How should the media react to Grazzini-­Rucki’s harassment accusations against Brodkorb?

Michael Brodkorb
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Michael Brodkorb

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?

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/21/2016 - 09:40 am.

    Hoisted by the blog

    The interesting thing in all of this is that Grazzini-Rucki’s supporters used a blog — the now-shuttered Carver County Corruption blog among them — to highlight her case and others that attorney Dale Nathan were involved in and make all sorts of thinly-sourced allegations about judges and elected officials. But apparently now that the shoe is on the other foot, they don’t like it. (And Brodkorb has the distinct advantage of actually having his stuff correct.)

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/21/2016 - 10:27 am.

    Irresponsible

    “committed journalism in such a constant, singular way that Grazzini-Rucki was granted a restraining order.”

    I find that line to be extremely irresponsible. In fact, given that the judge did not know Brodkorb was even a journalist, the statement arguably just plain false.

    Your article hints at how the restraining order process works, but doesn’t really explain it. A person can seek an “ex parte” order, meaning they can appear before a judge and present their “facts” without the party against whom the order is sought being present to defend themselves. The judge may enter a temporary order, and then a full hearing with both sides is held to see if the order will stand. Very often, they do not.

    That is what has happened here – an ex parte hearing without Brodkorb present. And as is common in ex parte motions, key information was omitted and false information was presented, namely that Brodkorb is a journalist covering her criminal actions and does not own the car he was accused of driving. The fact that Grazzini-Rucki is a convicted felon who’s crimes involved dishonesty should also weigh into the judge’s decision.

    Until there has been a full contested hearing on the matter, this is a non-story and to suggest that Brodkorb’s actions were somehow inappropriate based on an ex-parte hearing involving someone who is quite literally a court-certified liar through her felony conviction, is really unfair

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/21/2016 - 01:31 pm.

      Non-Story?

      I disagree. The story here is the non-reaction of local journalists’ associations. What would their reaction be if this had happened to someone from a print newspaper, or TV station?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/21/2016 - 02:54 pm.

        Agreed there

        I think the journalist associations failed badly in not coming to Brodkorb’s defense.

        My reaction was mostly to what I also see as a failure by Lambert here and others in the media in reporting what happened regarding the ex parte restraining order. The story should have been “known liar and criminal files frivolous claim against journalist to suppress free speech.” Instead, it’s couched as Brodkorb having been found to have done something wrong.

  3. Submitted by Peggy Sorensen on 09/21/2016 - 10:35 am.

    Thanks for sticking up for journalism

    Your comments here play into some concerns I have had recently regarding blogging supplanting journalism for the dissemination of news/opinion. Frankly, I see a problem. Journalists share a code of ethics and may be educated in their craft. On the other hand, anyone can post a blog. If blogs were to be regarded solely as disseminators of personal opinion, this would not be a problem. However we have seen significant crossover, with the public pool of information being routinely polluted by irresponsible blogging regarded as journalism. Consider the Shirley Sherrod scandal invented of nearly whole cloth by Breitbart and the extreme ramifications. Legitimate news organizations were forced into the corner of needing to report on the scandal as it happened–the scandal itself having become newsworthy–before any responsible level of vetting could take place.

    In the Grazzini-Rucki case, at least two online vehicles, not associated with any responsible news/journalist organization, have been posting lies and half-truths for some time. Sadly, this is not unique to Minnesota. Similar situations are associated with high-profile divorce cases in multiple states. Children dissatisfied with custody arrangements have taken to posting sad stories claiming judicial incompetence to you-tube, where they are picked up by strangers and amplified on other websites. Not only are such sites bound by nothing so limiting as journalistic ethics in what they publish, but some have taken to stalking of judges, cyber-threats and trolling of the professional sites of persons with whom they disagree.

    The rise of the blog has returned this country to the level of the yellow-journalism wars for readership that one filtered public knowledge of events. Not a good thing.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/21/2016 - 03:43 pm.

      Heartily Agree

      “Not a good thing,” and not getting better.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/22/2016 - 09:01 am.

      The “rise of the blog” has allowed people to raise issues that don’t get through the filter of the “mainstream media”. Brodkorb’s work on this case, Joy Baker’s work on the Wetterling case, Rich Neumeister’s ongoing work about civil liberties have lifted important issues that were either cold or ignored and given them a platform. Bloggers frequently do the accountability work that local outlets won’t do. Do you need to be a vigilient reader and “check their work”? Yep. But I would argue — on net — blogging has been a plus for our society.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/22/2016 - 11:58 am.

      Heartily Disagree

      There are bad blogs and irresponsible bloggers, and there are great bloggers who uncover things more traditional media outlets can’t or won’t report on. There are also terrible reporters and terrible outlets in the traditional media.

      The idea that the problem with journalism today is the result of work done outside of, and not regulated by, traditional media, is not supported by facts.

  4. Submitted by John Borger on 09/21/2016 - 12:13 pm.

    Every day a little death

    Of course he “committed journalism.” The issue is whether he did more than that, and the evidence of “more” seems pretty thin. The big problem with these orders as against news gathering is that the mindsets are different: a week or two can be moving fast in the courts and be stuck in amber for journalists.

    Years ago I successfully defended a TV reporter against a harassment charge. These instances are rare but a travers every time because delay brings real damage to providing information to the public.

  5. Submitted by tim johnson on 09/22/2016 - 01:59 pm.

    brodkorb kerfuffle

    Interesting post and comments.
    I think, however, the partisan aspect is underplayed: brodkorb is unpopular with MSMers more because of his (former?) Republican partisanship than his take-no-prisoners style….if he had been a DFL operative, he would be seen as a hero, or lovable naughty-sort-of-too-randy little brother and would be championed by MSMers….kind of a Minnesota Sid Blumenthal…..

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/22/2016 - 03:20 pm.

      Turncoat

      I don’t disagree, but it should be noted that Republican insiders hate him even more. He’s made enemies all over.

  6. Submitted by Robert Franklin on 09/23/2016 - 02:40 pm.

    Who’s a journalist?

    For many years, many — probably most — we journalists active in Minnesota freedom of information battles took the position that it didn’t matter, that journalists and ordinary citizens were entitled to the same rights of access. It was only in some cases of apparent necessity and with great reluctance that media groups accepted some special access restrictions. Do I remember correctly, John Borger? The access-for-everybody philosophy would resolve the blog issue.

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