No one who has followed, “Betrayed by Silence,” Minnesota Public Radio‘s superb series on the innumerable failures of the Catholic Church in Minnesota in the handling and reporting of their clergy’s sexual abuses, was surprised by Monday’s announcement that the news organization had won a George F. Peabody Award, one of the most prestigious in the media industry.
(The 2015 Pulitzer Prizes were also announced Monday afternoon. Of local note, the Star Tribune’s Jill Burcum was a finalist in the editorial writing category for “well-written and well-reported editorials that documented a national shame by taking readers inside dilapidated government schools for Native Americans.” Likewise, the late David Carr of the New York Times was a finalist in the commentary category, “for columns on the media whose subjects range from threats to cable television’s profit-making power to ISIS’s use of modern media to menace its enemies.”)
MPR’s multipart series, which still has acts yet to play out what with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ bankruptcy proceedings, was reported and produced by Madeleine Baran and Sasha Aslanian and edited by Mike Edgerly.
In an email exchange, Baran declined to comment on her current process for following the wide range of abuse related stories. But to the question of whether she could see an end to the saga, at least in the near term, she replied: “On the legal side, it’s unclear how long the bankruptcy process will take. Just last week, a judge asked for claims to be submitted by August 3, but he also said he could decide to grant more time if needed. For comparison, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2011, and that case still hasn’t been resolved. Beyond that, there’s the impact of the trauma felt by abuse survivors. Many survivors have told me that pain will continue regardless of the outcome of the bankruptcy filing. And I still talk to people nearly every week who haven’t told anyone in their family that they were abused. So for many people, this scandal is still very much ongoing.”
The Peabodys hold special interest for the broadcast industry because of their willingness to shine approval on individuals across a wide, eclectic swath of the media. Among other winners this year are HBO’s John Oliver, two pieces by maverick news outlet Vice Media, “Serial” the compulsively fascinating podcast about a murder, from the creators of “This American Life,” the FX series “Fargo,” “The Americans,” and one you really owe it to yourself to binge on, “The Honorable Woman,” a stylish, densely plotted spy drama from the BBC starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.
In addition to Baran and Aslanian at MPR, two other women in local media deserve recognition. As of this month, Kathy Magnuson and Norma Olson have been publishing the Minnesota Women’s Press for thirty years.
Media anniversaries are kind of like buses. There’s another one every 10 minutes. But Magnuson and Olson have not only continued to publish what they say is the “oldest, continuous women’s publication of its kind in the in the country,” but they managed to keep it breathing without falling into the cliched trap of so many publications, namely by filling their pages with frothy consumer lifestyle coverage of food, fashion and how-tos for mimicking self-aggrandizing celebrities.
In their publishers’ note for this month’s anniversary issue, Magnuson and Olson write, “You’ll read about heroic women who save languages and protect the Boundary Waters, women who are concerned about our heart health and our vulnerable children. One woman looks out for chickens in urban yards. One woman saved her family in a refugee camp, some work to protect our black sons and some protect the military women who protect us. Every issue we bring you stories that may never make the front cover of People magazine or perhaps even the Star Tribune or the Pioneer Press. The women featured this month are protectors. Heroes. But not necessarily celebrities.”
Said Magnuson in a phone conversation, “We have always failed to fulfill the expectation for a women’s publication. We have never played to the belief of some that women are only interested in fashion and lifestyle and how to get the men of their dreams.”
She adds that to this day they feel no shortage of stories to tell about women dealing with workplace, campus and political issues. “Finding stories is the least of our challenges,” she says with a laugh.
I wondered if she could put her finger on any indisputable shift in the thinking of her writers, her readership or women in general over the past three decades?
“I think people are more willing now to talk about difficult issues than when we started. Where a subject like rape on campus was not a topic of open conversation in 1985, we’re now at a point where it is not just a women’s issue anymore and people are willing to discuss it openly and how to deal with it.”
The MWP of 2015 — a for-profit entity, by the way — operates out of an office off Raymond Avenue with a full-time staff of seven. Magnuson guesstimates one-third of the copy of each issue is generated by staff, one-third by freelancers and one-third by readers themselves. The monthly press run is 35,000.
Revenue might be more bountiful if MWP had played the food and fashion game, “But readers are smart about how that works,” said Magnuson. “They see a story about some business and then an ad a couple pages later, or right next to it, and they know what’s going on. We could do that, but beside the fact we choose not to, there’s no guarantee that kind of thing will keep you in business. A lot of glossy women’s magazines have come and gone over the past 30 years. We’re still here.”
Finally, a note about “Doonesbury” cartoonist/satirist Garry Trudeau, who recently stirred up a mild controversy with a speech (accepting a George Polk career award) criticizing what he called “the abuse of satire” and the tendency of some satirists and cartoonists, including those at France’s Charlie Hebdo to “punch downward,” attacking the less enfranchised instead of those wielding true power.
Said Trudeau: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila — the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world.”
Trudeau’s colleagues in the cartooning community were not much in the way of agreement. Last week, Michael Cavna of The Washington Post published reactions to Trudeau from 15 cartoonists at big city dailies in the United States.
Among the more interesting:
Nate Beeler of the Columbus Dispatch: “I agree with much of Trudeau’s speech, particularly with the notion that ‘because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must’. But I take serious issue with Trudeau giving rhetorical cover to terrorists who murdered his cartooning compatriots. … People everywhere have the inherent right to freely express themselves in “childish” and “unserious” ways — which is lucky for Garry Trudeau. … I can tell you that you’ll never see me draw a cartoon about Garry Trudeau being savagely beheaded by free speech absolutists.”
Joel Pett at the Lexington (KY) Herald Leader: “Never one to nitpick, I’d just smile and internalize my thoughts about how ‘absolutists’ merely defend the right of people to say dumb things, and that some idiots will laugh at almost anything. Also, small point, but the lines aren’t red at all, and in fact they have more shades of grey than ‘insert S&M joke.’ I might mention that all of the highly publicized battles over free speech involve parties acting irresponsibly, or at least doing and saying things that most of us wouldn’t dream of. Like publishing Hustler, donning swastikas and marching in Jewish communities, picketing military funerals with signs reading, “God hates f—,” drawing the prophet for a nonprofit, or simply being Rush Limbaugh.”
Missing from the group was the Star Tribune’s Pulitzer winning cartoonist, Steve Sack. Asked for his thoughts on that boundary line between taste and absolutism, Sack responded, “The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are a mix of genuine political commentary and tasteless shock humor. Their goal is to press the limits of what’s considered acceptable. You can get a better sense of what they do here: www.understandingcharliehebdo.com.
As for me, I don’t feel limited in topic choices at all … anything in the news that people are talking about is fair game. That said, I work for a family newspaper and try to use taste and judgement in how I express my ideas. Images or concepts that are too extreme would distract from the message of the cartoon.”