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A new reality: After 36 years, Pat Kessler steps away from day-to-day political coverage for WCCO

In the post-Hubert Humphrey era of Minnesota politics, Kessler has covered them all, from Mondale to Paul Wellstone to Jesse Ventura to Michele Bachman to Al Franken to Tim Walz.

Pat Kessler
Pat Kessler plans to step back from day-to-day political coverage once the presidential election is decided.

Reality Check: WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler is the only member of the State Capitol press corps who knows how to milk a cow.

The truth? We didn’t poll everyone so we don’t really know. We’re sure only about Kessler, the soon-to-be-retiring political reporter who grew up on a 240-acre dairy farm in Clay County, in northwestern Minnesota. Yes, he knows his way around a milking station — and more. “One of my chores was cleaning out the barn,” Kessler said. “You know what that means. Lots of manure.”

It says something about Kessler that he resisted the obvious punchline, that shoveling manure prepared him for covering politics. But that’s Kessler, a Macalester College grad wrapping up 36 years on the state political beat for WCCO. His signature “Reality Check” segments, begun in 1996, won three regional Emmys and predated snopes.com and most other political fact-checking services.

Though the promos for WCCO’s election night coverage called it “Pat Kessler’s Last Campaign,” that wouldn’t actually pass a Reality Check.

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It’s true that Kessler, 67, plans to step back from day-to-day political coverage once the presidential election is decided — “whenever that is,” he said. But he’ll return for special events and political analysis, tapping his 40 years combined experience with WCCO and Minnesota Public Radio. Sort of like Tom Brokaw’s emeritus gig for NBC News. 

That will give Kessler more time with his wife, FOX 9 news director Marian Davey Kessler, and their two children. “I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years,” Kessler said. “Not because I’m dissatisfied, not because there’s anything pushing me out. I just wanted to evolve into another phase.”

COVID-19 media restrictions limiting reporters’ access to the Capitol and its occupants nudged Kessler’s decision along. The best reporters love the random conversations in hallways and back offices that lead to stories. Kessler is a master of that, relying his eyes and ears plus unmatched institutional knowledge. Now, it’s Zoom calls and not enough interaction.   

“We’re all trying to deal with COVID and figure out new ways of reporting in the journalism disruption period,” Kessler said. “That did have an effect on my decision. But I’ve got a great life and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Kessler joined WCCO in 1984, the year former vice president Walter Mondale lost his presidential bid to incumbent Ronald Reagan. Retired WCCO anchor Don Shelby said Kessler’s lack of TV experience didn’t concern him. Radio reporters often transition easily to TV, he said, and Kessler adapted quickly to video storytelling. Plus, Kessler knew politics. 

“Pat had, and has, a natural charisma that really translated well,” Shelby said. “And his authenticity was beyond measure. He was Pat Kessler from the day he first appeared on the air.”

By 1997, when Tom Hauser took over the politics beat for KSTP-TV, Kessler was firmly entrenched as local TV’s top political reporter. Now the two are friends, a byproduct of 23 years occupying adjacent offices in the Capitol press area. 

Hauser said he usually could tell when Kessler had an exclusive, because Kessler shut the door of his office. Hauser often did the same whenever he thought he had Kessler scooped — which, he said, wasn’t as often as he hoped. “I remember how intimidating that was when I started covering the Capitol,” Hauser said. “I was this young fresh-faced nobody going up against Kessler, who was older than Mount Rushmore. Everybody knew him. He had so many sources. I never knew what was coming at me one day to next when I started there. I’d like to think that after a number of years I started to level the playing field, but I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten there.”

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In the post-Hubert Humphrey era of Minnesota politics, Kessler has covered them all, from Mondale to Paul Wellstone to Jesse Ventura to Michele Bachmann to Al Franken to Tim Walz. When Ventura sparred with the Capitol press corps, Kessler was one of his so-called “media jackals.” Recently, WCCO unearthed a classic video of Ventura barking at Kessler

In 2000, when an erstwhile independent presidential candidate named Donald Trump came to Minnesota to ask Ventura and campaign manager Dean Barkley for pointers, Kessler chronicled it. He recalled Trump flew in on a huge jet with TRUMP emblazoned on the side, then headed to a Brooklyn Park fundraiser in a white stretch limo. The Trump quotes give a hint of what was to come

Politics and political coverage evolved dramatically in Kessler’s time at WCCO, largely due to social media, with Twitter and Facebook spewing a daily firehose of misinformation, outright lies and personal attacks. Kessler could tape 20 Reality Checks a day and still not keep up with it all. That makes campaign coverage much more difficult.

“When we started doing Reality Check, we were beginning to see the rise and the power of political consultants and political operatives and machines,” he said. “They were putting things on our air in television commercials that were clearly not true. As reporters, we don’t often break that third wall and say, ‘Hey, that’s not true.’ At that time, it was unusual.

“Now we’re at the point where there’s so much disinformation, and from the highest level of politicians, that news consumers are uncertain about what’s real and not real — more than ever before. We get past what is I think acceptable political rhetoric, where you can spin it in one way or another, and people can accept that. But if the basic facts are not agreed upon, that this is true and this is not, then where are we as voters? That’s the issue.”

And that’s your Reality Check.