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

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.

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.” 

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Robert Owen on 08/17/2015 - 10:22 am.

    Wagged Tongues

    “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.”

    Is that all water cooler talk or did any of those journalists (that you haven’t named) write about this publicly?

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/17/2015 - 10:36 am.

    It’s a matter of INTEGRITY, not propriety

    “…journalistic and human resources propriety.”

    There is a subtle but meaningful difference here, although the Star Tribune lacks both. Why anybody still buys this rag is beyond me.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/17/2015 - 11:04 am.

    Hobson’s choice

    Speaking as someone who’s never been involved in professional journalism, this whole business of establishing and maintaining sources within an organization – any organization – *does* seem to be a genuine issue, and one for which there’s no quick and easy solution.

    That point is illustrated by the quandary Brian presents: “…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.” While living in Colorado, I became acquainted personally with several writers for Colorado publications, including the Denver Post. Somewhere along the way, I came across a line that resonated with me then, and still resonates with me now – especially in the current Teague context: “A reporter should have no friends.”

    As a practical matter (not to mention the emotional health of said reporter), that sentiment can’t work. Humans are social creatures, and a job requirement that someone go through their working life without forming emotional connections with other humans more or less guarantees a list of mental illnesses that the rest of us don’t want to deal with. As a philosophical statement of how journalists should approach their job, however, I think it’s not far off the mark. Practicality intervenes even in that philosophical context, however, and I’m sure Brian is correct that it’s much easier to get someone on the phone or even buttonhole them personally at some function for an interview if some minimal social interaction has already taken place, and especially if that interaction was pleasant.

    That assumes, however, that the interaction was pleasant for *both* parties, and even if that’s been the case, Brian’s second point remains relevant: that sort of chumminess can, and does, affect the quality and fairness of a legitimate news story sometimes, and the degree or frequency of *that* does not serve the public well. It’s that public that the journalist is presumably serving, so if getting chummy with the AD, or the head of the math department, might well slant the story, it’s something that both the reporter and the publication s/he’s working for should avoid. It’s an avoidance that might be made easier for all concerned if the publication established clear institutional rules about those kinds of interactions. Some likely do. Some likely don’t. Some likely could, but will not, because of a justifiable fear that some, perhaps many, news sources will disappear from the journalistic landscape if every interaction is essentially an on-the-record interview.

    Like a lot of other occupations, news reporting is a tougher job than many of us might think.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/17/2015 - 12:33 pm.

    Joint Decision

    The decision to defer official complaint action was made jointly between Ms. Rayno and her H/R Dept.

    This is the fact of the deferral. (Trust my knowledge.) Others may wish to suspect some corporate agenda in not initially pressing the issues with the U; however, until someone proves that suspicion, “there is no there, there.” And, those Star Tribune H/R discussions are firewalled…by law.

    This process certainly seems to have been an honest collaboration between an employee and her human resource people. Hey, sometimes H/R really does do what it’s designed to do with respect to employee issues. The story here is Teague, not Rayno.

    [May I also suggest that MinnPost management is on somewhat soft ground with respect to observations regarding the STrib? Should this story line proceed, a few disclaimers might be required. That would be fair.]

    • Submitted by Robert Owen on 08/18/2015 - 07:28 am.

      Jim, have you interviewed any of the parties involved in this mess? You seem to play a role that is more than just a person commenting on a news web site. But it’s not clear to me what your role is and why you’d have knowledge I should trust.

  5. Submitted by Ron Rosenbaum on 08/17/2015 - 03:07 pm.

    Star Tribune

    Jim: a couple of questions: first, assuming we should trust your knowledge about the firewall between H. R. and editorial, is it sound practice to have a reporter who’s been sexually harassed by Teague, cover his later harassment of two other women? Put another way, isn’t she part of the very story she’s covering? Additionally, the Strib makes clear in its editorial on the subject that the days of women remaining silent about their harassment are over. By not informing Teague’s superiors of his outrageous conduct, aren’t they in effect remaining silent themselves? And it’s a fair question whether that silence enabled Teague to continue to prey on other women. Lastly, Teague was a highly paid public figure at the largest and most prestigious public educational institution in the state. And last I checked, the Star Tribune is a news reporting institution. Can anyone honestly say that Teague’s harassment of Rayno, a reporter covering University athletics, wouldn’t have been a front page, as well as important national, story? Didn’t the Star Tribune have an obligation to publish that story?

  6. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/17/2015 - 04:43 pm.

    Answers

    Yes, you can trust my knowledge.
    Yes, given close editing of standards and reporter professionalism.
    Yes, with administrative H/R & employee reasons to do so.
    No, editorial discretion of placement prevails. They did break the story of Rayno, reporter/victim.

    Rayno as employee is offered the same identity protection given to any victim.

    Again, it was a Joint Decision between employee/victim and employer/newspaper. The law requires primary focus on the employee situation, and in this case, secondary focus on the editorial decision.

    Wouldn’t we all want and expect that?

    Whether newspaper management opened a back channel to Pres. Kaler is not known to third parties right now. In this case, they seem to have made the most responsible call possible, given respect for their employee as first consideration. Ms. Rayno may have more to say someday, or not. That’s her call in capacity as both reporter and victim. It is reasonable to expect that she will continue to cover UofM athletic news, but not the Teague story. That’s a call best made as other revelations may emerge. Reflexive dogmatic decisions are never the better ones.

    Other news organizations should follow the facts of this story without conflict you suggest. The story is out, and developments are forthcoming, given the current legal presence of all parties. Let’s watch how Strib, PP and MInnPost continue to cover it.

  7. Submitted by Ron Rosenbaum on 08/17/2015 - 11:08 pm.

    Star Tribune

    Jim: KARE 11’s Jana Shortal broke the Teague story, Is there any reason to believe that if the Teague story hadn’t broken, we’d ever have learned that the Athletic Director had previously harassed Rayno? As I’m sure you know, many others do not share your certainty on other matters, including, but not limited to your claim that editorial was unaware of Teague’s harassment of Rayno, the question whether a reporter who’s part of the story can cover it, as well as the question whether reporting the harassment would have prevented further harassment of others by Teague. And finally, what exactly are you suggesting when you say that MinnPost is on “soft ground” covering this story?

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/18/2015 - 08:19 am.

    “No, editorial discretion of placement prevails. They did break the story of Rayno, reporter/victim.”

    The issue is narrowly, whether editorial discretion was properly exercised in this case, and what factors played a role in that decision. More broadly, is what role those considerations play in news coverage generally. The reporter told us that she was concerned that if she reported the story of Teague’s behavior towards her, she would be denied access she needed to do her job. Such considerations, while important to the business of reporting the news, are not relevant to the newsworthiness of the story itself. The reporter was harassed just like the other women in the story, If the experience of the other women is newsworthy, so is the reporter’s own experience. And indeed, there was no change in the newsworthiness of her experiences; she chose to report the story after Teague lost his job, when denial of access to him no longer mattered.

  9. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 08/18/2015 - 11:57 am.

    StarTribune should have taken the role of a mandatory reporter

    The U of M administration cannot hold an employee accountable for actions that the administration knows nothing about. The StarTribune has a responsibility to its employees, but it also has a responsibility to the public in general – and when they became aware of serious misconduct by a public employee they had a moral if not legal responsibility to inform the University administration of that misconduct. Misconduct by a public employee is not simply a private matter between that employee and the victim of the misconduct.

  10. Submitted by david hanners on 08/18/2015 - 12:25 pm.

    As someone who spent more than a few years as a reporter — and even helped write the ethics policy at the Pioneer Press years ago — there are many things about this episode that trouble me. It is troubling that Ms. Rayno did not report Mr. Teague’s behavior to his superiors at the time it happened. It clearly crossed a line, and the behavior escalated over time. I don’t care how “good” or high-profile the beat is (we’re talking about collegiate sports here, so it’s not *that* high-profile) a reporter doesn’t get paid to put up with behavior like that from a source. Yes, a reporter sometimes has to put up with sources who are unfriendly or outright surly. That wasn’t the case here. And what did Ms. Rayno get from her source in return for her silence? It couldn’t have been much. It’s not like Mr. Teague is handing her the Pentagon Papers in the dark lower level of a parking garage.

    Mr. Rosenbaum is correct in that once a reporter becomes part of the story, he or she can’t properly report on it. Whether she acknowledges it or not, Ms. Rayno became part of the story long ago when Mr. Teague first acted inappropriately. She just didn’t know it yet.

    I don’t want to sound like I am blaming the victim, Ms. Rayno, because I’m not. Yes, it is up to her whether she reports the guy’s behavior. But her silence brought her nothing. I would argue reporters have a certain obligation to report misdeeds when they see them. I do wonder about the heartache other women might have been spared had Ms. Rayno spoken up sooner.

  11. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 08/18/2015 - 10:06 pm.

    Strib

    All of the Star-Trib downsizing refugees at MinnPost are having a ball with this.

    Schadenfreude.

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