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Star Tribune editor: 'If you want to campaign, put down your journalist's badge'

Nancy Barnes
Nancy Barnes

[Note: Colin Covert says I'm making a lot of incorrect assumptions about politics here. See his comments, end of piece.]

Following a dust-up yesterday in which Star Tribune movie critic Colin Covert urged Twitter followers to cancel their Pioneer Press subscriptions over a Minnesota Marriage Amendment editorial, editor Nancy Barnes issued this memo Tuesday morning:

I have received a number of complaints from inside and outside of the newsroom with regards to journalists promoting their own political agendas on both the Star Tribune and social media accounts. This damages our brand and our credibility. Journalists take an oath to be fair and unbiased. If you want to campaign, then you need to put down your journalist's badge. I ask that if you have any posts up promoting a campaign or a ballot question that you immediately take it down.

While I'm not quite sure what oath Barnes is talking about, there's no doubt Covert's tweet — "If you like to vote with your dollars, cancel your subscription to the Pioneer Press. (651) 222-1111 or infodesk@pioneerpress.com" — got Strib leadership's attention. As documented by Jim Romenesko, Pioneer Press managing editor Chris Clonts complained to Barnes and her managing editor, Rene Sanchez, and "got a genuine note from Rene this morning acknowledging the situation."

Covert tweeted from his personal account; Barnes' memo says branded Star Tribune accounts were also used. I follow as many Strib writers as I can and haven't seen anything, though I don't follow the accounts that spit out mostly headlines. If anyone has the tweets in question, let me know — @dbrauer or dbrauer@minnpost.com.

I certainly disagree with Covert about canceling the PiPress over its half-baked marriage editorial — and said so here. And as leader of the most closely watched news organization in the state, Barnes has been dogged about quashing even the most fleeting of political expression. The bias-seers still see bias, but the cat-and-mouse game has gotten tougher.

That's the game the dailies play; I'm in the camp that says we're all biased, transparency is better than suppression, let the chips fall. While I think journalists use objectivity like priests use celibacy — to convince the populace they are closer to God — Barnes' principles have been clear for years, and are shared by the town's other big media outlets.

Her application of the principle has costs: As I've noted before, her news columnists don't engage politics as often, nor as directly, and that makes the Metro section a less interesting place. (It's been better this year.) And it's faintly ridiculous that a critic — a guy who can have opinions about a movie's politics — can't express any on his personal Twitter account. Covert is not Rachel Stassen-Berger; he's not Jim Ragsdale. Would the Strib be less interesting, less professional if he told the world marriage discrimination was abhorrent?

Update: After this piece was published, Colin Covert emailed me, miffed that I hadn't gotten his side. "Throttle back there, Top Gun, you've about to overheat," the movie critic wrote. "Any political agenda you read into that piece is yours alone. I choose my words carefully, and I wouldn't mind a correction. It's a 140-word character jab at our competitor expressed in Election Day language, despite whatever conclusions anyone believes they detect between the lines. I do not spend a whole lot of time — like none — reading PiPress editorials."

This, folks, is why you call the people you're writing about — my apologies to Covert.

Still, the chain of causality leaves my brow furrowed. Covert's tweet — which looks like it was deleted today — was emitted two days after the PiPress's first editorial appeared and a day after editor Mike Burbach walked it back. Barnes' note (which to be fair, referenced multiple posts by multiple people) came out the next day, after PiPress complaints about Covert.

I can't say I got a clear answer about what did prompt the particularly sharp poke, but before I heard from Covert, I got an email from Newspaper Guild co-chair Janet Moore noting that Covert's tweet "said nothing about the PiPress's marriage editorial."

Obviously, it's a sensitive topic over there — one I should've done a more solid job reporting.

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Comments (11)

The Imperial Employer

strikes again. They can tell you who to vote for (if your boss is on Mitt's mailing list), they can prohibit you from campaigning (if you work at a newspaper), and they can literally destroy your life by unfairly dismissing you and giving bad references (if you work anywhere in this country).

We used to have laws that prohibited this crap, but somewhere along the line we stopped enforcing those laws.

The Star Tribune: reminding us that employment is at will, and you WILL do what your employer tells you. Even if it is hard to see why anyone would listen to a movie reviewer's political recommendations.

The myth of objectivity

Objectivity in political journalism has been incorrectly relegated to "he said/she said" - no matter how stupid he or she may be. It's a joke and farce. But it's easier for an editor, who admittedly has a tough job, to lay down rules like that.

Since when

I agree, David. Since when is a movie critic not allowed to express his opinions, let alone on his personal Twitter account (though, my belief is that when you post on your Twitter account, you don't tweet, you twit).

Just be honest about your perspective

A journalist should be objective when purporting to write an objective piece. That doesn't mean that they don't have an opinion or that they should never voice that opinion. They just shouldn't mask a slanted opinion piece as fact. But a journalist who never takes a position is actually doing us a disservice.

I do disagree that one should cancel a subscription based on an editorial. After all the Strib had Katherine Kersten. Just don't read the editorials of people you stridently disagree with, or better yet, write an editorial yourself!

I tend to side with David

…on this one. I like transparency better than “objectivity,” largely because I don’t really believe objectivity exists. We can’t help but be products of our times, our upbringings, our education, and that’s going to show through, and while I’d not be happy, were I in an editor’s chair, about something strident (I’ve not seen Covert’s comments because, as an elderly Luddite, I don’t tweet. My cell phone can barely deal with phone calls.), I’d be more interested in the concept of “fair,” rather than “unbiased.” Fox “News,” for example, is often not fair, but I don’t expect it to be unbiased. One of my ongoing, and never satisfactorily answered, questions is “Why do writers of ‘Letters to the Editor’ have to identify themselves when writers of a newspaper's editorials do not?”

I also agree with Jeff Urbanek, both about the duty of journalists and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “pettiness” of canceling a subscription over an editorial you don’t like. I don’t take the PiPress, since I live in the other Twin City, but I see stuff every day in the ‘Strib that I don’t like, as well as on various TV news broadcasts. If I stop listening/watching/reading everything that occasionally annoys me, I’ll have cut myself off from the world, and I’m not ready for that.

One note to Rachel and Mark: as a practical matter, for 30 years as a public school teacher, I felt obliged to leave my 1st Amendment rights at the door every morning. School board members and building administrators are exquisitely sensitive to the sound of a screaming parent at the other end of a phone call, no matter the rationale for the screaming. To a degree, I felt a similar obligation while I was a planning commissioner. While I might have appealed, and even won, a dispute with my school board over freedom of speech, it was simply easier to avoid having to be involved in such a fight in the first place. In private and individually, I didn’t have qualms about expressing opinions when asked, but at the front of a classroom, I made sure I was able to articulate both sides of contemporary issues if they were relevant to the class and the lesson, no matter how wrongheaded I thought one of the sides happened to be. My students usually figured out I wasn’t a member of the right wing, but they seldom knew anything more than that.

With all that, I’m in agreement with Mark about the “Imperial Employer,” especially when the employer can not-very-subtly suggest that one's job might be on the line if one doesn't vote the way the folks in the executive suites want employees to vote. It’s a sign of the times that restrictions on that sort of arm-twisting seem to have gone the way of moderate Republicans.

Mark, so therefore you think

that an employer should be obligated to keep someone in their employ who creates undue risk to their brand or their value in the marketplace? No, people get paychecks because they add more value to an organization than they cost it. People's actions outside of work hours, yet in the public view, can severely increase their risk or diminish their value to an organization. Of course we all have the right to free speech, but we don't have the right to be sheltered from the costs of our decisions. That's Barnes' point with the memo.

Covert reviews movies

And under Barnes his reviews have become much more Hollywood friendly (he now talks about movies in terms of whether or not you'll like them, not what he thought of them). Why would any person care about Covert's political views?

Your logic would allow any employer to fire any employee simply for publicly stating a political view. That's not acceptable. If Barnes tried to limit her edict to political reporters only, she might have a case but personally I'd rather reporters kept their biases in the open, not hidden.

Campaign neutrality

In 43 years as a staff writer for the Minneapolis Tribune and the successor Star Tribune, I recall no management ever telling us how to vote or even suggesting which way. Any attempt to do so would have set off an immediate revolt. I think the same can be said for almost any news staff at a paper of medium to large size.

But perceptions do matter. The Minneapolis papers have been damned as left wing for decades, and editors' occasional reminders against appearing partisan when representing the newspaper are proper. One cannot be perceived as trying to be objective when wearing an Obama button at a GOP event rally, or a Romney button at a DFL event. Reporters often are assigned to candidates with whom they disagree, but they still have to do their jobs fairly and accurately. My neighbors knew where I worked, so until the 2010 election, after my retirement, I never had a political lawn sign.

Certain occupations require that some of one's rights be placed in "park" while working. Good news people do that; columnists needn't because they're being paid to express opinions.

BTW, I don't recall ever taken an "oath" for fairness and neutrality. It was simply implicit -- and enforced by editors if necessary. Back when I was trained by a nationally respected group of journalism teachers at the U of Minnesota -- people who'd actually worked in the occupation they were teaching -- fairness and neutrality were explained along with the imperative of giving people the facts and letting them decide for themselves. That, sadly, has eroded seriously in recent years, with many reporters describing things with value words -- simple examples include "huge," "whopping," "tiny," "ironic," "dovish" and "hawkish." When I was in J school, such words in our news stories would be circled with red and in the margin there'd be a red "who says?" or "compared with what?" The grade would be diminished accordingly.

Who is a journalist?

Mr. Gendler wrote, "Certain occupations require that some of one's rights be placed in 'park' while working. Good news people do that; columnists needn't because they're being paid to express opinions."

I don't disagree at all. What I don't see in any of this is how movie reviewers -- who give readers their opinion in 100% of what they write -- are journalists or news people. Aren't they all exactly like columnists, paid to give their opinions?

And in this case, if Mr. Covert wasn't even writing a review, why was it a problem for the Stribune or editor Barnes?

Journalists Should Not Be Agnostic On Prejudice

The commentary from the PP was simultaneously so breathtakingly thoughtless and so calculating it deserved scorn. I don't know why opinions this prejudiced should expect a pass. Colin was right to call it out. For a religious minority to dictate the rights of everyone, to narrow them, is deeply wrong. I've said for some time that the Republicans and the Catholic leadership (the male leadership anyway) is saying that everyone is entitled to marry a gay person as long as that person is of the opposite sex. It's wrong. It's narrow. It's backward. It's foolish. It's hateful. Thank you Colin.

I'd prefer to be

judged by the fairness of my work, not my lawn signs. And I especially agree with and dig Dave's awesome line: "...I think journalists use objectivity like priests use celibacy — to convince the populace they are closer to God"