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Should the media report Brodkorb rumors in Koch scandal?

Schadenfreude is impatient, especially for those who hate Michael Brodkorb’s scorched-earth politics.
Schadenfreude is impatient, especially for those who hate Michael Brodkorb’s scorched-earth politics.

Wednesday morning, I received an email asking why “the media, including MinnPost,” hasn’t referenced questions about whether fired Minnesota Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb was the subordinate involved in former Sen. Amy Koch’s “inappropriate relationship.”

The emailer noted Koch resigned, then “Brodkorb was canned. Why is the connection not made? Sure, the reader can infer, but reporters are supposed to save them the trouble. If the media are worried about libel, it is timidity at its worst.”

The writer is not some knee-jerk mainstream media basher — he’s Bob Whereatt, retired political reporter for the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, who put as much time in the Capitol basement press offices as anyone alive today.

Near as I can tell, only two local media outlets have directly acknowledged the omnipresent chatter and circumstances raising the possibility of a Brodkorb-Koch relationship. On Friday, when Brodkorb was fired, City Pages headlined an item “Was it Michael Brodkorb?,” following three days later with an Eagan police report involving a June domestic dispute for which the Senate staffer wasn’t charged.

Meanwhile, on WCCO-TV’s “Sunday Morning,” host Esme Murphy asked Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel point blank: Is that staffer Michael Brodkorb?

Michel’s answer likely provides some insight into why the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, MPR, Associated Press and MinnPost have not broached the subject: No one has confirmed it. “The law prohibits me from talking about any specific Senate employees or even former Senate employees,” Michel replied. “So there’s a legal process that will surround that.”

I say “likely provides some insight” because the Strib, PiPress and MPR did not respond to an email asking for their thinking on rumor reporting; AP bureau chief Dave Pyle replied simply: “In this case, we’ll let our coverage speak for itself.”

I asked Chris Ison, a Pulitzer-winning former Star Tribune investigative reporter now teaching at the University of Minnesota, what he would do here.

“I’ve been fascinated by how careful the media have been,” Ison says. “I have always been pretty conservative in these situations. If I don’t have it, I don’t have it. If circumstances make me 99.5 percent sure, but no person or document says it directly, I still don’t have it.

“I can use those circumstances to try to leverage someone to give it to me. But if no one will, I’m stuck. I don’t make that tiny leap based on circumstantial evidence. It’s somewhat of a principle — Don’t say what you don’t know. Don’t guess or assume. But it’s also pragmatic — I’ve seen reporters get burned when they take what seem to be tiny, safe leaps.  I still have to get someone to say it directly, or find a document to show it,” he concludes.

City Pages editor Kevin Hoffman makes the competing case for headlining the question: “We decided to ‘go there’ because the public was already going there (as you know from watching Twitter). I don’t think reporters have the luxury of playing dumb in this day and age.”

But the “people talking” rule would let the media publish any rumor — with harm to a publication’s reputation and to a possibly innocent person. So why did this rumor make the cut?

“This case was the exception rather than the rule,” Hoffman answered. “This was a major story of public interest where action had already been taken in the form of two people being removed from positions of leadership. We would not have printed the allegation if had simply been passed along by an anonymous source with no supporting evidence.”

CP is known as a few-holds-barred operation; MinnPost isn’t. So I asked my editor, Joel Kramer, whether merely broaching the subject in this column would violate our standards.

“The newsworthy question here is: Why was Brodkorb fired? Given that he was fired a day after Koch resigned, the connection makes this different from a run-of-the-mill rumor,” Kramer replied.

“In these circumstances, addressing the linkage is appropriate — as long as we make it clear that we do not know for a fact that Brodkorb was the man in the relationship with Koch.”

So why can’t the Strib, PiPress, MPR and AP do just that?

Some, like ex-Strib columnist Nick Coleman say the media lacks “guts,” contending that it “could happen” that “media types at the Capitol sat on [the] story cuz they didn’t want to burn GOP bridges.” To me, that’s ludicrous: anyone who knows Pat Kessler, Tom Scheck or several other Capitol reporters knows they’ve grabbed onto this with both jaws.

Scheck and MPR’s Catharine Richert advanced the story Wednesday, reporting that former Senate staffer Cullen Sheehan told leaders about the situation in September. But even then, Sheehan wouldn’t disclose the name of the staffer involved.

Says Ison, “The odd thing is, when there’s as much circumstantial evidence as there is in this case, and so many people know what happened, a reporter almost always can get someone to tell them directly, even if it’s on a not-for-attribution basis. I give credit to the reporters for not taking the leap here, assuming that nobody with direct knowledge will say it. But I’m amazed they can’t get somebody to say it.”

Perhaps the current reluctance shows confidence, not timidity. I’d wager this thing will grind out like a “Law and Order” procedural: Reporters know in their bones they will crack this case, and are willing to hold out for the sort of rock-solid sourcing MPR displayed Wednesday.

There are definite risks to publishing an allegation, even in the form of a question: legal, journalistic and moral. Is the reward all that great? I’d argue it isn’t. Schadenfreude is impatient, especially for those who hate Brodkorb’s scorched-earth politics, but the famous case of the Watergate reporting mistakes shows how incaution can mar a major investigation.

You can decide if City Pages, Murphy and now I have appropriately “addressed the linkage” while not asserting a possible relationship as fact. (CP’s publication of the Eagan police report may heighten the inference, but at least they relied on a documented fact.)

As for those playing it closer to the vest, I think there are times when journalists pull punches to preserve access, but I don’t think an irresistible story like this is one of those times. I can’t condemn the dogged fact-hunters for keeping their eyes firmly on the prize.

Comments (40)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/22/2011 - 11:44 am.

    Wow! What a huge difference in media interest between this and police actions related to then
    DEMOCRATIC candidates Keith (X Hakeem) Ellison’s discords with his alleged mistress!

    Just saying!

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/22/2011 - 12:11 pm.

    Michael Brodkorb is a “public figure” in every sense of the word and his position (until most recently) in the Republican party as well as a high ranking Senate staff position put at least some (I would say all) of the burden on him to either confirm or deny the rumors. He has already put this off too long. The fact a column like this has to appear and tiptoe around the truth is evidence of that. He has no standing to complain at this point if the public draws the “wrong” inference from the facts available. I suspect Brodkorb is having a hard time eating crow and doesn’t have the stomach for being on the receiving end of the kind of criticism he has enjoyed dishing out over the years.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/22/2011 - 12:46 pm.

    Ms. Koch has released a statement on the matter.

    Her partner in this matter should have the decency to do the same thing, especially if he is a GOP political operative. Failure to do so simply drags this matter out and further damages the GOP.

    If it is Mr. Brodkorb, failure to make a clean breast of things is unsurprising given his past history.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/22/2011 - 12:54 pm.

    “Schadenfreude is impatient, especially for those who hate Brodkorb’s scorched-earth politics..”

    No one loves mocking the opposition more than I, and I don’t begrudge leftists their shot at it either. Koch is in the stew, and Brodkorb has been chopped off at the knees; hilarity ensues, yeah I get it.

    But when a newspaper, or internet website that purports to provide “A thoughtful approach to news” publishes unsubstantiated rumors that provide nothing more substantive than fuel for the frivolity they sink to the level of, well City Pages.

    I know MinnPost has scooped up several former CP employees, but if they care about holding to any shred of credibility they have, the editors will keep them on a short leash.

    Ask yourselves these questions:

    Will knowing the identity lead to legal action?

    Does knowing the identity further a legitimate public need?

    If not, than I’d suggest legitimate, or wanna-be legitimate news sources leave further investigations to the “gimme rags” like City Pages.

  5. Submitted by Jim Camery on 12/22/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    (if it is true, of course), why wouldn’t one or the other come clean with the name to get past it? There’s no HR rule in the world stopping Brodkorb from saying why he left/was fired. The sooner the dogs get fed, the sooner they’ll settle down.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/22/2011 - 01:30 pm.

    A ‘profession’ that is more resistant to the admission of wrong or fault than blogging is hard to imagine.

    The unfavorable comments can be deleted. Comments can be blocked. Everything moves on once there is a new post. The topic changes. On-line memory is short.

    I suspect that this is part of the silence.

    Or, of course, it could have been someone else….

    That’s the other advantage of blogging under an anonymous identity about rumors and half-truths.

  7. Submitted by Lee Jones on 12/22/2011 - 01:39 pm.

    There’s no factual evidence anywhere that Brodkorb was involved with Koch so journalists should not write about it – I was trained to write about facts, if I didn’t have those facts I couldn’t write anything, even if the whisper mill told me otherwise. The sad thing is, too many journalists do not follow the stone-carved rules of a respectable skill anymore – gossip and innuendo have replaced facts at the highest level.

    If the facts come out (or even better, good investigative journalism uncovers them) then fine. Until then, stick to the facts and use journalistic skills instead of whispers and winks.

  8. Submitted by Shannon Drury on 12/22/2011 - 01:56 pm.

    I love the idea of Brodkorb getting his, but I have to agree with Swift’s point about MinnPost wishing to have it both ways on this one. Either go the full TMZ on Brodkorb as the person with whom Koch was being, er, “inappropriate,” or don’t write about it at all.

  9. Submitted by Jeff Litt on 12/22/2011 - 02:36 pm.

    Koch wrote in an email to reporters. “While I have not violated any laws or Senate rules, nor misused any state funds or property, I want to express my deep regret and apologies to my constituents, the Republican party, my fellow legislators, friends and most importantly, my family.

    Isn’t adultry breaking the law? (I believe she is married as is Brodkorp should he be identified as the one she had an affair with.)

  10. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 12/22/2011 - 02:48 pm.

    Most of us have been reading between the lines- when stories about Koch have have had odd paragraphs dropped in the middle about Brodkorb being fired, it’s not hard to get the message of “yeah, seems suspicious, we’re working on it.”

    It will come out, and while normally I don’t care who anyone is sleeping with, the hypocrisy of Koch trying to “preserve marriage” and doing this does have me watching this like a bad car-wreck.

  11. Submitted by Michael Ernst on 12/22/2011 - 02:51 pm.


    Yes, it is:

  12. Submitted by Jim Camery on 12/22/2011 - 02:52 pm.

    Maybe the hangup is that adultery legally involves some sort of penetration and the situation didn’t involve that. But of course, unless the principals come forward, this is the kind of speculation you get.

  13. Submitted by Jim Camery on 12/22/2011 - 03:24 pm.

    I understand the gay community has apologized for ruining her marriage.

  14. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/22/2011 - 05:56 pm.

    #2: Just for a moment, let’s assume that whomever Ms. Koch was involved with wasn’t her “partner” but an employee like any other who was caught in a situation with his or her supervisor that had no good way out. For all we KNOW at this point, Brodkorb was fired for covering up a relationship Koch had with someone else.

  15. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/22/2011 - 05:59 pm.

    Because a curious mind wanted to know:

    609.36 ADULTERY.
    Subdivision 1.Acts constituting.When a married woman has sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband, whether married or not, both are guilty of adultery and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year or to payment of a fine of not more than $3,000, or both.

    Subd. 2.Limitations.No prosecution shall be commenced under this section except on complaint of the husband or the wife, except when such husband or wife is insane, nor after one year from the commission of the offense.

    Subd. 3.Defense.It is a defense to violation of this section if the marital status of the woman was not known to the defendant at the time of the act of adultery.

  16. Submitted by Bob Sebo on 12/22/2011 - 06:07 pm.

    What I want to know is why isn’t anyone outside of Minnesota (well I saw a story in the Grand Forks Herald and UPI had something) interested in this story? Are women and men held to different standards? Given the hypocrisy factor I’m surprised there’s been no outside coverage. Google it yourself. There is nothing.

  17. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/22/2011 - 07:29 pm.

    Was it just coincidence that someone as well connected in the party as Brodkorb is fired, not allowed to resign, not given some kind of cover, but lured to a meeting and fired, banned from capitol offices, escorted to his desk kind of fired, immediately after Koch makes her announcement?

    Worrying about what the media reports really doesn’t matter, Republicans WANTED us to know it was him without saying it straight out, otherwise he would been offered a more graceful exit. We know all we need to know.

  18. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 12/22/2011 - 08:31 pm.

    Who Koch had an affair with is no ones business. That she had the relationship with an “employee” is news because it’s inappropriate and possibly illegal, but the rest is simply gossip.

  19. Submitted by Adam Minter on 12/22/2011 - 09:32 pm.

    Kind of reminiscent of 1998 and the week or so during which Drudge was running the Lewinsky story before everybody else. Everybody in D.C. was reading Drudge, everybody knew about the affair, but it took a week or so before the MSM – represented by Michael Isikoff of the Post/Newsweek – actually wrote it. I can’t remember the details of what proof, exactly, Isikoff had that wasn’t in Drudge’s hands. But I do recall how ridiculous the situation was – here was Drudge, publishing a story that every journo in D.C. believed without believing it was good enough for their own publications.

    At some point, the Strib or MPR or somebody is just going to let this thing fly. Maybe they’ll do on the basis of personnel records obtained from a source. Or maybe they’ll do what Brauer and MinnPost just did and slip it through a side door (and David, good for you). But to pretend that Brodkorb’s sudden departure isn’t one of the PRIMARY factors driving this story, is to pretend that we’re still doing media like it’s 1979. We’re not.

  20. Submitted by Chris Sur on 12/22/2011 - 10:25 pm.

    “There’s no factual evidence anywhere that Brodkorb was involved with Koch so journalists should not write about it”

    As Brauer’s editor suggested, the fact that Brodkorb was fired the day after Koch resigned is evidence. Some would argue that it is compelling evidence. It may not be direct evidence, but circumstantial evidence is evidence. As long as you don’t call it anything more than what it is, why would it be irresponsible journalism to report the circumstantial evidence, and pose the question as to whether there is a connection?

  21. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/22/2011 - 11:09 pm.

    #14: A bit of a sidebar commentary here, but as I read the cite you’ve quoted (Minnesota’s Adultery statute) it appears to me that a married WOMAN having sexual intercourse with a single (or married) MAN is engaging in an illegal act under this statute. However, it does not appear to be illegal under this statute for a married MAN to have sexual intercourse with a single WOMAN.

    Yet another double standard?

    Does that render this statute vulnerable to legal challenge, enquiring minds may wish to know . . . . . .

  22. Submitted by peter delong on 12/23/2011 - 12:43 am.

    IF it smells like an elephant… its probably a conservative cover=up. In these days of conservative social values is it any wonder that when we citizens spend this much time politley discussing a story, it si probably truer than we care to accept in good Minnesota nice values.

    The liberal mind will jump to decry the moral relativity as proof why gay marriage is a weak ideal whie the conservatives just refuse to talk directly about the issue and attempt to erase its memory with enough controversy and partisan bikkkering as they can muster.

    Koch and herr staffer are idealist, caught in a love tryst they wish they could take back but cant. Shouldn’t we all jsut accept that they are human and its natural to fall in love in highly competive and stressful enviornments. Let all take a deep breath and refocus on the real issues of politics of austerity and privielge and focus on solutions to our social-economic problems which increase our similarities raht than argue over them?

  23. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/23/2011 - 06:59 am.

    Mr. Brodkorb and Ms. Koch are seasoned political pro’s. They’ll roll with it like professionals often do.

    Although I’m sure not so sure the same can be said for their families and children.

  24. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 12/23/2011 - 08:52 am.

    Mr. Brauer:

    You have been a reporter for a long time. Is this the first time that you have been aware of a politician being involved in a “relationship” with an a government employee? Weren’t most/all of those incidents involving males with the power?

    The following sentence exemplifies why the law serves only to protect government employees.

    “The law prohibits me from talking about any specific Senate employees or even former Senate employees.”

    The law also gives them paid vacations (“administrative leave”) on most occasions.

  25. Submitted by Conklin Conklin on 12/23/2011 - 12:09 pm.

    As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, such as finding a trout in the milk.

  26. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/23/2011 - 02:05 pm.

    Definitely time to get that statute changed.

  27. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/23/2011 - 05:43 pm.

    Time to get that statute ELIMINATED!

  28. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 12/23/2011 - 07:41 pm.

    If it was Brodkorp, what were the grounds for firing him? Wasn’t he as the “victim”? And didn’t Sarah Janasek suggest that there was a political motive related to the Vikings stadium and expanded gambling that doomed Brodkorp. Until proven otherwise, I’m happy to believe that Koch’s employee-paramour was someone else and that Brodkorp was collateral damage who lost his kob when he list his protector.

  29. Submitted by Robert Ryan on 12/23/2011 - 11:16 pm.

    If it was Brodkorb, he would have been the subordinate and considered a victim of sexual harassment, at least theoretically, and Koch the person who perpetrated the sexual harassment. As a victim, I don’t think he would have been summarily canned. So maybe he had a different role in all this, and was not Koch’s partner in hypocrisy.

  30. Submitted by William Pappas on 12/24/2011 - 01:47 pm.

    The fact is City Pages frequently is able to report on topics in a frank and forthright manner, able to get to the meat of the story without worry about criticism. That serves a purpose. At least the Strib is making the connection between Koch’s behavior and her pious views on the “sanctity of marriage”.

  31. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 12/27/2011 - 10:49 am.

    I’m with Ison.

    Readers should notice that the only self-identified news professional among the first 30 people posting comments says the same thing. As do Brauer and Kramer.

    Most of us have learned the hard way that our journalism instructors of a generation earlier were correct.

  32. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 12/27/2011 - 07:33 pm.

    #21: “However, it does not appear to be illegal under this statute for a married MAN to have sexual intercourse with a single WOMAN….Yet another double standard?”

    No. That situation falls under the state’s fornication statute:

  33. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/28/2011 - 07:46 am.

    Still a double standard. In addition to the fact that it is “different crimes for different genders”, the statute for fornication calls it a “misdemeanor” which is defined as “a crime for which a sentence of not more than 90 days or a fine of not more than $1,000, or both” (609.02 Subdivision 3) while the punishment for adultery (which only a married WOMAN is subject to) is “imprisonment for not more than one year or to payment of a fine of not more than $3,000, or both”.

  34. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/28/2011 - 08:35 am.

    Oops! Let me correct myself. I said only a married WOMAN was subject to a charge of adultery. I mis-stated. A man can be charged with adultery, also – but only if he has intercourse with a married woman. (At least, that’s how I’m reading it.)

    Also of interest – if he claims (who knows what kind of proof is required) to have been unaware the woman was married, then he gets out from under the adultery charge.

    There’s no way I can read this statute as treating men and women in an equal way.

  35. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 01/01/2012 - 07:46 pm.

    Just saw this post on return from vacation… I think Mr Brauer, rather than partially quoting one of my MANY tweets on the Brodkorb/Koch story and then labeling his half-assed misrepresentation of my views as “ludicrous,” should have contacted me to permit me a full explanation. He didn’t. There are many reasons to criticize the mainstream media’s performance here, and Brauer barely scratches the surface. Instead, per usual, we get a fawning defense of the status quo. Mr Whereatt is correct: Media coverage of a scandal that left one of the state’s political parties in turmoil has been timid in the extreme. And no one at MinnPost, apparently, is willing to say so.

  36. Submitted by Zoey Mann on 01/02/2012 - 03:42 am.

    Most all of the Senate staffers know what went on; if you talk to more to the rank-and-file staffers, you could probably get some corroboration to the allegations. That is, unless threre is some sort of self-imposed gag rule.

  37. Submitted by Steve Brandt on 01/02/2012 - 12:09 pm.

    Wouldn’t Minnesota Statutes 13.43 sub. 2 (4) (5) and (6) apply here?

  38. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 01/03/2012 - 08:00 am.

    In case anyone would actually like to read Minnesota Statutes 13.43 sub. 2(4), (5) and (6), they can be found here:

  39. Submitted by John Jordan on 01/03/2012 - 08:50 am.

    All this from the same people who support “”, the extremist lefty group formed to tell us to “move on” from the very-real Clinton affair (and lying under oath). Chant with me: This is what hypocrisy looks like!

  40. Submitted by John Ferman on 01/03/2012 - 03:07 pm.

    In one Strib article, far down into the bowels of the piece, the Senate Majority Chief of Staff was interviewed. The CoS confronted Brodkorb who admitted his frolic, the CoS with Brodkorb met with Koch and she confirmed the lason. When vital facts get printed deep into an article, the top sentence readers are going to be ill-informed.

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