The case of the disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki — the teenage Dakota County sisters abducted by their mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, and stashed away for two years at a horse farm in far western Minnesota — has been a weird one from the get-go.
Bitter custody battles often get strange. But by the time the story had rolled together over-the-top divorce hostility, Grazzini-Rucki’s beauty-contestant past, a right-wing organization of “protective parents” angered by the family court system, and details of reality TV-style bad behavior on the part of both battling spouses, dare-we-say “controversial” Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald was on board as Grazzini-Rucki’s attorney and Michael Brodkorb was providing the most constant and vivid coverage of events in and out of court.
In fact, Brodkorb, the once aggressively partisan Republican operative, committed journalism in such a constant, singular way that Grazzini-Rucki was granted a restraining order last week accusing him of harassment. There will be a hearing Thursday in front of Washington County Judge Tad Jude on whether to uphold the order, something many if not most legal analysts think unlikely since Grazzini-Rucki failed to mention the part where Brodkorb was functioning as a reporter, first with the Star Tribune, then by way of a website he has set up, “Missing.” (Brodkorb recently signed on with MinnPost to write a weekly politics column.)
In addition to having to hire a lawyer to get him through this harassment charge, Brodkorb says he’s spent “over $500 in court filing fees” for documents, like those which he says show MacDonald, though supposedly serving in a pro bono capacity, now has a $200,000 lien against Grazzini-Rucki for services rendered. That withstanding, MacDonald continues to be a prominent advocate for Grazzini-Rucki, and she will represent her on Thursday. [PDF]
The circus aspect of the case aside, the episode highlights a question asked more and more frequently as the business of news gathering fragments away from just a few major institutions and into the hands of activist citizens, people with more time and interest in a given story than traditional news organizations. Specifically, if Michael Brodkorb was practicing journalism by reporting steadily on the Grazzini-Rucki matter, is he then in effect a journalist entitled to First Amendment protections and collegial support afforded normal reporters? And if so, why haven’t more journalists come to his defense in the wake of the restraining order, which among other things, he says, has left him confined to Dakota County this past week and taking calls from police for things he’s written since the order went out?
Writing a new chapter
Brodkorb has been “living in interesting times” for several years now. His affair with former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, subsequent legal battle with the Senate and serious car accident kept him in the headlines for months. But he is, he insists, a changing if not changed man, remorseful and apologetic for what’s gone on and making a good-faith attempt to write a new chapter for his life. And based on what he’s written about the Grazzini-Rucki case, more or less in his back yard and led by MacDonald, with whom he has long been familiar, “good faith” seems to have objective merit.
His determination to redeem his reputation by vigilantly reporting the case explains a lot of his disappointment in the silence coming from traditional journalists since last week’s court order. “I’m a dues paying member of The Society of Professional Journalists [SPJ]. You’d think they could say something on at least the First Amendment issue here.”
Speaking for himself, Joe Spear, managing editor of the Mankato Free Press and the SPJ’s current secretary, has some sympathy for Brodkorb’s predicament but agrees with the SPJ’s official decision to wait until after Thursday’s hearing before making a statement on the matter.
“It does appear [Brodkorb] was acting as a journalist, at least in some capacity. Although not in the same capacity as if he was working for the Star Tribune or another organization. That said, it is an interesting question. I’ve never seen a restraining order granted over a reporter’s exercise of First Amendment rights.”
‘It’ll give us pause if it is upheld’
Spear notes that Judge John McBride toned down Grazzini-Rucki’s original request, which would have prohibited Brodkorb from being in the courtroom for Grazzini-Rucki’s next appearance. (She was sentenced on Wednesday.) “The rest of it seems to be pretty boilerplate. It’s the thing they always do until they can get more information and sort things out. But every journalist is sensitive to any threat to the First Amendment, and it’ll give us pause if it is upheld. But I don’t think the judge has acted egregiously thus far.”
Whether a writer is accredited to a news institution or not, Spear suggests the SPJ’s essential rules of the road for fair and honest journalism are a good standard for judging anyone’s work.
Grazzini-Rucki’s complaint avoided mention of Brodkorb’s reporting association with the Star Tribune [none of his reports on the case were published in the paper’s dead-tree version, only online] while claiming he harassed Grazzini-Rucki by following her in “an orange minivan,” something Brodkorb says he doesn’t own. There’s also a reference to him “jumping out from behind a tree,” something else he emphatically denies.
In essence, Grazzini-Rucki’s complaint is that she’s being stalked, i.e. “harassed” by what Brodkorb is saying.
Over at the Pioneer Press, Dave Orrick, an outdoors writer and the newsroom rep for The Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, apologized for being off the grid the past week and not completely up to speed with the particulars. Even so, he said, “Come on! The courthouse is a public place. The whole thing is interesting for the context you describe, but I don’t think the Guild has a position on this yet.” (Orrick’s counterpart at the Star Tribune, Janet Moore, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Little public expression of support
As of Tuesday Brodkorb says the only public expression of support for him from a local journalist has been a tweet from Strib reporter Paul Walsh. Susan Du’s report on the court order in City Pages played with a tone sympathetic toward Brodkorb, while Brandon Stahl’s front-page story in Saturday’s Strib was a textbook example of hygienic balance.
It isn’t lost on Brodkorb that his abrasive past may be a factor in traditional journalists’ reluctance to voice even a modicum of support for him, never mind the evidence of the volumes of copy he’s produced on the whole squalid Grazzini-Rucki affair that is proof that he’s done shoe-leather duty covering the story, albeit without institutional moderation. “So what happens Thursday if the judge throws it out?” he asks. “Does anyone say anything? Or is it left as some kind of a draw between a six-time felon and myself?”
Even if Judge Jude tosses the order on Thursday, the episode offers several compelling facets on which traditional journalists should offer public opinion. On one level it’s simple: Has Brodkorb committed journalism or not?