With recent releases of a $690,000 external review and internal audit of the University of Minnesota athletics department — a pair of reports that scolded more than indicted the school’s sports culture — the school may believe it has survived its latest self-inflicted wound and can return to business as usual.
But at least two prominent local journalists, one of whom is now on the faculty at the U, remain mightily peeved at the way the school routinely resists disclosure of public information.
Chris Ison won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while working at the Star Tribune, and now teaches reporting, investigative journalism and media ethics at the U’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“I tell my students that the U is possibly the worst public body in the state in abiding by public records law,” Ison said. “I tell them it’s going to be hard to get what you want to get. That they’re going to have to put their requests in writing and call almost daily and that along the way they may not be treated with respect.”
Dan Browning, a veteran Star Tribune reporter who’s widely respected for his investigative work, echoes Ison, saying that “appalled” is a fair description of his reaction to how flagrantly he sees the school’s intensely bureaucratic public information apparatus obstructing the public’s right to know.
He describes a process familiar to every reporter who has been tasked with covering corporate America, one in which a request for access to people, information or documents is immediately greeted with a wall of public-relations minions charged with managing the institutional brand, controlling access, and tamping down criticism. The critical difference obviously being that the University of Minnesota is a massive public institution supposedly answerable to taxpayers, not shareholders.
It was Browning who “dug through 600 pages of documents,” for information about former U of M Athletic Director Norwood Teague’s expense and donor records that under law should have been handed to him. (Browning has worked with Emma Nelson, Maura Lerner and Mila Koumpilova, among others, covering the Teague story.)
“The U has designed a bureaucracy whose purpose is to retard speed [in the release of information],” said Browning.
That process, he and Ison describe, involves funneling requests for interviews or documents through the University News Service, which — lacking anything close to the number of people capable of handling the current volume — quickly becomes a choke point, frequently delaying “permission” for an individual to speak long past a reporter’s deadline, a tactic that, again, is familiar to anyone trying to cover the corporate world.
U of M officials emphatically deny the assertion that administrators, faculty and staff are required to get permission to speak to the media, or that reporters are required to seek interviews through the U’s News Service. “There is no policy in place requiring anyone to get permission,” said Chuck Tombarge, the U’s Chief Information Officer. “Some may choose to use us. But they are free to make the decision on their own.”
Marion Renault, the current editor-in-chief at the school’s student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, was momentarily at a loss for words of response when I told her that the U said there was no policy requiring journalists to use the news service.
“I really don’t know how they can say that,” she said. “I’m not surprised, I guess. But I’m pretty comfortable saying that if we want access to the university, anyone other than students, we have to go through the News Service. It is certainly not the experience of our reporters [at The Daily] or mine as a reporter there that we are free to contact whoever we want.”
Renault describes her experience researching how Big Ten schools tread the line when handling open-records requests on matters of student sexual assaults. The U of M, she says, was the only Big 10 school that didn’t even acknowledge open-records requests for information.
Ison isn’t surprised. “Delays by the university are worse than anyone I’ve ever had to deal with,” he said. “In fact, I’ve seen requests for information sent out to every school in the Big Ten, and Minnesota was the worst, the slowest, in responding.”
He added: “The situation has been bad here for a long time, but has actually gotten worse in recent years.”
Ison recalls Strib reporters at least being able to sit down face to face with former U of M President Mark Yudoff during the Clem Haskins basketball scandal. During the most recent mess, Browning says his requests for face time with current President Eric Kaler have been swallowed up and effectively denied (without being officially declined) by the school’s PR process. (Tombarge says Browning’s colleague, Maura Lerner, was given “a couple days” of access to Kaler during the most recent State Fair.)
In Browning’s case, it hasn’t been for the lack of trying. “Our guys [meaning editor Rene Sanchez and other editorial managers] have given me every bit of support I’ve asked for. They’ve been willing to spend money on lawyers even when we should have been getting this stuff for free.”
Bill Donohue, the U’s chief counsel, says the demand for data practices information related to the Teague story was unusually high, but said the U paid for 250 hours of temporary help to facilitate the paperwork. “We recognize that there is a problem with staffing,” he says, “and we have requested additional budget.”
Browning also said that on a previous beat covering the U’s medical innovations sector, “The people couldn’t have been easier to work with. They were delighted someone was interested in what they were doing. But you get into athletics or tuition issues and it’s a whole different game.”
But was his positive experience with medical innovations because he was essentially providing “happy news”? The puffy, flattering stuff that businesses and big institutions’ public information officers [PIOs] are trained to curry and facilitate?
“No. Not all of it was ‘happy stuff.’ I had to cover their cuts in [National Institute for Health] funding, which didn’t exactly reflect well on them. But the point is I could pick up the phone and talk to the person with the information directly. In this situation [with the athletics department], it’s this nearly impenetrable wall. A wall that violates every rule in the book.”
Said Ison: “It’s so bad it isn’t at all unusual for a spokesman, one of these people reporters have to go through, to return a call to a reporter reprimanding them for calling the person who has the information they’re looking for.” Daily editor Renault confirms the student reporter experience of being scolded by the News Service for failing to run interview requests through them.
Tombarge says that the U’s average response time to a Data Practices Act request in 2015 is 11 days, for 215 separate requests. “By comparison,” he says, “we had 61 requests in 2012 that took an average of 36 days.”
“Did he really say 11 days?” Renault asked. “I don’t know what to say to that, other than it just does not reflect the experience we’ve had, and maybe that’s because they treat us, as student journalists, differently.”
Neither Ison or Browning feels confused about the university’s motivations. “They don’t like bad press,” says Ison. “What government agency does? They’re very sensitive about their image and public relations. They depend on the public for funding. So they want to manage all the information about the university. But it is simply too big to do that. Moreover, any institution that gets hundreds of millions of dollars in public money, especially an institute of higher learning, should have a complete commitment to transparency. Instead they’ve decided to run this place like a private company.”
Neither Ison or Browning can point to a single lever that might be pulled to achieve the kind of transparency they expect and have a right to expect under law. But beyond just the university there is a broader trend toward controlling basic information.
As the independent, nonprofit investigative website ProPublica wrote several years ago, while staffing in American newsrooms has shrunk dramatically over the past 15 years, the public relations industry has boomed. ProPublica noted that revenues at public relations agencies went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion from 1997 to 2007 — with paid employees jumping from 38,735 to 50,499, a 30 percent increase. Meanwhile, newspaper advertising revenue collapsed from an all-time high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009, resulting in a decline in the number of newspaper reporters and editors from 56,900 in 1990 to 41,600 in 2011.
Translation: As the number of journalists asking questions has dramatically declined, the public relations industry, often chock full of former journalists well aware of how the news game is played and now earning significantly better money, is well-armed to deflect potentially bad publicity and spin out countermessaging.
Compounding the problem, says Browning, are the reporters who are too busy to decipher spin in the torrent of press releases churned out by public relations flacks and public information officers, and who as a consequence convert slick brand-management promotion into news stories.
“As the news media shrinks,” he laments, “we are becoming more and more a processing agency for press releases. That’s a bad situation all the way around.”
But in the U’s case, as an enormous, taxpayer-supported entity, the essential issue is as simple as this: The school, say Ison and Browning, is refusing to provide public information it is required to provide under law. “I don’t get how they think they’re even in the ballpark when it comes to following the law,” said Ison.
To that Donohue replies: “We think we are not only in the ballpark in replying to data requests, but we’re doing quite well, considering available resources and the surge in demand.”