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Skinny jeans firestorm raises a bigger question: Why does the Strib continue to feature C.J.'s column so prominently?

Cheryl Johnson
Star Tribune
C.J.

There’s an interesting second draft of the timeline behind “Who had the Wetterling story first?” But it will have to wait. Because in our celebrity absorbed times, a bizarre, tone-deaf comment about a TV reporter’s pants — her skinny jeans to be exact — has set off a social media firestorm.

Over past few days, the local Twitterverse exploded over Star Tribune gossip columnist C.J.’s latest, uh, exceedingly strange take on the appearance and performance of our local TV personalities. By Thursday the explosion had gone national.

Two days earlier, on Tuesday, C.J. filed a since-deleted column quarreling with KARE-­TV’s Jana Shortal’s choice of jeans as she reported on developments in the Wetterling case. The outrage was instantaneous.

As of dawn Friday, the Strib had taken down the column and both the paper and C.J. had issued apologies, while readers of Shortal’s Facebook page had rung up 46,000 “likes” and over 6,700 “shares.” Worth noting is the presence of several of C.J.’s Strib newsroom colleagues among the many attaching their names to expressions of anger and embarrassment over the column. 

That’s what you call “going viral.”

C.J., who briefly engaged in what for her was a fairly routine snarkfest with critics on Twitter, has now left on what I’m told is a scheduled two-week holiday. Her critics are demanding that this time Strib management make the vacation permanent.

The incident probably would not have carried the weight it has were it not for the context of the Wetterling story. (For many of us who saw Shortal’s report — call me woefully oblivious — the jeans never even registered.) But the combination of a gossip columnist making an issue of another woman’s clothing in the middle of a report on an enormously emotional crime story struck notes of sexism, cluelessness — which is to say a profound absence of newsworthiness — and a petty cruelty bordering on bullying, as many have said.

The “bullying” seems a bit of reach given the snarky shots TV reporters take all the time. But that’s the way Shortal saw it and said so in her response to C.J., or as she prefers, “You whose name I will never write again.”

The real issues, as I see them, are these: 

How did this particular column get past a Strib editor? And why — after years of similar incidents in columns notable for their intertwined qualities of inanity and petty cruelty — does the paper continue to feature C.J. as prominently as it does? Is she really providing so unique and valuable a service?

Via e­mail, Strib editor Rene Sanchez responded to my questions with this: “Here’s all I can tell you at this point: Shortly after this column item was published … we removed it because senior editors did not believe it met our standards. We have apologized privately and publicly to Jana Shortal, and to readers as well. It was a mistake and we’re sorry for it.” 

(Shortal’s boss at KARE-TV, Jane Helmke, would only say, “I know Jana appreciates the support she’s received and the apology from the Star Tribune.”)

Among the arguments for keeping C.J. on the gossip beat is actually a fairly simple one. Modern newsrooms, particularly in Minnesota, are still predominantly white. As the paper’s highest-profile African ­American employee, C.J. regularly features names and references to people of color, names that likely would not be appearing with any kind of regularity in other areas of the Strib. She provides the entirely valid and valuable service of providing coverage to a community and raising the paper’s profile among such readers.

You can argue that the same editorial strategy applies to high school hockey, hunting, gardening or any of a dozen other specialized beats. An argument could also be made that C.J.’s column is not specifically focused on people of color so much as it is simply targeting celebrities, hence … well, Jana Shortal, TV reporter in skinny jeans.

But a common enough complaint from (white) readers of C.J.'s column is, “Who are these people?”

The thing is, there was a time not so long ago when daily papers were hyper-aware and concerned with both the diversity of their own newsroom and the ethnic composition of the sources quoted by their reporters. Counts were actually kept.  

The more contacts with, quotes from and references to people in communities of color the better. And who’s to argue with that? Daily papers are general interest publications. Reporters who enhanced those numbers build a unique value for their papers and for themselves.

Yet the issue of C.J.’s race and gender is a minefield, perhaps one that only a fool wanders into. At a time when “a frank and open discussion of race” is supposedly part of our long overdue national therapy, however, the fact is that it’s a question directly attached to a more common one: “How does C.J. get away with this stuff?” It is so attached that it deserves to be asked out loud if only to try to get a definitive, on­-the-­record response from her managers.

If there’s an irony to C.J. and the paper taking so much heat over something as seemingly trivial as skinny jeans, it’s that there are so many earlier examples of much more cringe­ inducing cruelty. Several regimes prior to the current Strib management, C.J. memorably waded into the divorce proceedings of a former colleague, columnist Nick Coleman, with a perspective decidedly unflattering to him.

How that rose to the level of newsworthiness and got past an editor, I still don’t know. But it did, and bizarre, discomfiting copy that feels like personal grudges at work still does in C.J.’s columns. (I seriously doubt the Strib would print anything about the divorce proceedings of a sitting politician unless there was some clear hook of gross hypocrisy.)

Within the frequently ungenerous community of local journalists, comments are often heard about C.J.’s “odd,” “aloof,” “chip­-on­-the­-shoulder” personality, and how those qualities have worsened over the years she’s been doing the column. Obviously, it takes a special personality to both care about and write about the topics she does. But it is also worth remembering that C.J. routinely receives venomously racist correspondence from your neighbors — the reading public. If you’re horrified by the Strib’s anonymous commenters, C.J.’s in­box is far worse, according to people who have seen it. 

All that aside, and that’s a lot, my primary stylistic complaint about C.J.’s column and the way the Strib allows it to run, is not its numbing inanity: the local market is flooded with news of no great relevance or value to anyone. Rather, it is the lack of modulating humor. Just because it’s inane gossip with little or no news value, does that mean it has to read like the scoldings of disciplinarian? 

There was an era when gossip columns, full of catty references to the rich and famous, were irresistible reading. They allowed us to laugh, or snigger at the foibles of people we usually envied. There isn’t much of that around anymore. Daily newspapers have homogenized a lot of catty humor out the door (which explains some of the popularity of the internet). 

But I fail to see how homogenization excuses a column with a reputation for regularly being both inane and cruel, often simultaneously.

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Comments (31)

The larger question

…is one I've often asked myself as I peruse the morning paper, though I confess I rarely read C.J.'s work.

Two other relatively large questions occur to me, as well. First, why is this woman the highest-profile African-American employee at the 'Strib? I may need a dispensation for thinking this, but "gossip columnist" can't be very far up in the 'Strib's pecking order, can it? If that's the best the 'Strib can do in the way of "diversity hiring," their own HR Department needs an overhaul. Second, if it's an area of "news" that's important enough to take up the space it does, where it does, why not assign multiple reporters? Of course, it's also possible that a "gossip column" is itself as obsolete as a DC-3, given the number of online and television sources of similar insight and probity. C.J. does appear to specialize in snark and trivia, but so do a lot of other people with regular public exposure.

Two things...

a) I think it's probably also worth noting that Jana Shortal has written publicly on the issue of her clothes and her gender identity, so CJ's criticism comes off as not only clueless and petty, but also somewhat bigoted.

b) If CJ is the Strib's highest-profile member of the Black community, that is an issue to be rectified immediately by hiring more people of color. It is not a reason to continue her puerile and meanspirited column.

Imagine

Don Shelby reporting Paul and Sheila Wellstone's deaths while wearing jeans.
Walter Cronkite reporting President Kennedy's death while wearing jeans.
Barbara Walters or Katy Couric reporting anything in jeans.

imagine....

....Imagine, your child or your partner dies, and someone comments on the outfit worn by anyone associated with you. Go ahead, imagine that. Is it relevant? Would it be respectful? I doubt anyone besides CJ even 'saw' what Jana was wearing. Totally irrelevant. Totally irrelevant What CJ wrote and called attention to -- totally irrelevant. What Don or Walter or Barbara or Katy wore (or would have worn) -- totally irrelevant. Lambert gets it, if you think about it, you might.

Tolerance

Ms. Shortal is perfectly entitled to wear what she wishes on the air, and is also entitled to flaunt her style against the standards of professional on-air attire. We, as viewers are also free to choose what station that we choose to watch. If we prefer our news anchors to appear professional, act professional, and sound professional, we will choose a station that suits our preferences. I'm not sure why this thought should be dismissed, but perhaps that would take some thought.

They are talking about her clothes

No one said anything about her not acting or sounding professional

My trouble:

I've been trying to "get" Brian Lambert for decades. No offense here to Brian, but a reader must be on a somewhat restricted frequency to "get" him sometimes.

There remain some standards of professional dress. The TV news outlets remain one of very few that view attire as indication of professionalism and respect for the viewer audience. Those who deviate are noticed. Once upon a time, that small group came only from the weather dept.

Part of your trouble may be...

that Ms Shortal looks nothing like the traditional TV anchor or host. She has a small frame and short hair and never would have gotten this position "back in the day" when you weren't being disrespected by your TV news outlet. So "back in the day" they were hired first and foremost for their appearance and how that appearance met viewer expectations and not their ability or intelligence. Try closing your eyes and listening to her. You will hear an intelligent, articulate person. That is what professionalism is all about, in my opinion.

No trouble here...

Physical appearance shouldn't be at issue here...short, long, tall, black-white-brown, or otherwise. We've finally grown beyond most of these sub-cultural predispositions. Her intelligence and delivery should be at issue only if seriously sub-par. You clearly make her case on that count. I only ask field reporters to be reasonably tidy based on natural forces around them. Hurricane coverage does not dictate perfect hair or sharply creased slacks, for example. Sloppy dress is not received well by many viewers under normal conditions. I trust your perception.

TV is a visual medium, so on-camera appearance does count with respect to viewer expectations. Most male anchors wear coat and tie for that very reason. Voice quality counts much more in radio, certainly, as we are reminded in our daily TV watching. Of course, differences in dress "code" prevail by assignment...news desk vs. field reporting, naturally. Because TV people are traditionally shot only from waist up, jeans have been worn under the desk for decades, even shorts in summer. Field reporters have customarily kept some "camera cloths" in the truck. So, presenting professional image is not difficult. Who quibbles with good "dress" jeans these days.

It's ultimately up to the audience to approve or not, as you note. In business of any profession, dress traditionally indicates respect for the patient-client-customer, whomever. Too much has been made of this specific exposure. Your are indeed correct in observing the viewer as ultimate arbiter.

All professional communicators must be aware of "noise disturbances" that do interfere and detract from message. For many viewers, dress and overall tidiness are important. Many of them are too lazy to listen through the distraction of various "noise" sources. As one who grew up with Dave Moore making jest of "Chrome-dome Kraehling," I find simple fun lacking in most everything regarding TV "news" these days.
[Today, viewers would tweet, e-mail and call the station in thousands to know if Bud is undergoing chemo.]

In the words of the great Linda Ellerbee: And so it goes...

Branding

Ms. Shortal has a brand on TV. In return for providing a valuable service (reporting news in a professional manner), she has been allowed to break the mold. If there wasn't value in that, she'd have either had to suck it up and wear the "uniform" or find somewhere else to use her talent. Part of a brand is consistency. For those who don't care about her brand, but watch her for the reporting, they likely would not have noticed a change in the brand. For those who watch her and appreciate her brand, they probably wouldn't have given two hoots what she wore. So, for those that matter to KARE, the jeans wouldn't have been an issue one way or the other.

And for those who do care, like it or not, you're a dying breed. Have you been to church lately? Notice the holey jeans (nope, I don't mean holy) and teeshirts? Whatever it means to dress less than "professionally", the bottom line is this: things have changed. Either you go with the flow or you spend a lot of time clucking your tongue and shaking your head, or just plain being grumpy about it.

Personally, I'd prefer that news professionals provided more substance than eye candy. And maybe that's what the profession needs because I haven't been able to stand watching TV news for years. So, I don't. If TV news is going to get eyeballs, especially mine, they're going to have to do something more than put pretty Amelia and handsome Frank in front of me and assume that's enough.

Quite frankly, the existence of CJ's column outside of the National Enquirer is just plain dumb. That the Strib may have kept her out of a sense of "diversity" is even dumber. It's not that difficult to find diverse talent. Maybe the problem is that the Strib isn't an attractive enough destination for talented people.

Things have changed

Yes, church attire has changed. If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?
There was a time when students who entered college didn't need a few semesters of remedial classes to get themselves up to high school graduation level. We should go with the flow?
Citizens used to look up to their neighborhood police officers. Now, they may be more likely to spit on them (while capturing the action on video). That does make me shake my head.
I try not to be grumpy and offer a smile to those I meet each day, all the while moving ever closer towards death, and repeating to myself: "The 10 Commandments are not suggestions".

Ah, yes...

The "age of awareness" does seem to slide along a scale, doesn't it? Can we imagine how "grumpy" an old guy of 70 must have been in 1930? That dude was born in 1860!

And some current geezers believe they've survived rapidly advancing technology and information exchange....

Media commentary

It's a bit of 'inside pool' sometimes, listening to or reading folks who primarily comment on other media topics or personalities, but I find it a fascinating beat.

I'm looking forward to the Britt/Brauer podcast covering the CJ debacle.

What went on below the desk?

We probably don't know what Don Shelby was wearing because the old sets hid the lower portion of news personality. The story used to be that Al Austin, who came across as one of the most serious of the local reporters, used to wear shorts on air. Given Don Shelby's post retirement appearances, I would guess he wore jeans on at least a few occasions.

Cronkite delivered the news of Kennedy's death in shirt sleeves (no jacket). That might have seemed a bit too casual if we expect all news anchors to appear in jacket and tie. To be fair, that was a breaking story.

There was a time when all women news anchors were expected to wear jackets like their male counterparts. These days most of the local news teams appear in sleeveless dresses during the warmer months. Is that also too casual? It seems to be the widely accepted news uniform.

Shortal was not reporting this on a traditional newscast

The one thing that really is going unnoticed is that this column was written about Jana's appearance not on KARE's traditional 5, 6 or 10 pm newcasts, but on the Breaking the News show that appears at 6:30 as an alternative longer form journalism newscast. If there was ever a show where jeans were acceptable, it would be on Breaking the News.

I agree

I agree with Ray, Elsa and Tom. Why put up with the snarkiness unless there is compensating newworthiness?

Question . . .

Is there any rule or maxim in Journalism that says when your appearance, opinion or method of delivering information becomes a bigger story than the original story you are supposed to be covering, that something has gone wrong ?

Why jeans?

I didn't read CJ's withdrawn piece, nor the details surrounding it. But it seems there might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Jana Shortal's wearing jeans while reporting: maybe she was called to respond to breaking news while wearing 'normal', everyday clothes, and elected to respond quickly to the situation rather than take the time to first dress to CJ's (and apparently Tom Anderson's) standards. Perhaps?

Why not?

I believe she was dressing in her normal fashion. I think that is a "perfectly reasonable explanation"..

Columnists

There are several columnists at the Strib that make me question the value of their work on a weekly basis. Of course there will be columnists who I may disagree with ideologically or morally, but fundamentally I can see the value in a diverse array of viewpoints. But the columnists I have a problem with (and there are a good handful) are those who present nothing challenging, present no new ideas. They simple peddle nonsense and filler. Just this month alone, I've stopped short reading the paper and asked myself, "What the hell is this even about?"

Waste of space

I don't read CJ because her column is a waste of time. Why can't the Strib ever figure out she's a waste of limited space? She must know which closets contain her bosses' skeletons.

she is a bully and an embarrassment

I have worked on many film and TV sets in the twin cities in the last 20 years and have had a few dumb encounters with C.J. One especially comes to mind. We were shooting a run of the mill promo for wcco news.We were an independent local production company. On this day we were shooting Don Shelby in the atrium of the courthouse in minneapolis. We were just working. It was no biggie.

At some point C.J arrives and proceeds to interrupt shooting by being affronted that no one cared who she was. She wanted to talk to Don Shelby. She really wanted to talk to Don Shelby. As she stood at the perimeter trying to interrupt our work, he gave her a nod and a tiny wave. Like hey, got it, you're here. Production crew were circumventing the public past where we were shooting. This included C.J. We were in a time crunch and she wasn't given access until we were done shooting. There was nothing to write about! Still, the next day in her column C.j. proceeded to write disparaging things about several crew members. She focussed In particular on our producer who was just doing her job.

Please Strib, fire her or give her a job where no one has to listen to her narcissistic, boring crap.

My god. Why does anyone care

My god. Why does anyone care about how Shortal dresses or what C.J. has to say about it? That something like this can "go viral" is more cause for alarm than the trivial event itself.

Exactly

I was just about to make a similar comment.

1) If CJ's column is garbage (which it likely is), then don't read it. Simple.

2) We're talking about a gossip columnist criticizing a local television news personality. Could there be two more inconsequential vocations at play here?

3) If it's offensive to the Wetterling Family, then it's entirely their offense to take and make public.

4) Point two.

5) That purveyors of infotainment publish twaddle shouldn't surprise anyone.

Well...

I'm not sure I've ever read a CJ column all the way through. Aside from the inane nature of the column I've always thought that CJ is just a really awful writer. I do remember looking at sentences and paragraphs of hers and wondering "What the heck?" Whatever, I just assume someone else must be reading her stuff so live and let live.

The thing that puzzles me about this story and its reaction is that I'm not sure why regular CJ readers would expect anything else? Isn't this typical CJ stuff?

By the way, I've imagined all kinds of people reporting all kinds of really serious stuff while wearing jeans and it doesn't bother me at all. I mean what are you saying? If someone reports something wearing something you disapprove, you're not going to take the story seriously or you're going to be soooo distracted you won't be able to focus on the news? Kind of shallow don't you think? I have no idea what people on BBC radio are wearing, or what folks at Minnpost wear while they write, but don't let that distract me from the news they report.

As far as the Minnpost writers go..

...I assume they're still in their pajamas. Now that's distracting. :)

CJ and hate

How does CJ's train wreck writing get past Strib editors? One reason, sub-conscious and sometimes very conscious loathing and disrespect of their TV media competitors. Anything that can hold up local TV journalists to mock, ridicule and put down has always been fair game with CJ. (full disclosure, I'm a former reporter who has never been featured by CJ)

More importantly, how has CJ gotten away with similar mock and ridicule of Prince lo these 30+ years. The guy is (was) a local treasure and our biggest celebrity. Virtually every word she's written about him over the years is not informative, and NEVER funny. After his death I urged editors to put her on hiatus,....and she was gone for awhile. Hopefully also gone is her painful, clumsy and never has been funny euphemism for Prince "Cymbolina." How that got past an editor about 300 times is a better question.

CJ should be FIRED

I'm not one to advocate people losing their jobs, but come on....CJ? Her column is stupid, unreadable and an embarassment to the Twin Cities. If the Star/Tribune is keeping this hack on payroll because she is the only black in the newsroom, shame on them - isn't that reverse discrimination? How is that helping the black community? I cringe everytime I see her column - and her constant harassment of Prince was bordering on lawsuit territory. And by calling him "Cymbolina" is in itself is disrespectful to the LGBT community - as if being feminine is wrong and cause for ridicule. Yes, fire this woman - send her packing. Should we start a petition?

Prince and CJ

Prince wrote a song about what a terrible person CJ is.

Fire CJ Now!

I will add my name to the roster of people who never read CJ's column. I'm not denying that I have read it, but it has been many years since I cared about which local news anchor was wearing a bottle-green bowler hat. Just not my thing.

There are, apparently, many readers who are interested, and that is why she is allowed to stay on. Her brand of dreck sells newspapers. The newspaper buying public likes celebrity gossip and whatever it is Sid Hartman "writes." People may gripe about the lack of real news, or the surfeit of fluff that makes up the Strib's content, but it's what the buying public wants.

One should wonder ....

How the Strib arrives at choosing and supporting any columnist these days. I am frankly more interested in the personalities choose. To make regular "appearances" in the Editorial Opinion section. Hardly seems to be much variety there. I for one have never read a paper for the gossip column. That being said the Editorial Opinion section seems to be devolving in that direction.