Maybe you heard about this one.
On Sept. 1, Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Pioneer Press posted a story about two elected officials cited in public documents for “making out” in a parking lot in Lebanon Hills County Park in Eagan. In the parlance of our times, the story went viral.
It was what every newsroom regards as “a talker.” While hardly on the scale of some grand financial connivery, (cough, Vikings stadium) the story had plenty of irresistible elements. Namely: Two people, Reps. Tara Mack and Tim Kelly, being paid with taxpayer money. Both married to other people. Both vehemently denying explicit descriptions of the scene detailed in the official complaint, with Mack issuing a statement saying, “I have been told the officer wrote in his notes — information that I’ve requested, but has not yet been made public to me — statements that are completely false and inappropriate (and apparently were obtained illegally). I will be filing a complaint with the sheriff’s office regarding the officer’s egregious and false statements.”
With that comment and one in a similar tone from Kelly in question we add a rich stew of ingredients: the fact of two elected officials publicly accusing another public official (the park ranger) of fraudulent conduct of his duties.
Though clearly an episode custom-tailored for maximum snickering and sophomoric jokes, the sum of the story was utterly newsworthy by everyone’s standards, playing on every news outlet in town and around the world via The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News and the grand gray lady herself, The New York Times. In other words, pretty much everywhere … except the Star Tribune, the largest news organization in Minnesota.
John Shockley, a now retired professor of politics and media at Augsburg College and a Star Tribune subscriber, noticed this omission and emailed the paper asking for an explanation. Wrote Shockley: “Dear Editors: Did I miss the story about the two state representatives ‘making out’ in a remote parking lot in Lebanon Hills? I don’t see anything about it in today’s paper, and when I did a search on your website, nothing came up. I became familiar with the issue on the evening news last night, and assumed it would be in the paper today. I had to go to MPR and the St. Paul Pioneer Press to find out more. Can you tell me if you ran the story, and if not, why not?”
The Strib’s response came from Deputy Metro Editor Maria Reeve. “Dr. Shockley, We received your email concerning a story about two state representatives,” Reeve wrote. “We decided to pass on pursuing that story. It didn’t meet our threshold for news.”
It didn’t meet our threshold for news? Well, as Steve Martin used to say, “Excuuuuuuuuuse me.”
“I didn’t think it was much of an answer to my question,” says Shockley, “since they didn’t define what their threshold is. I wasn’t expecting it to be some banner headline on the front page, but maybe in the Metro section. But it wasn’t anywhere, and I was seeing it on TV and other places, which is what I found odd. And as far as this threshold business goes, they covered Larry Craig and they covered Michelle MacDonald. What was different about this? I don’t care about the ‘making out’ business as much as the fact they accused the officer of lying and threatened to file charges against him. That’s news as far as I’m concerned.”
In fairness to the Strib, it did eventually run a piece on the episode … online, four days after the story broke, and after the two legislators agreed to pay their fines and dropped their threats of retaliation against the park ranger.
My curiosity piqued, I sent an email to the Strib’s editor, Rene Sanchez, who has generally been quite good about responding to questions about editorial policy, when he can. Among other things, I asked why the Strib would consciously avoid reporting anything about it, even the legislators’ ‘vehement denials,’ as some stories characterized them; whether he could offer some criteria for what Reeve called the paper’s ‘threshold’; how this threshold didn’t include an official citation against two state legislators; if he recognized the irony in declining to report a story such as this while routinely publishing reports on the tabloid comings and goings of distant celebrities; and whether he was concerned that avoiding such a story leaves you open to criticism that it was ignored as a favor to one or both of the legislators involved?
I heard nothing back and re-sent the same set of questions. Sanchez then responded saying: “We posted a story online on this matter last Friday.” He asked that other comments be kept off the record.
After the interaction with Sanchez, Eric Wieffering, the Strib’s assistant managing editor for news, wrote, saying, “We weigh a number of factors in determining whether to report or to write about actual or alleged personal relationships of elected officials. For instance, did one supervise the other, thus raising questions about workplace conduct? Was the legislature in session and were they missing committee hearings or floor votes?, etc. None of these or other relevant factors seemed to apply in this case, which is why we initially passed on the story. We reviewed our decision when they said they intended to fight the ticket, and published a short story when they paid their fine.”
The legislator’s intention of fighting the ticket seemed obvious from the outset, and the story has rolled on with the AP doing a nice piece of rooting through public records about Mack’s conversations with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. The Strib did run stories on both of those matters. It also ran a story on Monday’s statement from the legislators apologizing for thier comments about the ranger. Point being: From the outset it was a tempest in a teapot that would continue to boil.
I’ve made the argument many times before that news organizations, institutions in the business of demanding accountability and transparency from other public entities and individuals, should hold themselves to a higher standard of candor, if only to maintain the higher ground when dealing with gross obfuscation and stonewalling.
News organizations like the Star Tribune and MPR (which is far more closed off to inquiry) have very little to lose by admitting they occasionally make a bad call on a story. No serious news consumer expects infallibility, but many are justifiably suspicious of the pretense to it.