Why the Strib originally passed on the ‘making out’ story

State Rep. Tim Kelly, state Rep. Tara Mack
State Rep. Tim Kelly, state Rep. Tara Mack

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.

Rene Sanchez
Star Tribune
Rene Sanchez

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 rangerPoint 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. 

Comments (36)

  1. Submitted by Ben Wilinski on 09/15/2015 - 09:37 am.

    Glen Taylor promised…

    Glen Taylor promised a more conservative slant. If two married (to other people) republican legislators making out in public is not newsworthy, I would hope that it has nothing to do with the ideology of the couple.
    Making donation to Minnpost now…

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 09/16/2015 - 09:32 am.

      Gosh no

      Ideology would have nothing to do with it. Its impolite even to think such a thing. If you read the explanation that they produced after over a week of prodding you can clearly see that they able to come up with a very “plausible” explanation. And NO they didn’t have several staff working overtime to produce it, so please don’t say that. Also too, you can rest assured that the next time this happens to someone with a D after their name it WILL be reported. Of course that will be because they caught so much heat for not reporting on the Rs. If its Rs next time, the explanation a week in the making will most likely still apply.

    • Submitted by Grey Staples on 09/20/2015 - 10:52 am.

      Amen

      I’m making my contribution as well.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2015 - 09:42 am.

    Well, you gotta remember…

    They were busy making Ventura’s non-run for president a front page story… these guys have standards darn gummit!

    This would be a non-story if it didn’t involve two republicans on the ethics committee who’ve spent the last decade trying to tell us what a marriage is and pretending to be lighthouses of morality. This kind of hypocrisy among legislators is newsworthy. It would escape newsworthyness if these legislators didn’t try to deny it with yet more obvious dishonesty.

    Beyond these two legislators, it might be important to recognize the more or less constant parade of toxic personalities and dishonesty that has become the republican party. As part of THAT story this also rises to the level of newsworthy. The republican party may well be imploding because they’ve become accustomed to voting for people based on morality and “values” claims rather than any coherent notions of governance and public policy.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/15/2015 - 09:45 am.

    More Than That

    Our favorite Edina liberal misses a few key points on why this was a big story from the get go.

    First, these two alleged philanderers are members of God’s Own Party, nearly all of whose legislative members just a few years ago put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to “protect the sanctity of marriage”, so we were told.

    Second, this is the crowd that loves law and order and all things in favor of law enforcement. And yet at the first sign of trouble they turn on law enforcement.

    It’s not often you get two man-bites-dog aspects in one story, and this one did. All of which makes the Strib’s decision even curious-er. Liberal rag my eye!

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/15/2015 - 09:48 am.

    Mrs. Grundy

    So aside from discomfiting Mrs. Grundy, there was no illegal or immoral action involved (unless you count the nosy park ranger). I don’t see any violation of their oath of office, unlike other cases that have been in the news.

  5. Submitted by James Allen on 09/15/2015 - 10:03 am.

    The newsworthiness of this story wasn’t the fact that two grown-up, consenting adults were having an affair – who cares – it’s that these grown-up, consenting adults work for an organization (the GOP) that has made a lot of political hay and continues to remain popular with its key demographic (and raises a lot of money) because it’s so vociferous about so many seemingly personal, social issues.

    Their party touts strict homogeneous morals and the Bible as “The American Way” to win votes and explain away their actions, decisions and prejudices. So when they are caught going against the same Bible and strict homogeneous morals, shouldn’t we make a big deal of that?

  6. Submitted by Tom Clarke on 09/15/2015 - 10:14 am.

    Strib explanation

    Makes me nostalgic for Lou Gelfand’s informative and colorful Strib ombudsman column answering reader questions about how the Strib decides how to cover the news.

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/15/2015 - 10:19 am.

    The Real Story

    Once again, the salacious triumphs over the substantive.

    The story of two legislators–married, to other people–sitting in the park “making out” is not the real story, unless one enjoys a juvenile giggle as news. The real story is the accusation of misconduct by a public official, and, one might add, the ease with which that accusation is employed.

    Most of us, I think, can understand the desire to wiggle out of an uncomfortable situation. Accusing an officer of lying (rather than the more neutral “interpretations of the facts vary”), and threatening an investigation into that supposed “lying” makes the story important for more than the titillation of what happened in the park.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 09/16/2015 - 09:14 am.

      Thanks for distinguishing RB

      I agree. I don’t know either of these legislators stand on gay marriage. Sure, you can try nto tie them to their party’s platform, but then you’d need to do that to the Dems as well. And that isn’t going to go as well as Liberals might think it will.

      The real story is not only denying the allegations, but going on an aggressive attack against the cop and his honesty. Only to do a 180 a few days later. THAT’S the news story.

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/15/2015 - 10:53 am.

    Given that they were both members of the House Ethics Committee and they were accusing a public servant of criminal behavior in contradiction to their own unseemly behavior, the story is obvious.

  9. Submitted by sheldon mains on 09/15/2015 - 11:09 am.

    Why they didn’t run the story? They need to protect the Republican Majority that is protecting the morals of all Minnesotans

  10. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/15/2015 - 11:10 am.

    It’s Always Interesting to Note

    How so-called “liberal” news organizations (which the Strib most certainly hasn’t even come close to being since they were bought by the private investment fund a couple of hand changes ago),…

    will often go out of their way to report any and all accusations, no matter how specious, against “liberal” politicians,…

    the endless witch hunts against anyone having a last name that starts with “C” and ends with “ton” for example,…

    but organizations such as the Strib are loathe to report even the most factual stories that might embarrass the side to which their owners (and likely their editors) subscribe.

    Just one more of a thousand reasons not to even visit the Strib’s website,…

    let alone subscribe to what has become a useless rag,…

    at least if you want a broad perspective on what’s really going on in the state, the nation, and the world.

  11. Submitted by Ron Rosenbaum on 09/15/2015 - 11:26 am.

    Mack/Kelly

    At the outset, this set of facts meets any legitimate news outlet’s standard for news. When two public officials accuse a third, particularly a law enforcement official, of lying and violating the law– it’s news, plain and simple. My guess is that the real reason it wasn’t published had nothing to do with a so-called “threshhold.” But rather the fact that Rachel Stassen Berger, a former Strib reporter who jumped ship for a rival, broke the story. Professional pique may have been at work here. Sadly, we’ll never know for sure since the paper, as usual, circles the wagons and moves on. Similar to their refusal to comment on their rather curious handling of Norwood Teague’s harassment of Amelia Rayno. The Strib would never accept such lack of transparency from any other outfit. Precisely why an ombudsman is so badly needed.

  12. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/15/2015 - 11:41 am.

    The editors’ stonewalling of Lambert’s legitimate requests about why the Star Tribune refused to publish anything about this news item until days later, is what has turned the story into one that speaks very poorly about the newspaper’s leadership.

    I’m adding my voice to this thread so that Strib editors realize how dumb their decision was to cover this up, and that many subscribers are really concerned to see Lambert’s details about trying to get the Real Information from the paper.

  13. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 09/15/2015 - 11:51 am.

    Divine Intervention

    The AP story linked above has this curious bit:

    “Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie wrote Mack initially ‘said she was glad the deputy came along to save her from an uncomfortable situation’ after she and Rep. Tim Kelly were cited for nuisance on Aug. 25.
    […]
    “‘She referred to it as divine intervention,’ he wrote of his initial phone call with Mack, who he said also inquired ‘what was public and how this could play out.'”

    Was Mack prepared to blame Kelly and play the innocent before she learned the details of the complaint?

  14. Submitted by Clete Erickson on 09/15/2015 - 11:51 am.

    Resign

    I really don’t care whether the Star/Trib did not cover the story. It is their choice to run what they want and if they decide a story does not meet their news standard so be it.

    What bothers me is these two get caught cheating on their families in a public park and make up lies to disparage this law enforcement office to cover their bad judgment. These two clowns need to resign and learn not so slander someone else who is doing their job. So much for personal responsibility. Thank you.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/16/2015 - 07:44 am.

      The media’s job

      But if it bothers you to the point that you feel they should resign over it, then it’s important. And it’s the media’s job to inform you of things of importance.

      If the media had all decided – as the Strib says they did – that this was not newsworthy, then how would you have even been made aware of it in the first place?

  15. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 09/15/2015 - 11:56 am.

    Strib ethics and a vulture’s table manners?

    Two things rarely seen in nature. Anyone who believes that the StarTribune is the last bastion of newspaper ethics and common decency has not been paying attention for a considerable amount of time.

  16. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 09/15/2015 - 12:17 pm.

    a crime? Backstrom?

    What is still not well looked into by the media is the fact that the legislature made the poor decision a decade ago to make false accusation of police misconduct a crime. Has the Dakota County Attorney been presented with the facts of the initial accusation against the sheriff? Is the recent retraction in response to the threat of possible charges and does that retraction resolve the initial “crime”? What is the relation of the Dakota County attorney (or Eagan city attorney) to Republican politics and is this a factor?

    I don’t know the answers but there are a lot of questions. Perhaps Minnpost should assign Mannix to inquire further.

  17. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/15/2015 - 01:32 pm.

    Ha!

    Well, stone the crows, Brian. The MinnPoking prevails, I see, as the silly skirmishes with StarTribune continue. Nice of you to show their banner, by the way. They may appreciate the free placement.

    So, when does a cyber blurb become a full story, exactly? Sure the STrib may have had nefarious intent; furthermore, they may also have decided to wait for details of this titillation. Frankly, I found the encapsulated “story” brief and complete: beginning, middle and end.

    As for your gratuitous shot about “online” vs newsprint, well…

    (Any defenders of MPR News have a comment, by the way?)

  18. Submitted by Jim Camery on 09/15/2015 - 02:46 pm.

    She’s sort of cute

    in a married-to-the-paster sort of way. Yeah, it was a story given who the are and how they accused the cop of fabrication. And its also a story about how the Strib avoided it and still can’t seem to come up with a cohesive, fits-the-facts reason.

  19. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/15/2015 - 03:02 pm.

    No illegal or immoral behavior involved?

    The last I heard, the Bible considers adultery to be immoral. The term “making out” does not accurate describe what was happened. That the representatives lied about what was going on, accusing an public official of making it up also breaks another of the Ten Commandments. And finally, their “apology” was very narrow – not even as complete as the one Bill Clinton provided.

    As for the Star Tribune not reporting the story, as others have noted, Glen Taylor, well known Republican, now owns the paper. People are aware of who signs their paycheck.

    I’d love to have the Star Tribune do some real reporting and find statements from these two members of the immoral majority about how gay marriage is ruining marriage for everyone else. Don’t expect either to resign, as retaining the House majority is vital tot he party. For Republicans, it is a deadly sin to raise the gas tax, but sex outside of marriage is something that the entitled feel entitled to do.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/15/2015 - 09:40 pm.

      So you’re saying that Bill Clinton is a Republican?

      “sex outside of marriage is something that the entitled feel entitled to do.”

      Is the story who was “making out” or that “making out” was going on? Who qualifies as a publishable who? How many “double parking” tickets are given out per year in Hennepin county, compared to loitering or spitting? The “story” is so rich with questions that the Strib may not have room for much else for a few weeks, once they get past itemizing the home and property of the recent family tragedy in Greenwood.

  20. Submitted by Terence Mahoney on 09/15/2015 - 03:12 pm.

    Intentional or just plain incompetent?

    The Strib’s Sanchez responding on 02/24/15 re the Strib’s quality of political news reporting:

    “Star Tribune Editor and Senior VP Rene Sanchez echoes Lopez’s view. And though he concedes that the Capitol turnover raises a “reasonable question from people paying close attention” Sanchez says, “I defy anyone to show how our coverage is diminished or weakened by the changes we’ve made.”

  21. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 09/15/2015 - 06:07 pm.

    Something I haven’t seen remarked upon, and it seems a part of the newsworthiness of this story: the officer, having some discretion over how he handled this scene, told the two that they were double parked. Kelly got out of the car and argued the point. Some portion of drivers (perhaps all but Kelly) would have said “Sorry officer! We’re just leaving” and driven away. One wonders if it were Kelly with his pants down instead of Mack would he have stumbled out of the car to argue with them down around his ankles? Or put another way, just how dumb is this guy?

  22. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/15/2015 - 08:39 pm.

    Simple

    Both are committee chairs, the GOP was grooming Mack for a run for Kline’s seat and Taylor is a gentler version of Rupert Murdock. Strib impartiality? Ha!

  23. Submitted by John Edwards on 09/15/2015 - 09:21 pm.

    Ron is right

    Ron Rosenbaum’s assessment is absolutely correct. By the way, if the legislators involved were Democrats instead of Republicans, Brian Lambert would not have bothered Rene Sanchez.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/16/2015 - 11:19 am.

      Thank You for Bringing That Up

      I was wondering when the inevitable “You wouldn’t have mentioned this if they were Democrats” punchline would be dropped. All that’s missing now is the “How come you didn’t report on [insert misfeasance by Democrat]?”

  24. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2015 - 10:13 pm.

    Sigh

    The hypocrisy involved here – by the original participants (less the park ranger) as well as the ‘Strib – is so commonplace nowadays as to qualify as banal. It IS curious that the ‘Strib didn’t report on this obviously-newsworthy story, and reasonable people might question the qualifications or ethics of the editors involved, but the connection to party politics is just a little too cozy to ignore, even if it’s not the most obvious driving force.

    Neither of the Scarlet Letter types are serving their respective families or the citizens of Minnesota very well, nor is the ‘Strib serving the interests of its readers very well by first ignoring, then making lame excuses for ignoring, precisely the sort of story that dominates news media in recent years. The names and locations have changed, but sadly, we’ve been here before…

  25. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/16/2015 - 07:53 am.

    Hypocrisy

    I have always considered myself a hypocrite, and have long believed that a healthy dose of hypocrisy is one of the elements necessary for a successful life, both inside and outside of politics. Whenever I am accused of hypocrisy, and it happens a lot, I smile and think I must be doing something right.

    Of course some Republicans are hypocritical on sexual matters. Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, I have always strongly believed and argued that Republicans are people too, and people have a disturbing tendency to mess up. But in the final analysis what two legislators get up to in the front seat of a care in Waseca or wherever is not a matter of public concern. Our interest in this isn’t political, it’s prurient, which given all the high talk that seems to be floating around, is another form of hypocrisy.

  26. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 09/16/2015 - 08:30 am.

    “But in the final analysis what two legislators get up to in

    the front seat of a care [sic] in Waseca or wherever is not a matter of public concern.”

    And yet, in the not too distant past and probably the present, the police forces have put great effort into sting operations and entrapment to catch men meeting each other in public parks to do substantially the same thing these legislators were doing, with the names and faces of those caught being published in local papers or on websites.

    If it is important news when private citizens are involved, it is doubly so when public figures are involved.

  27. Submitted by L.A. Krahn on 09/18/2015 - 08:15 am.

    Which health plan?

    I’d be interested to know which documents they were exchanging in the car — since the kefluffle about competitive bids among Minnesota Health Plans is erupting on the other pages of the Strib.

    Perhaps that entity [if there really was a document exchange] is an HMO that advertises within the Strib and wished to quell the chatter?

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