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.