Home Field Advantage

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

Pop sociology aside, it's hard to believe that any editor would choose a look at sports fandom over an article probing the possible use of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. Few newsmakers are willing to lambaste the reporters who cover them on a daily basis, but one MSFC source believes that Weiner was given a brief hiatus from stadium coverage because "sometimes people get too close to a story."

"There's no plot to minimize critical coverage," says Fiedler. "Somebody's making the news judgments and news calls. But I've never been told, 'You can't do that' or 'You can't take that angle.'" There's every possibility that's true. But usually, editors push reporters to make their stories tougher and harder-edged.

"Certainly [it's] a possibility that people feel that the company has an interest and that it somehow affects the news columns," Fine says. "I'm generally surprised that people don't understand that the editorial department and the news department don't discuss the editorial page's point of view." But the paper has "covered all of the key angles involved and a lot of the subtext." The Strib news staff, she adds, is "covering the stadium story the way we would cover any big story, and that is without interference from the corporate structure." Plus, she's not sure critical coverage is what the paper is after, she adds. "Neutral" or "objective" coverage is the Strib's goal.

As proof that there have been plenty of hard-hitting stories on the beat, Fine offers up Weiner's articles detailing a late-January rift between MSFC head Savelkoul and the rest of the commission's members. That story, however, was sparked by an angry open letter from the commissioners to the Strib in which they complained that they, along with the general public, had been misled by the Twins and Savelkoul.

Fine and McGrath both say they're not sure when or how they became aware that the Twins had misrepresented the deal. In fact, Fine won't even define the Pioneer Press's discovery of the deception as a scoop: "I think it's true that the Pioneer Press mentioned the $82.5 million loan issue before we did and there's no question that I wish we had come back with our own story more quickly," she says. "But when we did cover it we had more in-depth analysis and information on appreciation and other factors. We did give our readers a good package."

Last month, the Twins and Gov. Arne Carlson's negotiators admitted they'd made a public relations mistake and unveiled a new proposal. This time, the Twins offered to kick in a $15 million "gift," to which they said no strings were attached, and to forego the expensive retractable roof.

So far the Strib hasn't questioned provisions of the package giving the Twins a ticket-tax subsidy on both the Metrodome and the new ballpark that would more than offset the team's cash contribution to the cost. Nor did the paper note that as the new plan wended its way through the Legislature, the $82.5 million retractable roof reappeared, driving up the total public subsidy requested to nearly $350 million. In many ways, the Twins' new deal is a repackaging of their earlier proposal. And in many ways, the Strib's coverage is a repackaging of the "see no evil" mentality they exhibited before.

"Newspapers are self-regulating as institutions," concludes Neil deMause, a Brooklyn-based media critic who has studied media coverage of stadium campaigns nationwide. "You don't go out and hire people who are going to stir up trouble. And they wouldn't last long if you did."

John Cowles Jr. first started working for a domed stadium in the early 1970s, when he was president of what was then the Star and Tribune Co. He and other local power brokers wanted the downtown venue so badly that they formed a development company, funded it, and used its coffers to give public officials the $10.5 million they needed to purchase the stadium site.

Articles in the Star and the Tribune, then separate newspapers, praised the investment group's corporate largesse even as Cowles and the other businessmen were outlining the quid pro quo to city officials. They wanted the rights to develop 200 acres of land surrounding what would become the Metrodome. Twins owner Carl Pohlad joined the investment company's board of directors in 1984 and served on it until 1989.

In 1979, 45 news staffers at the Star and the Tribune were so embarrassed by Cowles's dealings that they all pitched in and took out a full-page ad disassociating themselves from the papers' coverage of the Dome debate. A year later, a Star reporter spent six months looking into the land deals surrounding the Metrodome. His finished five-part series on the complicated land swaps languished in the Star's computer system for eight months until a former city policy aide wrote a letter to the editor accusing the paper of burying it.

After the Twin Cities Reader wrote about the flap, the Star published the articles, accompanied by a column by Executive Editor Tim McGuire (who holds the same position at the merged Star Tribune) explaining that the original articles hadn't met the paper's standards. It goes without saying that the paper has never done a follow-up showing who profited from the deal and by how much.

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