Strib-Gate

After an exhaustive two-year study, the shocking truth is revealed: People don't trust the press

MEMO
TO: Steven Brill, Editor
Brill's Content magazine
FROM: City Pages' Staff

Congratulations, sir! The premier issue of your media magazine is a big hit. The arm-chair criticism. The snide humor. Oh, and those glossy photos of the Beltway's jet set. It's all so wonderfully cheeky, so--we're not embarrassed to say it--cutting edge. We especially enjoyed the treatise on the Lewinsky debacle (don't worry about those factual errors, man--it's the thought that counts).

Anyway, we know this must be a busy time for you, what with CNN andTime tripping over themselves to recant that bogus nerve-gas story, the Cincinnati Inquirer apologizing to Chiquita Brands for stealing voice mail, and that poor columnist being kicked off the Boston Globe staff. It must be a bitch to make all those talk-show appearances. Still, we strongly urge you to put next month's cover art on hold. We're offering you an exclusive scoop that's sure to send the magazine flying off the stands. So, the folks atNew Republic can rest easy. After your readers find out what's going on in the Twin Cities they'll forget all about those fabricated articles.

Steve (is it OK if we call you Steve?), after two years of exhaustive study a group of local business people and nonprofit community activists have discovered that the news media and the public in this area have become increasingly "disconnected." That's right! It seems the public doesn't trust the press. Not only that, but this same group believes our local daily newspaper has a predilection for negative, sensational stories about violent crime and corruption.

We know this is a lot to swallow, Steve. But we're confident that after you mull these revelations over you'll get on the next flight to Minneapolis. Again, thanks for keeping watch over the fourth estate.

Oh yeah, if you can, avoid flying Northwest.

In both its project summary and full report, available to the public as of last Monday, the Twin Cities Project on Media and the Public makes much of a study commissioned in the spring of 1995. Conducted by Robert Lichter, founder of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., it compares the amount of crime coverage and types of business stories published in the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Seattle Times during a four-week period in the fall of 1994. After examining 1,091 articles, Lichter came up with two key findings that representatives from the project, including chair Curt Johnson, say encouraged them to spend the next two years interviewing business leaders and community activists, and hold seven public "Feedback Forums." The Strib's coverage of crime exceeded that of the PiPress by 40 percent and almost tripled that of the Seattle Times. Seventy percent of the stories on the front page of the Strib's business section focused on "negative" developments, compared to 50 percent in the PiPress and half that percentage in the Seattle Times.

These findings, and the overall tone of the project's report--which purports to evaluate all local media but singles out the area's largest daily for its most specific criticisms--have caused little stir in the Strib's newsroom. There hasn't even been much discussion about it on the "morning notes," a no-holds-barred back and forth between employees on the daily's computer network. In part this is because Johnson, who once worked for Governor/part-time media critic Arne Carlson and is now chair of the Metropolitan Council in St. Paul, is viewed by key beat reporters at the paper as both a political opportunist and, as one columnist put it, a "corporate shill." More revealing, though, is the fact that the Strib has, since the beginning, refused to participate in the project's individual interviews and its seven forums attended by reporters from almost every other media outlet in town. Strib editor Tim McGuire says his paper's refusal to participate stemmed from inside knowledge of the project's core motives.

"There was an early memo that we got a hold of that said the whole plan was that these businesses were going to have their PR people set standards for the news media and then evaluate the news media based on those standards," McGuire says. "As a result, we said we didn't want to play ball."

Johnson admits that the memo exists and, in retrospect, doesn't blame McGuire and company for their early refusals to participate. But he insists there was a change of heart midway through the process, when it was learned that a broad base of citizens--not just a handful of executives from companies like 3M, Norwest, and Dayton Hudson--was disenchanted with the media. In fact, he says, representatives from the 18 civic groups and businesses that eventually participated realized it would be "absurd" to expect the media to follow advice based on corporate self-interest. "If most projects of any consequence had the early notes revealed and published there'd probably be considerable embarrassment," Johnson says.

He goes on to salute McGuire and the Strib's new ownership, McClatchy Co., saying the editor's words of praise for an early draft of the project report (documented in a July 7 Strib article) reflect an overall willingness at the paper to accept criticism from the community. McGuire admits the report was "better" than he'd expected and compliments the group's "thoughtful" and "insightful" approach. He does, however, find the document to be a collection of broad strokes, with little in the way of substantive evidence or specific advice. "I didn't think there was a whole lot to argue with," he says. "There was a whole lot of motherhood and apple pie." In other words, McGuire didn't find the report's conclusions to be particularly revolutionary: The media should develop and divulge distinct journalistic standards, and those standards should drive coverage; reporters and their editors should do everything they can to get the story right the first time; if mistakes are made, those responsible should be held accountable; public feedback should be taken seriously; and sensational, "negative" stories should be replaced by material of "real importance to the community." Which subjects are of "real importance" is left to the imagination.

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