Home Field Advantage

Why the Star Tribune is cheerleading for a taxpayer-financed ballpark

As a newspaper story, covering the debate over a new Minnesota Twins stadium should be like shooting fish in a barrel. It's got all the right elements: a business scion blackmailing the state for a bigger slice of the corporate welfare pie; politicians who've never just said no; a PR apparatus that plays faster and looser with the facts than a used-car salesman; and a public that can't think of a good enough reason to subsidize a billionaire.

And yet, popular perceptions are that the Twin Cities' newspaper of record has acted as a cheerleader for the stadium proposal. Indeed, the Star Tribune's editorial page has gone so far as to castigate individual politicians and writers for scrutinizing the project too closely, while its sports columnists have shrilly upbraided the public for its failure to see why subsidizing major league sports is the finest kind of capitalism.

The day after the Twins first asked taxpayers to subsidize a new outdoor baseball stadium to the tune of some $250 million, Star Tribune sports columnist Patrick Reusse--usually the paper's resident curmudgeon--cheered the state's negotiators for driving such a good bargain for the public. The next day, his colleague Sid Hartman one-upped him.

"Never has the owner of a football or baseball team offered a package such as the $158 million gift and 49 percent interest in the team that Twins owner Carl Pohlad has offered the state as his contribution toward the building of a $354 million baseball stadium," Hartman enthused, before delivering a threat that not even the Twins had put quite so bluntly. "The Minnesota politicians who make the decisions will have to decide if they want major league baseball. My prediction is that the Twins will be in Charlotte, N.C., by the year 2000 if a new stadium is not built." Even after learning that the "gift" was actually a loan, with the public's repayment to Pohlad guaranteed, the Strib's columnists continued to laud the deal, exhorting fans to get involved in selling it to politicians.

A number of possible reasons why the Strib's coverage has seemed more fawning than hard-edged have been bandied about by local media watchers. Corporate conflict of interest--land owned by the Strib's parent company could end up as a stadium site--may have come into play. Or it could be journalism's long tradition of rooting for the home team--which, after all, sells papers. It could also be mainstream journalism's tendency to let public officials set its agenda, leaving the opposition out of the process. Likewise, it can't be a secret in the newsroom that Publisher Joel Kramer favors helping the Twins get their field of dreams.

But media critics and other observers have noted an even more fundamental problem with the Strib's coverage of the stadium debate. The Newspaper of the Twin Cities appears to have fully accepted team owner Carl Pohlad's definition of "the problem": that in the days of free agency, team owners can't afford top-notch players without the extra income generated by the skyboxes and food courts of a taxpayer-financed stadium. Without the players, the logic goes, the team can't win; if they can't win, they can't turn a profit; if they can't turn a profit they will have to leave town, knocking the Twin Cities from among the ranks of "major league cities." Thus, Minnesota taxpayers should step up to the plate and help the state's fourth-richest citizen have his ballpark frank and eat it, too.

While there have been plenty of celebratory columns and editorials in the Star Tribune since the stadium flap began, no twist in the saga of the retractable roof does as much to illustrate the paper's performance as the days surrounding the Pioneer Press's biggest scoop on the beat.

When the Twins unveiled the proposal they'd been hammering out behind closed doors for months, negotiators bragged that it was one of the most generous agreements yet struck between a pro sports franchise and a local government. In addition to contributing $82.5 million of the $350 million cost, Pohlad was giving the people of Minnesota a 49 percent stake in the team. But two days later, the Pi Press revealed that Pohlad's "contribution" was not a gift, but a loan. Worse, the 49 percent stake in the team Pohlad would give the state would leave taxpayers liable for stanching the Twins' losses--past and future--if the new stadium didn't make the team profitable. What the Pi Press story boiled down to was that the Twins lied, and the governor's negotiators let them.

Normally, in a two-newspaper town, when one paper scoops the other on such a visible issue, the loser immediately starts trying to uncover something new on the story for the following day's paper. The second-day follow-up allows the scooped paper to both set the record straight and claim some headway of its own. But in the days after the Pioneer Press deflated the stadium celebration, there was silence on the part of the Newspaper of the Twin Cities. Thirteen days later, Terry Fiedler, a writer from the business desk, finally penned an article that described the emerging details as the Twins deal "morphing" from the original proposal.

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