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How the Star Tribune slants political news

Although the news media are not as monolithic as they used to be, we still have a system in which local news in Minneapolis and its suburbs is dominated by the Star Tribune newspaper (Sunday circulation of a half million readers) and, in St. Paul, by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and by the four main privately owned commercial television stations: Channel 4 (WCCO-TV), Channel 5 (KSTP-TV), Channel 9 (KMSP-TV), and Channel 11 (KARE-TV). The television stations report relatively little political news except on election night. In Minneapolis, that leaves the Star Tribune as the main provider of political news, affecting the outcome of elections.

Given the Star Tribune’s near monopoly position in Minneapolis, it’s important that political reporting be balanced and fair. Democratic elections become a farce if the same institution that communicates information to the public relevant to their voting decisions actively sides with one candidate or another.

Of course, reporters make the normal judgment calls which may affect candidates in different ways. Some bias is inevitable. We are talking, however, of consistent and intrusive bias. That is a problem for democracy. That a privately owned business, a commercial newspaper, can effectively dictate or, at least, substantially influence the outcome of elections to public office is itself an issue that needs to be addressed politically.

Look at it this way: Suppose there are two basketball teams, Team A and Team B. One team (A) has a person with a video recorder who shoots the game. This is the official record of the game. The final score of the actual game is: Team B, 74 points; Team A, 71 points. However, the person with the video camera erases three of the baskets made by Team B players and splices the tape together. The three baskets are simply lost. The final score is now: Team A, 71 points; Team B, 68 points. The record now shows that Team A has won, thanks to manipulation by tape technicians working for Team A. No one would care to watch basketball games that are this dishonest in the reported results.

Now, of course, commercial newspapers are not the official record keepers of elections in Minnesota - the Secretary of State’s office is. However, they do control the flow of information to voters. They create the public image of what is happening politically in the community. Individuals cast their votes on the basis of information (or impressions based on information) that they have about the candidates. It is, therefore, important to separate the reporting function from the campaigns.

How does it work in practice? Let’s take an example. The Star Tribune is widely perceived to show bias in favor of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. There are even some personal ties: The DFL Mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, used to be a reporter for the Star Tribune; his sister-in-law may still work there. The father (Jim Klobuchar) of an incumbent Democratic (DFL) U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar, was a long-time Star Tribune columnist.

On the other hand, both news reporting and editorials make it clear that Star Tribune reporters and editorial writers do not think much of third parties such as the Independence Party. Candidates running for this party are regarded as spoilers who steal votes away from the DFL; or else they are fringe characters, hardly worth noting. The newspaper is always looking for signs that this party will fade into nonexistence. There is a drum beat in its reporting that expresses such themes.

Sometimes bias is exhibited in what the newspaper chooses not to report as well as what is reported. Let’s take two examples: the 5th District (Minnesota) campaigns for U.S. Representative in 2006 and 2008.

In 2006:

The long-time incumbent Congressman, Martin O. Sabo, decided not to seek reelection. Keith Ellison, a state representative, won the DFL endorsement to succeed him at the DFL 5th District convention. The Republicans nominated Alan Fine, a University of Minnesota business professor who ran a sharp-edged ideological campaign against Ellison virtually accusing him of supporting terrorism. The Independence Party nominated Tammy Lee, a political newcomer who was intelligent and photogenic and who had assembled an impressive group of campaign volunteers.

It’s true that early in the campaign the Star Tribune ran some stories with negative information about Keith Ellison. For instance, he had neglected to pay a number of parking tickets. However, this was not the type of issue that decides Congressional elections.

The Republican candidate, Fine, waged an ideologically polarizing campaign that would limit his vote-getting potential to a certain hard core. Tammy Lee, on the other hand, had few enemies and many friends, especially in the DFL. She had once worked for a Democratic Senator in Washington. She had the endorsement of a son of the DFL’s iconic U.S. Senator, Paul Wellstone, and the implicit endorsement of Congressman Martin Sabo, the man being replaced. In a heavily DFL district, the only way anyone could beat Keith Ellison would be for one of the candidacies to collapse - Alan Fine’s - and for the non-Ellison voters to rally behind the other, Tammy Lee.

For that to happen, however, the public needed to know that the race was winnable. Such knowledge could only come through polls. In 2006, the Star Tribune did extensive polling on the Governor’s race and the race in the 6th Congressional District where, like the 5th, an incumbent was being replaced. It did not publish any polls on the 5th District race until several days before the general election - too late for this information to have much impact.

That poll showed Tammy Lee and Alan Fine running neck and neck in the low 20s and Keith Ellison in the mid 50s. The Independence Party candidate for Governor, Peter Hutchinson, was polling in the single digits - around 7% to 8% - a month before the general election. The 6th district IP candidate was polling about the same. Voters could reasonably assume that Tammy Lee’s numbers would be in that (single-digit) range.

Therefore, the fact that the Star Tribune neglected to publish any polls on the race for a vacant Congressional seat in the 5th district withheld a piece of information essential to propelling Tammy Lee’s campaign to victory. Given two or three weeks’ time to affect public opinion, evidence of her unprecedented level of support might have galvanized the Lee campaign, attracted more campaign donations, and, perhaps most importantly, set up the potential Cinderella story of an attractive underdog candidate beating the powerful DFL machine. It did not happen.

Another evidence that the Star Tribune withheld important information that might have helped Tammy Lee’s campaign concerned an event that came to light two days before the general election. Google searches of “Tammy Lee“ turned up in the top rankings a website that resembled Tammy Lee’s official campaign website in appearance but was quite different. This website had Tammy Lee and her supporters saying how important it was to keep a black man from being elected to Congress. Lee’s lawn signs might reportedly be ordered from David Duke. It even referred to Lee’s vagina. The mystery website was either a grotesque parody of Lee’s campaign website or an outright smear.

On the Sunday before the general election, Tammy Lee’s campaign held a press conference to disclose what it had learned about this website. A computer expert volunteering in her campaign had traced the fake website back to Chris Stewart, a DFL candidate for the Minneapolis school board who was a personal friend and political ally of Keith Ellison. By implication, Ellison’s friends, if not his campaign, were linked to this spurious website. It was a political bombshell, perfectly timed, which might have eaten into Ellison’s support and given Tammy Lee the margin of victory - if the story was reported. It was not.

The Lee campaign had delivered the goods on Chris Stewart but the Star Tribune, and other media following its lead, simply ignored the story. The reason given was that the Star Tribune, to have a balanced story, needed to know Chris Stewart’s side of the story; and Stewart was not answering his phone. So precious time slipped by before the election and no stories appeared. After the election, which Ellison comfortably won, the Star Tribune did run a story or two on this unfortunate incident. There was even an editorial in the Star Tribune calling on Stewart to reign his newly won seat on the school board. But that decision was his alone to make. Both he and Ellison were now safely in office.

The Star Tribune is known for delivering timely political bombshells when conservative candidates are involved. Perhaps the best known was its 1990 story, reported several weeks before the general election, that the right-wing Republican candidate for Governor, Jon Grunseth, had swum nude in a swimming pool with several teenage girls at July 4th party. That front-page disclosure was enough to persuade Gunseth to withdraw from the gubernatorial race. (A write-in candidate, Arne Carlson, replaced him on the ballot and eventually won.) But where liberal DFL candidates are linked to potential scandals, the Star Tribune adopts a different standard for what is considered newsworthy.

In 2008:

Keith Ellison, the DFL candidate, was now a first-term Congressman running for reelection. The Republican candidate was Barb Davis White, a former minister. Bill McGaughey filed as an Independence Party candidate.

Here the record of biased reporting is more obvious. During the period between candidate filings in July and the general election in November, the Star Tribune neglected to publish any stories on the 5th District Congressional race until the last week before the election. Meanwhile, it published at least forty stories mentioning Keith Ellison, invariably in a favorable or neutral light. The Star Tribune also published numerous stories during that period on Congressional races in other districts, notably the 3rd and 6th districts, even though its headquarters are in Minneapolis and its readership is centered in the 5th district.

The only Star Tribune article on the 5th district Congressional race appeared in the Metro section on Monday, October 27th. It was headlined: “Ellison has fewer foes and a far easier path to victory”. At least two thirds of this article was about Keith Ellison. McGaughey’s candidacy was covered in a single sentence: “William McGaughey, a landlord who is a frequent candidate, hadn’t raised enough (money) to file federal campaign finance reports.”

The last two sentences of the article were a hatchet job on Barb Davis White: “But her campaign’s paltry treasury didn’t stop Davis White from spending more than $400 (reminiscent of John Edwards’ $400 haircut) in campaign funds at a Minneapolis hair and wig shop on hair extensions. ‘I have pictures to take. I have to be at places,’ she said in explaining why that was a campaign expense. (Read the entire article at this link.)

The Star Tribune reporter, Steve Brandt, was present at a debate between the three 5th District Congressional candidates at the Jordan New Life Community church in north Minneapolis on October 20th. It was, to date, the only public debate between the three candidates although several others (all unreported in the Star Tribune) were held in television studios. Keith Ellison was represented in this debate by his teenage son, Isaiah. Davis White and McGaughey represented themselves. It was explained that Ellison was on his way back to Washington to cast an important vote; another report placed him at a fundraiser for another candidate in South Minneapolis while the debate was going on. In any event, the Star Tribune article did not mention it.

The Star Tribune’s biased reporting extended to its on-line version, The “MyVote” column to the left purported to list “all” the candidates running for particular offices. Until Bill McGaughey complained to the editor ten days before the election, only Keith Ellison and Barb Davis White were listed in that column as candidates running for Congress in the 5th District.

The final results of the election in the 5th district were: Keith Ellison, 71% of the vote; Barb Davis White, 22% of the vote; Bill McGaughey, 7% of the vote.