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Strib publisher, philanthropist John Cowles Jr. dead at 82

Back before big-city newspapers were a private equity play, there was John Cowles Jr. Graydon Royce covers the former Strib publisher’s passing: “Cowles, who had suffered from lung cancer, died shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday in his Minneapolis home overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge. ... Cowles was defined by his sense of responsibility to community, business and family. His personal style mixed grand vision, meticulous detail, curiosity and confidence. As publisher and chairman of the Star and Tribune newspapers and later as a philanthropic visionary, he helped to shape the civic and cultural landscape of the Twin Cities. In the early 1960s, he courted Tyrone Guthrie to establish a regional theater here; 20 years later, he advocated for the Metrodome; last fall the Cowles Center for Dance was dedicated in Minneapolis. ‘John Cowles is one of the most important civic figures in Minneapolis in the last half-century,’ said Mayor R.T. Rybak.”

At MPR, Dan Olson and Rupa Chenoy write: “Cowles worked as a reporter and in every other department at the Star, learning the business of newspapering. He was named CEO of Cowles Media in 1968. After the Star and Tribune newspapers merged in 1982, Cowles fired publisher Donald Dwight to fill the position himself. Three months later the Cowles Media board asked him to resign and, in 1984, Cowles left. He retained control of the company, however, by managing the family trust that held 60 percent of Cowles Media stock. Cowles said that family-owned newspapers didn't thrive when extended family member shareholders lived elsewhere. ‘The owners weren't any longer living in the town so they didn't care as much about the town and the interests of the town,’ he said. ‘They got divorced from both the civic or community purpose of newspapers and the democracy fostering role of journalism’. … Cowles was asked at a University of Minnesota appearance in December 2010 about his motive for helping build the Guthrie and the Metrodome. He said self interest was part of the reason. ‘Strengthening the cultural organization and life of the Twin Cities was not only going to make life more interesting and attractive for our families, but was going to attract business and keep business here in town and it was going to be just plain good business,’ he said. Cowles' lobbying state lawmakers to build the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis was controversial. He was president and CEO of the company that owned the Star Tribune at the time, the state's largest newspaper. Former Star Tribune reporter and managing editor Frank Wright says the perception was Cowles' support influenced coverage of the issue. Wright remembers dozens of newspaper reporters and other staff taking out a newspaper ad criticizing Cowles' stadium lobbying.”

John Cowles and his wife, Sage, also were one of the families that helped found and fund MinnPost in 2007.

In a Strib commentary, new U of M President Eric Kaler reacts to recent criticism and says: “[R]ecent reports are troubling to me, but it is critical to place them in context. This university has a $3.7 billion annual operating budget. More than 69,000 students are educated on our five campuses and earn more than 14,000 degrees every year. We have 500,000 alumni around the world. In the past two years, our faculty and researchers have attracted $1.5 billion to the state in research grants. For every dollar the state invests in the university, we generate $13.20 in economic activity statewide, a return on investment of more than 13 to 1. I expect and welcome close scrutiny of the decisions my team and I make to move the University of Minnesota forward. I expect to be judged on what I do and, more important, on whether or not my decisions steer a path to a stronger future for the university, for the state we serve and for the state's future leaders, our students.”

Budget cuts may mean a lot less rainbow trout in Lake Superior. Sam Cook of the Duluth News Tribune says: “[T]he state’s Game and Fish Fund, which pays for the state’s fisheries and wildlife management, is due to go into the red in 2013. Legislators in St. Paul probably will consider in this session whether to increase fishing and hunting license fees to shore up that fund. Without those increases — and perhaps even with them — the future of the [French River] hatchery could be in doubt. The question is whether the Department of Natural Resources can continue to spend more than a half-million dollars a year to operate a hatchery that provides fish for about 2,000 anglers, according to DNR estimates. Minnesota has about 1.5 million anglers in all. According to one scenario provided by the DNR, raising and stocking Kamloops rainbows costs about $406,000 annually, shared by the French River Hatchery and the Spire Valley Hatchery near Remer. The cost of each fish caught by an angler is about $185, according to that scenario.”

Don Davis of the Forum papers looks at the (usually) messy end to a legislative session: “A stadium-construction bill may have a new life after it suddenly stalled Wednesday, but even some of its backers question the most critical issue it always has faced: funding. A Republican proposal to eliminate a requirement that some workers belong to unions may not have enough GOP votes to pass. The effort to pay back schools money the state borrowed from them faces a dark future after Gov. Mark Dayton and a key commissioner say it takes too much money out of the state budget reserve. The list of issues with questionable futures is long. And the work goes on under a cloud of a Senate sex scandal. Of major issues, one to require voters to produce photographic identifications appears to have the clearest route to passage.” All in all, a great winter’s work.

An area priest charged in several sexual assaults has been arrested in India. The Grand Forks Herald story, by Steven J. Lee, says: “According to news sources in India, the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, 57, was arrested Friday there on charges out of Roseau County that he sexually assaulted two girls in 2004 and 2005 while he was priest of Blessed Sacrament parish in Greenbush, Minn. He was scheduled to appear Sunday before a magistrate in New Delhi. Interpol contacted Indian officials who issued a warrant for the priest's arrest Friday. Jeyapaul was a visiting priest from India who spent about a year in the Catholic Diocese of Crookston, in the Greenbush parish. He returned to India in late 2005, before criminal charges were filed against him in state district court in Roseau in 2006. He's been a fugitive since from justice here while still working as a priest there.”

Not so many of us are from here anymore. Mary Jane Smetanka of the Strib reports: “Just 58 percent of Hennepin County residents were born in Minnesota, while in Ramsey County 62 percent are state natives, according to recent U.S. census data. In Houston County, in the state's southeast corner, less than one-third of residents were born here. The shrinking proportion of Minnesota natives has grabbed the attention of Tom Gillaspy, the newly retired state demographer, who hopes the trend doesn't dilute the unique qualities he noticed when he moved here 33 years ago. ‘There was a sense that people had roots here, a sense that there was a history and common bonds,’ he said. ‘Part of it was the weather, and going up north, and having a connection to the land. And with more and more new people here, that begins to slip away.’ Compared to the nation, Minnesota's population is still mostly home-grown. About 69 percent of residents were born here, compared to 75 percent in 1980. Minnesota now ranks 11th in native-born residents, compared to eighth in 1980.”

Patrick Condon of the AP files on the Michael Brodkorb story, saying: “[T]he mere possibility Brodkorb may expose alleged infidelities has rocked Senate Republicans and sent politicians of every stripe running for cover. At a regular end-of-week briefing for Capitol reporters, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, Sen. Julianne Ortman, said a variation of ‘no comment’ eight times in less than five minutes when questioned about Brodkorb. Numerous Republican senators declined to discuss the matter. … Brodkorb, 38, began working on Republican campaigns in the 1990s and became an expert in ‘opposition research’ — digging up incriminating information about political opponents. As founder and operator of Minnesota Democrats Exposed, Brodkorb maintained a stream of posts questioning the character and integrity of dozens of prominent Democrats from 2004 to 2008. Many were gleeful when he was fired, and some were happier still to see him threatening litigation that could hurt his own party. Brodkorb's notice of claim warns of possible separate legal actions against a slew of Republican leaders who had a hand in his firing. ‘Feel like I need a cigarette after that,’ Javier Morillo, president of the state chapter of the Democratic-allied Service Employees International Union, tweeted shortly after Brodkorb's lawyers finished a news conference where they talked about investigating affairs. But Democrats at the Capitol were far more restrained. Brodkorb's legal filing suggested he could implicate some in their party, too. ‘I think we all have to be very careful about what gets said relative to the Brodkorb issue,’ said the Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Bakk.” But why would anyone worry if they have nothing to worry about?

The Strib dumping a Doonesbury strip on right-wing Texans, the party base and trans-vaginal ultra-sounds, and editor Nancy Barnes’ explanations give Power Line’s John Hinderaker room to attack from several vantage points. He writes: “One could say a number of things about this comic strip: It is politically strident. It is almost unbelievably stupid. It purports to address a serious political issue, but doesn’t say anything remotely serious about it. It is, at the same time, not funny. So why would anyone carry such a lousy comic strip? Ms. Barnes didn’t try to answer that question. Rather, she drew an analogy to another instance where the Strib refused to publish a ‘cartoon.’

A few years ago, we had a similar controversy over a decision not to publish some highly controversial cartoons circulated in a Danish newspaper that caricatured the prophet Mohammed. Those cartoons became the center of a worldwide controversy and news story; we chose not to run them in the Star Tribune because they would have been inflammatory and offensive to many readers. …

"But the two cases are not remotely similar. The Danish cartoons were not comic strips from a cartoonist that the Strib regularly published on its comics page. Rather, the ‘cartoons’ were drawings of the Prophet Muhammad that became a major news story after they were published in a deliberate exercise of free speech, and at least 139 people were killed in riots by Muslims who believed the drawings were not sufficiently deferential to the Prophet. The Strib reported on that news story, as did just about every newspaper in the world, but it declined to reproduce the drawings themselves. This was significant because in order to understand the news story, readers needed to see the cartoons and judge for themselves whether they fell within the broad range of fair political comment, or were somehow so ‘offensive’ as to justify the murder of more than 100 human beings. That judgment, in turn, was important to Americans’ understanding of Islam as a political force. There was another factor, too: many news outlets reproduced the drawings of Muhammad in order to support free speech and the First Amendment, and demonstrate that they would not be intimidated by threats of violence. I don’t think the Star Tribune had any obligation to join in this demonstration, but the idea that its declining to do so was somehow of a piece with its refusal to run Doonesbury cartoons that were too outrageous even for the Strib’s liberal sensibilities is not just confused, but perverse.” So if I follow, "outrageous" but not a"free speech" issue?

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Comments (11)

Quiet Dems in the Leg

I keep waiting for Brodkorb to crank up his old blog "Minnesota Democrats Exposed". He could have a special thread on his own shenanigans. November is not that far away.

Go to the Shaming Room

Having accessed last week’s Doonesbury strips online (they can be found on several sites, and Slate carries Doonesbury daily), my own opinion is that Mr. Hinderaker is far more strident than Mr. Trudeau. I thought the strips, as is often the case with Doonesbury, ruefully amusing – Trudeau doesn’t usually go for the belly laugh, but instead the chuckle.

At the same time, the strip not only addressed a genuine political issue, it *did* have some serious things to say about the apparent loathing of women by the Texas GOP. Why would “anyone” carry such a “lousy” strip? Because the strip itself is intelligent, and is intended for intelligent readers.

And finally, Hinderaker’s most interesting comment, “It is almost unbelievably stupid,” is apparently fairly typical of the right wing blogosphere. “Unvelievably stupid” tells us that he didn’t like the strip, but little else. Personally, I enjoyed the literary allusions, and thought Trudeau did a good job of portraying the obvious frustration and humiliation of the young woman in question, as well as the strip’s characterization of the position Texas doctors now find themselves in.

That the ‘Strib chose not to carry the strips last week says more to me about the fear factor at work in the mind set of ‘Strib editorial leadership than it does about the strips themselves. Frankly, it appears to me that ‘Strib editors are at least as afraid of offending people like Mr. Hinderaker as they are of offending religious zealots in other parts of the world. I’d like to think that they’re not equally murderous.

I might just suggest that “avoiding offense” is probably not a sound editorial policy for an organization that hopes to provide news to the general public. There are certainly individual circumstances where it might be good policy, but as a blanket rule, it seems both impossible as well as self-defeating. But I’m not a professional journalist, so perhaps I’m missing something important.


When you ask "why would anyone worry if they have nothing to worry about?", you make an implicit assumption that whatever dirt comes to light in Brodkorb's lawsuit is true. The threat in extortion is to do harm; allegations don't need to be true to be effective.

For the record ...

... the PiPress published the Doonesbury strips on its Sunday Opinion pages.

I thought they brutally and brilliantly skewered the women-hating Texas state legislators.

Just a couple of points...

1. After reading Kaler's remarks, did he ever actually get around to addressing this issue?

2. "One could say a number of things about this comic strip: It is politically strident. It is almost unbelievably stupid. It purports to address a serious political issue, but doesn’t say anything remotely serious about it. It is, at the same time, not funny." How can we be sure Hinderaker wasn't relly referring to his little blog.

Or maybe

Rush's "radio program"

And your point, President Kaler?

I saw no attempt to explain, much less justify, the compensation decisions for which you've taken fire. That comes across more as hubris than transparency.

Brodkorb and Doonsebury

The Republican better hold off on that rain on on the rainy day fund, they may need it to pay of Brodkorb.

Barnes's Doonsebury explanation is simply lame. I suspect some level of cowardice is the real explanation. The thing that frequently bugs me about Barnes is her tone, it's kinda condescending. On the other, what do you expect her say? What I'd like her to say is that they're listening to the feedback they've been getting and they're considering the possibility that they made a bad call, and will remember this in the future.

powerline blog

I wouldn't be surprised at all if more people usually read the Powerline blog than the Doonesbury comic strip. Of course, this week with Doonesbury being forbidden fruit, a lot more adults in Minnesota read it online than they normally would, just to see what the fuss was about.
Also, the Star Tribune lets on that a lot of kids read its comic pages. I don't think many kids are reading Doonesbury at all. It's not particularly funny and most kids aren't going to get its lame jokes anyway.

I can't wait to see

who women vote for in November. The guy who made his dog ride on the roof of the car (a la the elderly aunt in the Griswold's vacation movie) or the one who never ceases praising laws and religious customs that denigrate women and limit women's health care access.

Why worry?

"But why would anyone worry if they have nothing to worry about?" Because a false accusation might never be lived down. Given Brodkorb's record, does anyone really think he'll worry about whether the allegations he makes are accurate? Even if there are no DFL staff or legislators with something to hide, they can't rule out the chance either Bordkorb or the Republican caucus won't try to trump up something to make it look like a bi-partisan scandal.

I anyone really does have something to hide, they should do their party and the legislature as an institution a favor by suddenly discovering a need to spend more time with family.