Home Field Advantage

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

Fiedler says the deal struck him as odd from the start, but it took him a while to write the story because he had other duties at the business desk and because he had a hard time lining up the necessary interviews. Which begs the question: Why didn't newsroom managers consider the Twins lying a big enough story to cut Fiedler some time to report it? And if Fiedler really couldn't be spared, what about the other reporters who had been following the issue?

In the days that followed Fiedler's article, the deal started to smell worse and worse. First, all but one of the members of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which owns the Dome and was theoretically in charge of brokering the deal, wrote to the Strib insisting that what they knew about the proposal, they learned from local news media. Plus, it turned out that as early as one year after a new ballpark opens, the state could be required to buy Pohlad's share in the Twins for his overall investment in the team and the park, minus tax breaks. "In year one, in a worst-case scenario, the state's buyout could cost the state $167 million," reported the Strib.

Yet before the week was out, the paper carried an editorial complaining that "stadium opponents have succeeded in clouding [the air] with their negative spin on the deal." The misunderstanding, it posited, shouldn't keep Minnesota from going forth with the deal. The Strib's institutional opinion contradicted its own reporting.

"The deal [MSFC head Henry Savelkoul] worked out may not be as some people initially understood it. It's still better than most other stadium-building cities have gotten. And, to cite one revisionist complaint, did anyone really believe that in offering $82.5 million in upfront cash to help build a stadium the Pohlad family was proposing to make an outright gift rather than a recoverable investment?"

The answer is a no-brainer of the simplest variety: People believed that Pohlad's contribution was a gift because they had seen it described that way in the pages of the paper.

The episode reflects what some staffers say is "dissonance" within the Strib's editorial hierarchy on how to cover the stadium debate. The staffers say that back when the Twins first expressed their desire for a new stadium, Managing Editor Pam Fine decided that Jay Weiner would be the beat's lead reporter. Reasoning that the ballpark buck would ultimately stop at the Legislature, she also chose State Politics and Government Editor Dennis McGrath to lead the ad-hoc stadium team. McGrath would call on business writer Fiedler, state politics reporter Robert Whereatt and others as needed.

The former editor of Corporate Report, Fiedler has penned the beat's most critical pieces to date. When the proposal first surfaced last June, he put together a lengthy article examining the Milwaukee Brewers' uphill push for a taxpayer-financed stadium and the parallels between Wisconsin's situation and Minnesota's. Among other things, the story noted that the Brewers and the Twins both employed the same consultant to help negotiate, Bob Starkey of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

Weiner, by contrast, came to the story from the sports section, where there's a tradition of rooting for the home team. He was chosen, McGrath says, because his area of expertise is sports business, and because he covered the 1995 Target Center bailout.

Fiedler says he's been asking to be more involved with the stadium story ever since then, but has only occasionally been freed from his usual duties on the business desk. The day after the Twins announced their package in January, Fiedler wrote about the tax advantages the deal contained for Pohlad. The Strib buried that story behind more upbeat coverage of the "unprecedented" proposal.

Fiedler says he knew the deal contained more caveats, but didn't have the time or the freedom to run down his hunches. He says he and his editor, McGrath, are "more intensely interested in [the intricacies of the deal] than some other people higher up in the paper." McGrath has tried to get more business and legislative pieces included on the beat, he adds, but Pam Fine and Executive Editor Tim McGuire make policy on really big stories.

McGrath says it's coincidence that the more critical pieces bear Fiedler's byline. He can't recall how he first became aware that the Twins misrepresented the deal. The Pi Press story "got to some of it," he concedes, and "Terry had several important elements."

Once it became clear there was a need for a story explaining how the deal had been "mischaracterized," it was discussed by everyone on the ad-hoc stadium team. Weiner, McGrath says, provided Fiedler with guidance and helped set up interviews with the stadium negotiators, but was too busy to report the story himself: He was in the throes of writing a piece for Super Bowl Sunday that looked at sports as a form of worship. McGrath cites that front-page story as one of the best of the beat so far.

"We genuflect today before the god of sports, celebrating Super Bowl Sunday, the holiday on which a football game tells us about our nation," wrote Weiner. "Today, too, is an opportunity for self-examination for Minnesotans. We are about to make a decision that will determine our own level of sports worship: Do we build a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins?... All things considered, Twins baseball in Minnesota has been a relatively cheap date."

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