Minnesota Bound--and Gagged

In public citizen Ron Schara, the great outdoors meets the almighty dollar. Guess which wins.

So we're left with two competing conclusions about Minnesota Bound: 1) It's clueless as cut bait; or 2) It's forwarding a controversial and fairly disagreeable environmental agenda under cover of being clueless as cut bait.

Consider the evidence for yourself: One recent program featured the redoubtable outdoor journalist reporting from a houseboat in Voyageurs National Park. Schara astutely points out that "there's an unmistakable sense of wilderness here." Uh, yup. But the point, it turns out, is that this is a wilderness "one can reach, ironically, in a floating living room." Quite a kicker, that. And Schara dedicates the rest of this hard-hitting feature to the comforts of Ebel's Voyageur Houseboats, and the "million-dollar view" outside the "glass canopy" of a vehicle that's as "easy as a car" to drive.

One of the nation's most important and contentious debates about wilderness management is unfolding right under Schara's nose, but the dispute doesn't elicit so much as a single "you betcha." Instead, the outdoor journalist is happy to pass along Ebel's telephone number.

Thomas N. Collins

Polemics by way of silence: That's the Minnesota Way.

In the grand sweep of Schara's career, it was his determination to undertake this kind of TV sellout that coincided with his official retirement from the legitimate beat at the Strib.

Pam Fine, the Star Tribune's managing editor, denies any specifics (Schara did not respond to interview requests for this story) while confirming Schara's swelling multimedia ambitions under her watch. "Schara had some interest in trying to combine his television work with newspaper work in terms of getting more leverage out of a trip, so he could use an experience or a reporting assignment for both mediums," Fine says. "We wanted to be very clear that when he was a staff writer, we were his priority."

Aside from his penchant for splitting loyalties and testing his editor's patience, though, was Schara's willingness--some would even say eagerness--to participate in his sponsors' advertisements a problem? Fine says, "We make it clear that we do not want staff writers to have a relationship with advertisers. But that did not come into play specifically in Ron's case."

To be sure, Schara's entrepreneurial spirit is much better suited to TV than newsprint, given his readiness to dispense with traditional journalistic standards. Since retiring from the Strib, Schara has been on a tear to extend his personal brand in all directions, all the while banking on his former identity. Schara Communications Inc. markets Minnesota Bound-branded bandanas, shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, and stuffed animals--the kind of cheap provincial tsotschkes that litter gift shops at the Hubert H. Humphrey International Airport and the Mall of America. The company is also responsible for producing Minnesota Bound and its successful cable spin-off, Call of the Wild, as well as home videos. The outdoors--as has long been true--is for sale; and you don't even have to open the door to buy it.

But do Schara's various business ventures, his assiduous avoidance of any public conflict, and his willingness to get creative with advertisers subvert his credibility?

Niskanen says, "Is it hard news? No, it's soft news. And you know what? Ron would be the first to say so. I think if you look at Ron's stories in the newspaper over the years, he's covered it the same way. It's not the 10 o'clock news. And Ron isn't pretending to be anything other than who he is. I wouldn't cover the news the same way he does, but I come from a different background than he does. Ron was a nightclub singer. Dennis and I have master's degrees in journalism, we come from a background that emphasizes hard news, and I think that's reflected in the type of reporting that we do. Ron's not like that."

Instead, Minnesota Bound tries to serve the broadest possible audience, with obligatory nods to octogenarian legends in the lake country, a 30-second squib devoted to John Schumacher's Game Gourmet Kitchen, and occasional spots on bicycling, travel, and other yuppie repasts that Schara jobs out to KARE meteorologist Belinda Jensen. In a slow week, Schara even talks about "nongame" species like bats and wolves.

It's a truism that the daily-newspaper grind inevitably wears a man down. An old hook-and-bullet jerk just wants to be comfortable in his twilight years. Indeed, the most revealing moment of Minnesota Bound comes during the final credits, during which Schara attributes "production assistance" to the likes of Mercury outboard motors, Berkley fishing gear, Hoigaards sporting goods, and others. More importantly, he thanks Midway Ford for transportation, Gage Outdoor Expeditions for air travel arrangements, and Avalon Limousine Service for--what else?--limousine service. Ron Schara may be losing his edge when it comes to serious outdoor journalism; but the guy apparently knows a thing or two about car camping.

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