A note about interviews with Kersten and Bachmann

Last month we ran Michael Bonafield’s two-part interview with conservative columnist Katherine Kersten, and the Q&A produced a flood of reader comments — 120 at last count. (You can read the stories and comments here and here.)

Many readers criticized Katherine for what she said (objecting to her ideology and challenging her facts) and some criticized Mike for what he didn’t say (not asking “tough” questions and failing to take on Katherine).

Even my boss, MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer, told me he found one of Mike’s questions — the one suggesting that the liberal mind “opens itself so readily” to “totalitarian impulse” — inappropriate.

I know Katherine and Mike from my editing days at the Star Tribune, and I can report they can take a punch. They certainly don’t need me to defend what they said — or didn’t say.

But some of the criticism has focused on MinnPost. Some readers said they were disappointed in us for publishing the articles. A few people told us they found the interview so upsetting they won’t donate to MinnPost in the future. (The fact that they had never donated in the past took some of the sting out of this promise.)

And there’s probably more criticism on the way: Today we have posted on the site another interview by Mike with another prominent and provocative conservative — Rep. Michele Bachmann.

So I’d like to respond to some of the complaints about these kinds of articles and questions about Mike’s role at MinnPost.

For regular MinnPost readers it’s no secret that many of our writers hold liberal views. They often offer their own political analysis in their articles, and we have no problem with that as long as they approach their reporting with intellectual honesty and fairness. We hold Mike, a conservative who has made his political views clear to readers, to the same standard.

News coverage challenges
I’ve worked in newsrooms for 30 years, and most of the journalists I’ve known lean to the left. That doesn’t violate the Geneva Conventions or anything — I lean to the left myself — but it does present challenges for a news organization committed to gathering news and insights from a range of political sources. It can limit a newsroom’s access within the conservative community. In addition, journalists who tend to think the same tend to see the same type of stories — and miss the same type of stories. (You see a lot of stories, for example, about people who are struggling because they’ve lost some sort of government assistance, but few stories about people or businesses struggling because they can’t meet some sort of government requirement.)

This doesn’t mean our journalists do an unprofessional job of reporting by spinning stories to fit their political ideology. Democrats as well as Republicans have been stung by our coverage. For instance, Doug Grow, well known in this community for liberal views, has written a well-reported series of articles uncovering foibles and problems within the DFL Party. (One of those articles angered DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez to the point he filed a complaint against MinnPost with the Minnesota News Council.)

But despite the occasional complaint from the DFL Party, we recognized that we had too few sources within the conservative community and we were doing an incomplete job covering the right. So we asked Mike, a veteran journalist with contacts and credibility among conservatives, to join our other journalists and help report on the conservative movement and the Republican Party in Minnesota.

We knew Mike would approach this assignment with sympathy for the subjects, but we asked him — and he enthusiastically agreed — to do original reporting, not just punditry. Mike’s interviews with the most-read conservative writer in the state and one of the country’s best-known and controversial conservatives in Congress clearly meet that goal of reporting on what’s happening on the right.

Strengths and weaknesses
Some readers called Mike’s Kersten article a “puff piece.” First, it was done in a question-and-answer format, a device we use from time to time. And it’s hard not to notice that MinnPost’s past use of the Q&A format never raised as many eyebrows when the subjects were liberal.

Still, I can appreciate the criticism. A question-and-answer format has its strengths and weaknesses. These articles tend to be one-sided — they are, after all, an interview with one person — and readers need to keep in mind that they’re getting only one point of view.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the Q&A format has a wonderful strength: It allows the interviewee to fully express his or her views, mostly unfiltered. Its goal is to tell you what the subject thinks and believes, and I think Mike succeeded at letting us all know what Katherine Kersten (and Michele Bachmann) believe and how they think.

This can be maddening for liberal readers. But at MinnPost we believe it’s important that the range of  views in our political universe are reflected on the site. And these views should be fully expressed — not just sound bites — and the arguments fully engaged. And that’s what so many of our readers are doing in the comments under Mike’s articles.

Finally, we have been asked whether we fear losing financial support from liberal donors because of these articles.

The answer is simple: We make our journalistic judgments independent of any outside influence — period. MinnPost’s donors, big and small, understand our commitment to that principle of good journalism. We like to think they will support us, not despite that commitment, but because of it.

Roger Buoen, MinnPost co-managing editor, can be reached at rbuoen [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 12/09/2009 - 07:48 am.

    My biggest problem with the Kersten piece is that she already gets a forum to express her views — unvarnished and unchallenged. I would love to see a dialogue with Kersten where the interviewer points out the inconsistencies in her logic, her biases, or the just plain untruths. The Minn Post Q & A had a chance to do that an completely and utterly failed.

    You know what would have been a great article: Have Eric Black interview Kersten about the flying Imans. Now that would have been something.

  2. Submitted by John Simmer on 12/09/2009 - 08:19 am.

    Mr. Buoen makes a good journalistic case. At first glance, my impression was that the Kirsten and Bachman interviews were conservative puff pieces but I don’t have a problem with that.

    As a liberal, I’d prefer to read an interview of a liberal conducted by someone like minded enough to appreciate and extract nuanced viewpoints rather than by a confrontational conservative. Besides, I think it’s good to have a blend of viewpoints on this site. MinnPost readers can choose what they want to read, skim, or ignore.

  3. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 12/09/2009 - 08:27 am.

    Dean Carlson beat me to it with his comment. Kersten has a column and a blog to promulgate essentially the same stuff Bonafield extracted.

    The service MinnPost should’ve provided was to give us something new. Eric Black would’ve been an excellent choice, since I believe he is on good terms with his former colleague.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/09/2009 - 08:38 am.

    I’m in camp with Dean, poster #1. Lobbing softballs and getting rote responses is a waste of time. Whether you are interviewing people on the left or right, the valuable interview digs below the surface responses they can give in their sleep and challenges their assumptions, makes them defend themselves, something they don’t normally have to do.

    You don’t challenge the subjects and consequently you don’t challenge the readers. Because Kersten can go to her usual rant with nothing new or deeper to offer, my response is nothing but my usual response. Had she been put on the spot to answer some of the difficult questions that people like me would ask, I would have been forced, as a reader, to look more deeply into her position. You could tell by the reader responses in the days after her interview that almost everyone was yelling from their usual positions. No one was surprised by her.

    As for Bachmann, I haven’t read it yet, but my impression of her is that she is “smart like a fox”, a stupid saying that I have always associated with sneaky idiots. I don’t think she has the native intelligence to handle anything but softballs anyway.

  5. Submitted by Dan Kitzmann on 12/09/2009 - 09:25 am.

    I share the other posters’ vexation at Kersten’s berzerker-style commentaries, and I agree that Bonafield’s Q&A with her was hardly edifying, much less challenging.

    But I don’t buy the argument that such pieces have no place at MinnPost because Kersten has a megaphone elsewhere. By that logic, MinnPost should not so frequently republish as Community Voice columns articles by Minnesota 2020, for instance. When anybody today can post rantings on her or his own blog, or contribute to the blogs of the like-minded, the “Giving a Forum to the Unheard Voices” criterion is a pretty weak editorial standard.

    I would love to see Kersten get respectfully grilled by a tough Q&A–and would be delighted if she would answer the questions and not just look pleadingly to the referee to blow the whistle. I would also love to see the same treatment of liberal subjects. As Mr. Bruoen pointed out, however, Q&A’s are rarely this tough, mostly because interview subjects, whatever their ideology, don’t like to be so challenged.

  6. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 12/09/2009 - 09:41 am.

    First, despite my liberal leanings, I do enjoy hearing the conservative voice and regularly read Kersten. Nothing’s more boring than constantly reading pieces written by people who think just like you.

    That said, my problem with both sides is we don’t debate the message, we attack the messengers. I enjoyed Kersten’s response re: gay marriage. Then she lapsed into her Liberals are “the anointed” garbage. First, because Kersten oftens sides with the Religious Right, I don’t think that’s the label I’d try to hang on liberals. But again, now you’re after the messenger, not the message.

    And that’s Bachmann’s entire message. This woman actually believes Congress can be divided into “Pro-America” and “Anti-America”. I can debate conservatives on where I think America should go, but I can’t even have a discussion with people of her mindset.

  7. Submitted by Paul Andersen on 12/09/2009 - 09:46 am.

    The myopic viewpoint of commentators here is amazing:( Not since reading “Group Think” by Janus have I understood the mentality of the “sheep” from ANIMAL FARM so well………

    GET OVER YOURSELF!!!!!!!!

    If your ideas are as “Great” as you portend them to be, then they should be able to withstand objections from “simpletons” who remain outside of your “annointed vision”:)

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/09/2009 - 10:23 am.

    “and we have no problem with that as long as they approach their reporting with intellectual honesty and fairness. We hold Mike, a conservative who has made his political views clear to readers, to the same standard.”

    After reading the Kersten interviews, and some of Bonafield’s other work, I don’t know how you say something like that with a straight face.

    I would echo the other commenters questioning the news value of a Kersten interview anyway, since the interview doesn’t probe beyond what is available in her Star Tribune columns. Several times a week the public is treated to Kersten’s comination of faulty logic, paranoia and bigotry, and the Strib loves it because it gets a lot of attention. It sells newspapers, but its not news. An interview with Kersten that actually challenged her would have been worthwhile. Publishing Bonafields softballs and questions about “totalitarian impulses” makes MinnPost no better than the Strib – and arguably worse since the Strib publishes her drivel as an opinion piece.

    “Our mission is to provide high-quality journalism for news-intense people who care about Minnesota. We intend to focus sharply on that mission, and not get distracted by trying to be all things or serve all people.”

    Roger, if that is really the mission, I would say that you are failing miserably.

  9. Submitted by Ed Stych on 12/09/2009 - 10:29 am.

    Roger has written one of the most honest columns ever written about journalism in the Twin Cities.

    Most newsrooms lean to the left, most MinnPost journalists lean to the left, and it’s likely that a vast majority of MinnPost readers lean to the left. That’s why the Kersten Q&A upsets so many of you, because someone broke in on your little party! Where is the diversity that liberals hold in such high esteem … diversity of thought?

    It just cracks me up that Kramer found one of the questions “inappropriate.”

    And all this yakking about having Black interview Kersten. Sure. Whatever. But don’t do it until you get some conservatives interviewing all the liberals that are featured in MinnPost. Fair is fair.

  10. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/09/2009 - 11:02 am.

    When MN Post hired Mr Bonafield, I thought we would get a conservative voice who could make a compelling, rational argument from a conservative point of view. I welcome – and seek – that kind of reporting and/or punditry. I still look forward to Mr Bonafield’s contributions in that capacity. Sadly, Q&A interviews with Ms Kersten & Rep Bachmann don’t rise to that standard. So far as I’ve seen, neither Kersten nor Bachmann makes a genuine argument for conservative principles, instead choosing to misrepresent and/or exaggerate the opposing view to reinforce their own position.

    I still think there are thoughtful, rational conservatives out there. I look forward to Mr Bonafield finding them and telling us who they are. Thus far, he has not.

  11. Submitted by Peter Vader on 12/09/2009 - 11:07 am.

    The point of this note is lost on me, I guess. If Mr. Bonafield’s own sidebar doesn’t try to pass his “almost entirely in opinion” career off as journalism, why try here?

  12. Submitted by Christopher Moseng on 12/09/2009 - 11:56 am.

    It’s not the format that raised eyebrows, but the futility of the effort. You can have a Q&A that informs your readers, but the Kersten piece didn’t. I don’t plan to read the Bachmann piece. They’re both demagogues. It seems to me that when an ideologue uncritically interviews a like-minded demagogue, the product is without substance or public benefit. Which is the opposite of what MinnPost should be striving to produce. There are plenty of places, online and off, to read what ideologues and demagogues are thinking. The Kersten piece produced no new insight, and I’ll spare myself the trouble of investigating whether the Bachmann piece did because I can make an educated guess.

  13. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 12/09/2009 - 11:58 am.

    Threatening to withhold donations to MinnPost is a ridiculous response to a story you don’t like. It is, essentially, I’m taking my ball and going home.
    However, criticizing MinnPost for the Kersten two-part rear-end pucker was completely rational. I thought it was amateurish at best and really read like it was the online journalism equivalent of make-up sex. MinnPost may have some of the best political reporters these days, but perfect political journalism will follow perfect government, perfect courts and perfect people. In other words, never.

  14. Submitted by Elizabeth Halvorson on 12/09/2009 - 12:25 pm.

    Two things: You need to let go of this conservaytive/liberal paradigm. Conservative is supposed to mean cautious, traditional. In view of the actions of the so-called conservatives, calling them conservative is meaningless. As for the political leanings of reporters. It shouldn’t matter what their own political philosophies are—reporting should always be straight up—unbiased and based on fact. That said, it does seem to me that people who label themselves “liberal” do seem to want, and to be better acquainted with, actual facts.

  15. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 12/09/2009 - 01:20 pm.

    To paraphrase Frost, MinnPost is too broadminded to take its own side in a quarrel. The earnest people of MinnPost constantly confess themselves to be of a “liberal” bent while giving precious little evidence. This wearing of “the hairshirt” has grown wearisome and proves, sadly, that they have internalized the criticisms that have been flung at them by the right-wing. By now, we could stage a pretty good Show Trial with Joel Kramer and David Brauer, et al, taking their places in the dock to admit that they are guilty of lefty thought crimes and deserve merciless punishment. This is a tempting idea. Unfortunately, the rightist critics of any kind of journalism to the left of Limbaugh can never be satisfied, especially when their targets are agreeing with their basic premise: Yes, we are libeals, but we are trying to do better and, besides, we have hired righties who are not afraid of their shadows. The result, predictably, is puff pieces from the only openly opinionated columnist on MinnPost: Mike Bonafield, who has no balancing voices to contend with. The bottom line is that the purpose of MinnPost is uncertain. And its reason for existence, too.

  16. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 12/09/2009 - 01:20 pm.

    No matter what you say are your political views, any and all criticism is valid. Just because someone says they are liberal does not even mean that his or her reporting does not have inherent Republican frames. Well, welcome to the world where the conversation goes both ways! The reporting I find here does not have push back nor context. Stories are reported more in the politics-like-sports context instead going to the real meaning for the reader. The reporting is here is very light, almost like the Star and Tribune.

  17. Submitted by Ambrose Charpentier on 12/09/2009 - 01:48 pm.

    I object to giving Kersten a forum because her views are community-destroying. There are a lot of kinds of people in our community. When Kersten disrespects (to put it mildly) all the kinds of people who aren’t exactly like her (gays, Muslims, liberals) and gets to do it in a large public forum, it hurts our community. MinnPost needs to remember that it has a larger role than a mere individual and there are responsibilities that go with that role. To the extent that MinnPost gives a forum to hate-mongers, it is responsible for destroying its own community.

  18. Submitted by Jonathan Maze on 12/09/2009 - 02:38 pm.

    1. I don’t really agree with the use of the Q&A format in print form. Most of them are boring reads and can’t compete with video or audio interviews. As a Web site, I don’t understand why MinnPost can’t do a video Q&A or a podcast. It’s not that difficult.

    2. I see no value in softball stories about political and controversial subjects, whether they are conservative or liberal. They do nobody any good — and that includes the subject. People like Katherine Kersten and Michelle Bachmann, and their liberal counterparts, should be smart enough and tough enough to handle some tough questions. And they’re better off for it.

    Softball Q&As, therefore, are rather pathetic, regardless of the subject. I expect more from MinnPost.

  19. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/09/2009 - 03:59 pm.

    This may have been the most enjoyable piece I have ever read from a lefty propaganda mill…ever.

    The boogey woman scared the children on the playground yesterday, and has threatened to come back tomorrow (Boo!), so the administration has brought in a councilor to calm things down.

    It’s not going well at all.

    The kids are all too busy drawing mustaches on the principal’s picture, shooting spit-wads at each other and swinging from the light fixtures to hear a word nice Mr. Councilor has said.

    Priceless!

  20. Submitted by jim hughes on 12/09/2009 - 04:07 pm.

    Adding a conservative commentator is great. I’d actually like to hear what he thinks about issues, rather than see him just turn over the microphone to an unenlightening political spokesmodel like Bachman.

    Maybe you could commission – for every 10 articles about Bachman – just one about the thoughts of, say, Senator Amy Klobuchar?

  21. Submitted by Thomas Edman on 12/09/2009 - 11:02 pm.

    OK, on the basis of this discussion, I’m going to contribute again.

    But it’s not because I am convinced by your response here. I’m not. In fact, I’m a bit frustrated and angered by it.

    However, I think that MinnPost has great promise and has redeemed that promise in many areas. But MinnPost is still a work in progress.

    This may be a turning point. To be fair, I’m not sure exactly what the direction should be. Maybe Eric Black comes closest now. Jay Weiner’s coverage of the Senate recount was also exemplary. Certainly the direction is not simply to the left or to the right.

    But you are the best experiment in new journalism I know about, so here’s my support.

  22. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/10/2009 - 06:59 am.

    To blame the softball nature of these articles on the Q & A format is bs. Did he just submit questions in writing with an agreement not to have follow ups to responses? Maybe Bonafield’s real problem is that he is also an idealogue with no more depth the Bachmann and kersten. The whining, mean spirited responses here from most of the conservative readers show that the right wing of the Republican party is in sad shape. Unable to defend their own positions honestly, they attack and accuse and denigrate.

    Sure I liked that this web site had a tone that matched my own at times. But the shallow nature of these articles shows that this site is more concerned with creating traffic than dealing with complex issues with probing intellectual honesty.

    The owners of this site can put down those of us who haven’t contributed and now say they won’t, but only to there own detriment. I found this site during the Frankin/Coleman recount and thought it was pretty good, but now that that issue is gone and we are getting this stuff, I see this site has less to offer than I thought. I will give more to the bell ringer at Cub and save what I might have spent here and I will visit less often.

  23. Submitted by Lisa Clark on 12/10/2009 - 05:41 pm.

    Late night TV is full of the type of questions that are designed as an opportunity to promote something. (“So you’ve written a book…?”) These Bonafield interviews were a similar “get-to-know-you-and-your-platform” vehicle, and can have a place a long as everyone is clear that’s all it is.

    I was simply disappointed at the lost opportunity to understand her better, since most of her public persona comes to us via Glen Beck and John Stewart. Even the email interview in the City Pages was more informative (http://www.citypages.com/2009-11-18/news/michele-bachmann-the-complete-interview/)

    But separate from these articles, I am disappointed that Bonafield is where Minnpost is putting all it’s hopes for a conservative point of view. I would hope that the organization would seek out more people, even if it is on an irregular basis. We liberals don’t all agree (a fact which I can attest to after reading all the comments above) and not all conservatives do either, so why rely on one p.o.v.?

    And I am a contributor.

  24. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/10/2009 - 10:04 pm.

    Community destroying ! Yea !

    You can’t be neutral on a moving train to borrow a phrase. On to Democracy Now. I’d listen to the boss. And where does it say that a news source has to be giving both points of view ? It only has to be honest about what it is. The strib drove me a way with it’s fence straddling. The committment must be made and it is too the facts as Mt Weiner so well does. If there’s rom for the Beck point of view there’s no room for facts.

  25. Submitted by Elizabeth Dunn on 12/12/2009 - 06:07 am.

    What happened to the distinction between news and commentary? Call me old fashioned, but I would never let my middle school newspaper students publish anything that so sloppily combines the two as the Bachmann piece did. In fact, the deterioration of that line that separates information from advocacy is one of the problems with “journalism” today. Newspapers and their writers have always had points of view, but, in my lifetime at least, the good ones also knew how to report fairly and vigorously. The separation of the news pages from the clearly-labeled Editorial and Op/Ed pages helped both readers and writers keep their heads on straight.

    If MinnPost seeks to be a full-fledged, well-respected news organ, then yes, of course, it must present a variety of perspectives on the issues of the day. But it must do so in a probing and never a fawning manner. Questions that help elucidate the reasoning and beliefs behind a public figure’s positions; that follow up on topics given short shrift; that explore the limits of the speaker’s logic; or that address possible weaknesses in a point of view are completely legitimate. Such questions are not perceived as attacks by public figures who are well-informed and confident in their views.

    Ms. Bachmann has many, many opportunities to “fully present” her view, “unfettered,” answering only preplanned softball questions in her frequent appearaances on Fox News and conservative talk radio. MinnPost, you had an opportunity to do something different, but you blew it.

Leave a Reply