waned as that paper’s financial situation worsened.

On the corporate side, Target bailed, along with its $5,000. Business supporters such as Travelers and Thrivent took their $1,500 or $5,000 and went home.

As the economy tanked, “virtually every one of the [corporate] funders reexamined and narrowed their funding policies to children, health care, education and the arts,” says former Star Tribune columnist Tony Carideo, who chairs the News Council’s board. “We didn’t fit any of those categories.”

In the end, a $220,000 annual budget dwindled to $75,000-$100,000, and the News Council was eating into its endowment.

One former participant, Rochester Post-Bulletin managing editor Jay Furst, has questioned why the Council can’t soldier on, since the endowment still totals $270,000. Carideo says the endowment restrictions don’t allow it; the original donors said the Council must live off the interest, not the principal. The money will instead go the Minnesota News Media Institute, a Minnesota Newspaper Association-affiliated nonprofit, to hold public forums, train journalists and fund research projects.

Ironically, an influential MNA player — its general counsel, Mark Anfinson — isn’t all that broken up about the Council’s demise.

Speaking for himself, not the MNA, Anfinson calls the Council a “glorious experiment that goes down to the honor and praise of its creators,” but adds that of its goals to “reduce libel claims and burnish somewhat the credibility of the news media … neither one was ultimately met.”

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On the first point: Anfinson allows libel suits have dropped precipitously in recent years. However, he adds that’s a nationwide phenomenon: “I didn’t see a measurable reduction in Minnesota versus other states” without News Councils.

As for the media’s drooping reputation, Anfinson acknowledges that that’s due to “very powerful undercurrents” including more partisan outlets and the heightened shooting gallery of Internet back-and-forth. But isolated News Council actions did not staunch the bleeding, he contends.

Anfinson is a media lawyer, and journalism’s trained cynics would note an alternative-dispute mechanism isn’t exactly good for business. However, Anfinson contends the increasing unwillingness of MNA members to participate in News Council proceedings “wasn’t generated by me — it was generated by the experiences of several extremely good journalists around the state.”

Anfinson says in the past decade or so, he and others came to see jurors as increasingly “‘Twin Cities elitist’ … a bit self-righteous and not appreciative of everyday challenges of community journalism.”

A flashpoint was a 1999 case involving the Savage Pacer, which recounted public details of sexual harassment allegations against a political candidate who was forbidden by legal settlement from commenting on the details. By an 11-3 vote, the jury said the Pacer was unfair because it hadn’t reported the story more fully; dissenters said the verdict would empower subjects to stonewall and hide behind confidentiality agreements.

Anfinson says Gilson twisted the knife with a Star Tribune op-ed that excoriated the suburban paper; a week later, Pacer executive Stan Rolfsrud subsequently blasted Gilson for likening the publisher to “a McCarthy-era reporter.”

Gilson said MNA members did not reduce contributions after the incident, though he adds that some Anfinson clients “were consistent supporters of the News Council — until the Council had a hearing on a complaint against one of those papers.”

Edward R. Murrow allegedly observed that “journalists don’t have thin skins — they have no skins,” so it’s no surprise hard feelings would build up over the years. However, at least one more neutral journalism expert also raises objections. Earlier this week, the First Amendment Center included these thoughts from Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota journalism professor whose specialty is media ethics and law:

Kirtley also expressed reservations about the Minnesota council, saying she had shared those concerns with its last two directors. One problem was that “it was supposed to be non-governmental and extra-judicial, but for many years, was chaired by a sitting justice of the state Supreme Court.” She noted that more recently, a retired justice filled that post.

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Another issue Kirtley cited was that the council “was voluntarily supported (financially and ‘morally’) by many Minnesota-based media, but those who did not support it were still subject to being brought before it involuntarily for a hearing, and could be tried in absentia if they refused to participate.”

Kirtley wrote that she was particularly bothered by the fact that the council “also took complaints from governmental entities (like city councils) regarding ‘fairness’ in editorials.” Some of these claims, she said, “were thinly disguised libel claims that the governmental entities would never have been able to bring in a court of law — and for good reason, in my judgment, because of the First Amendment protection for statements of opinion.”

Carideo adds that journalists weren’t the only refusniks. Despite a high-profile 1996 verdict in favor of Northwest Airlines versus WCCO and Don Shelby (which prompted Shelby to join the Council), corporations were increasingly loath to complain, because they did not want to give up legal rights.

To Anfinson, what remained was a crucible for a “tiny, tiny, tiny handful of people” trying to get “an isolated, individual warrant” that didn’t justify the “significant funds” and the “unfair negative impacts.”

Nevertheless Bauer (an MNA employee whose Council work was largely volunteer in the final months) notes an underappreciated part of the Council’s mission was working with the public short of a formal hearing. Focusing on hearings obscures the fact that fewer than 10 percent of complaints got that far. Sometimes, complainers relented if Council staff judged their objection unworthy of a hearing; other times, merely connecting the person to the media fomented a resolution.

Even skeptics such as Kirtley acknowledge the principle of giving the public a forum to resolve complaints. For her part, Bauer acknowledges that social media has reduced the need. With email addresses under many a byline, and platforms like Facebook, Twitter and even your humble MinnPost media reporter, the Council doesn’t have to make the public-media connections like it once did.

Still, Carideo says the News Council’s demise means the loss of “an independent voice, a joint venture between the public and press that put them in one room. We had discussion about fairness and best practices in journalism. Things like, fairness is not the square root of two balanced quotes.”

Perhaps the broadest agreement among defenders and critics is that the less-adversarial work the News Council did — public forums, seminars, research — is worth continuing. Will such carrots grow without the stick? The jury is out on that. 

This story originally said former Strib owner Avista Capital Partners killed the Star Tribune foundation; it was Avista’s predecessor, McClatchy Co.