The Minneapolis Star Tribune closed the barn door a little last week.
On Thursday, the newspaper's editor Nancy Barnes distributed a newsroom memo announcing that the paper's columnists should refrain from political commentary until November 5. She thought it was best if the paper's cadre of opinion makers "refrain[ed] from partisan political commentary in their columns ... at least until after the election." And that columnists would "'stand down' on the kind of column that's an overtly partisan take."
I always thought columnists were paid to express their opinions and to share with readers unvarnished insights on the issues of the day, electoral politics being just about at the top of that list. But if that's how the editor of the Strib (as it is known locally) wanted to handle the home stretch, to go ultra-civil, than that's certainly her right.
What raised eyebrows in the land of Minnesota Nice was that Barnes' memo landed on desks (or in inboxes) the day after newspaper columnist Katherine Kersten uncorked a sidewinder that tagged Al Franken, running for the U.S. Senate in the state, as being anti-Christian, and specifically anti-Catholic.
Cherry-picking from his three-decade career as a comedy writer and satirist, Kersten highlighted a handful of cracks and claimed he was unfit for the Senate because he was a "slanderer of Christianity." ("Vulgar mockery of Christians: Is this what we want in a U.S. senator?" read the headline.)
For instance, Kersten was deeply offended by a skit idea for Saturday Night Live, which never aired, in which Franken suggested a series of dogs, played by cast members, confessing to a priest. (I'm Catholic, and just the premise of that skit made me laugh.)
In another book, Franken described greeting a New York audience with the words, "Isn't Cardinal O'Connor an asshole?" (Trust me, in New York in the 1990s, that was not as provocative a statement as it seems today; O'Connor was an extraordinarily political and, at times, divisive figure.)
Then, in a deceptive bit of wordcraft, Kersten wrote, "In today's surreal political climate, a guy who lobs insults like these has a shot at one the highest political offices in the land."
Note the verb tense: "lobs," as in the present tense. As in, Franken's still in the comedy business and looking for punch lines at the expense of Christians, and especially Catholics. (Franken's daughter quickly reminded readers in a Star Tribune online forum that her father had been married to a Catholic for 33 years.)
In a state where just 0.9 percent of the population is Jewish (like Franken), the implications of Kersten's column -- that Christian slanderer Franken might not be able to represent Minnesota's citizens -- was likely not lost on many readers. It was a loaded and wildly unfair accusation to make.
And yet, it was only after that vicious attack had been unfurled in the Star Tribune -- and unfurled during the closing weeks of an extremely tight senatorial race -- that the newspaper's editor decided it was time to muzzle any further campaign commentary from the paper's columnists.
Adding to the irony (or the double standard; take your pick) was the fact that Please, people, no partisanship memo was distributed the very same day the Star Tribune printed a front-page article about GOP operative Jeff Larson, who found himself at the center of the Sarah Palin shopping spree scandal. (It was Larson's credit card that got burned up by Neiman Marcus to the tune of $75,000, courtesy of the Palin camp.)
Larson just happens to be one of the closest and most-connected Minnesota political allies of Franken's Republican opponent, Sen. Norm Coleman. But rather than present the story as an embarrassment to Coleman, the Strib's article about Larson was a valentine, complete with "Clark Kent" in the headline.
As the local blog MNpublius noted:
It is an unbelievable puff piece. Here's some excerpts: "smart Clark Kent," "Superman," "low-profile guru," "entrepreneur," "just the guy who arranges the phone calls," "rising star," "visionary," "nothing mysterious about him," "practices his Beltway-centered trade far outside the Beltway," "disciple of Ronald Reagan," "shoots straight," "honest," and "keeps his nose clean."
The story included only friendly quotes from Republicans, even though the operative has been tied to sleazy campaign practices in the past, including misleading robo-calls.
From the Strib:
He denies any involvement with the nationwide spate of "robo-calls" trashing Obama, although he acknowledges that FLS Connect is behind the live-operator calls Minnesota residents have received in the past week on behalf of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Larson denied any involvement in the robo-calls despite the fact he owns the company that been placing the robo-calls?
The role of the dailies
Even with their dwindling circulation, big-city newspapers can still exert tremendous influence during local election season, especially in a state like Minnesota that has just a handful of major newspapers. But are they being fair?
Blogger Matt Stoller recently made a compelling case that The Seattle Times had its thumb on the scale while covering the very close race between netroots candidate Darcy Burner and an established Republican Dave Reichert.
The same may be happening in Minnesota.
Like lots of major dailies, the Strib has been buffeted in recent years by staff cutbacks and accusations of a liberal bias. It seems that the effects of both are on display in the Franken/Coleman campaign.
Newsroom cutbacks make it more difficult to provide smart, in-depth election coverage. Perhaps more telling at the Strib, though, has been the long-running war conservatives have waged against the paper, led by bloggers such as Ed Morrissey, Hugh Hewitt, and those at Power Line.
Their relentless cries of liberal media bias appear to have paid off. As one Strib veteran put it last year:
The right-wing blog voices that were bashing the paper a couple of years ago, Hugh Hewitt and the rest, have gotten pretty much everything they wanted. They wanted to get rid of people like [editorial board members] Jim Boyd and Susan Albright and their editorial policy, and they've succeeded at that. Now there won't be editorials about the war and global warming; they'll write about local issues like zoning conflicts in Coon Rapids instead. They wanted the paper to hire a conservative columnist, and they got that. From here on out, it looks like the Strib becomes the conservative, suburbs-oriented paper.
Indeed, "The [editorial] page has shucked its rep as a lefty lightning rod," wrote David Brauer, a Strib-watcher at MinnPost.com. A recent Star Tribune editorial opposing the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act signaled the sea change at the newspaper.
So did the paper's support for offshore drilling. That raised even more eyebrows because the Strib's parent, Avista Capital Partners, is heavily invested in offshore drilling, although the cheerleading drill-baby-drill editorial did not disclose that fact.
Also note that the newspaper's editorial page has not condemned the remarks of local Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who recently went on MSNBC and claimed she was concerned about Barack Obama's "anti-American views." The comments erupted into a campaign-changing controversy, with Bachmann's challenger banking nearly $1 million in donations that flooded into his coffers after Bachmann's outburst. The Strib's editorial page, though, has remained mum.
In fact, it has moved so far to the right that the debate online among Minnesota pol-watchers was whether the paper would endorse Coleman or independent candidate Dean Barkley. Franken, the conventional wisdom went, had little chance of landing the Trib nod. (And they were right; Coleman won the newspaper's endorsement.)
Unfortunately, that tilt seems to be spilling over into the Star Tribune's news coverage. There was the way the newspaper buried Hillary Clinton's recent visit on behalf of Franken on page B4 even though her rally appearance garnered huge local television coverage. The way it included a disparaging quote from Coleman's spokesperson in its article about Clinton's visit, yet when Rudy Giuliani recently came to town to rally support for Coleman, the Franken campaign was not quoted in that article.
And there was the way the daily recently published an anti-Franken letter to the editor that claimed he was not "good for the country" or good for Christians, and the letter writer lived in Tennessee. (Talk about casting a wide net from Minneapolis.)
The paper has also looked away from Coleman's woes. Over the summer, when it became known Coleman was renting an apartment in Washington, D.C. from Jeff Larson (the same guy from the Palin shopping spree story) and that Coleman's rent appeared to be well below market value, the Strib ran a front-page story about the apartment but never mentioned Larson's name or addressed the question of whether the rent represented a sweetheart deal. (Readers had to go to page B7 for a separate article that day to read those salient details.)
At the time, there were also questions about whether Coleman had paid his utility bills for the apartment or whether they had been comped by Larson. A Coleman campaign spokesman told reporters in August he would try to produce one of the bills to curious reporters who wanted to know if the bills were in the name of Larson or even his company. But three months later, no utility bill has been produced, and the Strib appears to have stopped asking.
Meanwhile, the paper pretty much ignored Coleman's embarrassing Suitgate when it popped up earlier this month. The story erupted when Harper's Ken Silverstein claimed that wealthy Coleman donor Nasser Kazeminy had, over the years, bought expensive suits for the politician at Neiman Marcus. (Again with the Neiman Marcus?) The campaign refused to respond to the report, and the story peaked when Coleman's spokesman appeared at a press conference and 12 times in three minutes refused to answer directly whether Kazeminy had ever purchased expensive suits for Coleman. The Washington Post quickly named the cringe-inducing back-and-forth with reporters "perhaps, the most awkward press conference in the history of politics."
Did the story border on the trivial? Sure. Was it the kind of story that can change a campaign? Absolutely. Polls since Suitgate broke have shown momentum moving in Franken's direction.
In fact, it quickly became a national story online and on cable TV, and one of the Strib's reporters was invited onto MSNBC to discuss the details and the campaign implications. The irony was the reporter had only mentioned the kerfuffle in two paragraphs at the very bottom on a campaign update. The Strib didn't really care about Suitgate.
To this day, those two paragraphs, 53 words in total, represents the Star Tribune's entire print news team coverage of that story -- an embarrassing tale that could cost Coleman his Senate seat.