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Did the Star Tribune do the right thing when it learned Teague harassed one of its reporters?

The Star Tribune could use an ombudsman in a case like this. Not because the choices it made were so wrong, but because there are valid questions that deserve real answers.

MinnPost file photo by Brian Lambert

It’s a safe bet that the saga of boorish Norwood Teague has not yet run its course.

The University of Minnesota has announced an independent investigation into the now­resigned athletic director, something few could imagine them not doing the first moment they heard of his behavior. Late Thursday, two women added their names to that of Star Tribune reporter Amelia Rayno as victims of Teague’s piggish antics.

So the university, and President Eric Kaler, will have their hands full for some time bringing full transparency to the story.

Meanwhile, as an institution, the Star Tribune is saying essentially nothing about its handling of the situation regarding Rayno, if you discount an editorial in which the paper made a case for taking an enlightened, 21st century attitude toward a woman’s complaint against a prominent public figure.

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When Rayno’s story broke last week, I contacted her and Star Tribune Editor Rene Sanchez seeking a discussion of the paper’s decision­-making in response to her experience, her story, and its interaction with the university about Teague. Sanchez was on vacation. Rayno replied, saying, “I am declining all media interviews for now.” Appeals to other editors, to date, have proven equally fruitless.

Which is unfortunate. The incident — specifically the paper’s apparent decision not to contact Kaler when Rayno first reported her experience with Teague 18 months ago, much less publish a story about it then — is rich grist for a valuable discussion of both journalistic and human resources propriety.

One subject for an informed dialogue is whether the paper was holding itself to a higher standard of ethics by acceding to a young woman’s request not to disrupt her career path with a public conflict with a prominent personality, or whether the higher higher good would have been served by blowing the whistle on Teague then and there, in March 2014, in hopes of preventing his similar harassment of other women. Savvy, skeptical reporters and editors are not usually the type to trust that the sort of behavior Rayno was subjected to by Teague was a one­-of-­a­-kind, anomalous event.

As we’ve established, the Star Tribune, like most large newspapers, no longer has an ombudsman, and has long been without a truly independent in­-house critic of its coverage and decision-­making. It could use one in this case. Not because the choices it made were indisputably wrong, but because those choices prompt valid questions that deserve full and transparent answers — answers that might heighten rather than diminish the paper’s credibility.

On his current “Holding Court” podcast, local attorney and media figure, Ron Rosenbaum — who was directly involved in both the North Stars’ Norm Green sexual harassment suit 25 years ago and the U of M’s epic Clem Haskins fiasco in 1999 — makes essentially these same points. Interacting with Robb Leer, the former KSTP­-TV investigative reporter, and KARE-­TV’s Jana Shortal, whose brief interview with Teague mashed the accelerator on the AD’s departure, Rosenbaum went further, questioning how the Strib could keep Rayno on the beat covering U of M men’s basketball, which required her to interact with Teague through his departure.

Over the past week, other journalists have wagged tongues over the social interaction Rayno admits to having had with Teague prior to his borderline assault in the back of a cab. Personally, I’ve always found the boozy socializing thing a little problematic. On the one hand, there’s no question that a reporter has a better chance of getting someone on the phone if they’ve already made an in­-person connection, and better yet if that connection has been pleasant. But, as we see day­-in and day-­out with Washington reporting, the you-­and-­me chumminess that builds up is hardly an unalloyed benefit to the reporter or his or her audience.

Going deeper into basic newsroom dynamics, Rayno says in her story that she feared losing her beat at the U of M. Is that the same as saying she feared being re­victimized by her own employer, who, instead of standing up for her would (or might) see some retrograde, old school wisdom in reassigning her rather than raise righteous hell with the university and athletic department boosters? If any facet of that scenario rings true, what does it say about the Star Tribune’s enlightenment in the matter of women stepping up and calling “foul”?

But the central issue remains the choice not to blow the whistle on Teague 18 months ago — and not to publish a variation on the story Rayno wrote last Monday. If the paper did contact Kaler, and my guess is they have his cellphone number, when did that happen and what did Kaler promise to do?

I did get through to Mike Hughlett, the Strib business reporter who’s also co-chair of the Newspaper Guild (the union that represents Rayno), to see if the group had taken a position on the handling of the episode. “We can’t really comment on how the paper handled it because it just isn’t a Guild matter. But I agree it’s worth a discussion.”