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.

Moreover, McGuire--along with colleagues as far afield as columnist Syl Jones--is mystified by both the methodology of and weight given to the Lichter study. Besides being commissioned at the same time the project's infamous memo was drafted (a fact McGuire uses to cast doubt on the project's objectivity), the research is dated. In addition, the similarities between the business communities and mean streets of Seattle and the Twin Cities are at best fuzzy, and there's no detailed content analysis of the stories, only rates of frequency. Paul Klauda, a Strib editor who supervises a team of reporters responsible for crime coverage, says a distinction between spot news, analysis, and follow-up would be essential to any study based on the premise that too much ink is wasted on the police blotter. Lichter provides no such breakdown.

Jon Tevlin, the Strib's labor and work force reporter, laughs when he hears Lichter's method of differentiating between a "negative" and "positive" business story. "General categories of 'good news' and 'bad news' were laid out and stories were characterized on the basis of definitions used to define the categories," the report reads, in a nonsensical attempt to define Lichter's terms. "For instance, few people would argue that a report on increased profits is normally good news for a company, or a story on labor unrest at a factory is bad news."

"That's telling," Tevlin says. "My guess is that if I wrote a story about a union leader, business people would see that as a negative story when, in fact, it's a positive story."

In interviews conducted after the project's summary report became public, both Johnson and Steve Moss of Moss Cairns, the public-policy group commissioned to coordinate the project, de-emphasize Lichter's role. They admit his findings sparked their two-year quest, but say it's the feedback recorded in private meetings and public forums that fueled the project's final criticisms and recommendations. Johnson even offers an alternative definition of "positive" and "negative" reportage: "It means coming at a story with a negative mind-set. It means we could do without the presumption of bad intent when stories are approached. It means balance, instead of deciding for the reader what the truth is."

This late-game strategy, deflecting attention from Lichter, throws light on what McGuire and others see as the project's greatest weakness. Despite what Moss and Johnson say, the Lichter study is featured prominently in their group's final report. It is, Johnson grudgingly admits, the only hard evidence gathered in two years' time. The rest of the analysis is propped up on testimonials from citizens who, predictably, sense the local press is out of control, and people with horror stories to tell about "know it all" reporters with "agendas" who busy themselves "filtering quotes" to match predetermined conclusions. "Our study is based on a mountain of anecdotal evidence," Johnson says. Then he chuckles. "I suppose I'll see that in quotes."

To McGuire's way of thinking, this emphasis on anecdotal evidence is not only revelatory, it's hypocritical. While many people might sense that Twin Cities reporters try to pass off bias as objectivity, there is no proof or standard of evaluation laid down by the project that confirms this perception. By Johnson's own definition, the project's report is the equivalent of a "negative" story because of its reliance on opinion and conjecture. "If my paper or your paper or any paper tried to pass this kind of thing off as news, we'd be barraged with complaints. And rightfully so," McGuire says.

Wisely, McGuire's staff and others in the local media, such as KSTP's news director Scott Libin, are not wholly disregarding the overall thrust of the project. That it took two years and an undisclosed amount of money (Moss Cairns is unwilling to divulge its budget) to reach some relatively basic conclusions is good fodder for a cynical yuck. It's also hard not to see the inclusion of Lichter's very limited analysis of crime coverage as little more than a red herring, since it appeals to consumers on both sides of the socioeconomic fence: People in the suburbs are tired of all the gloom and doom, inner-city residents are weary of seeing their neighborhoods portrayed as war zones. Still, the community's growing mistrust of the media, especially homegrown media, is cause for pause. Ally Colón, an associate in ethics and diversity at Florida's Poynter Institute, believes "good" and "bad" news is in the eye of the beholder. He also thinks it would be dangerous for journalists to provide the public with only the material it says it wants. Even so, he admits in this age of media consolidation it's important for newspapers and TV stations to be tuned in to their constituencies.

"Many reporters don't have roots in their communities," Colón says. "They don't belong to anything. They aren't part of the community in ways that people can connect with. For instance, there is a tendency in big newsrooms to do a lot of phone interviewing. In Minneapolis, I wonder how many reporters are hitting the streets. Not just going to City Council meetings and other public events, but actually engaging in discussions with people on a very basic, core, ordinary level."

Not surprisingly, McGuire insists his reporters are anything but aloof, and are not separated from their source base. But others, including Strib columnist Doug Grow and business reporter Terry Fiedler, believe their paper is a work in progress. Like many of their colleagues, they want the Strib's rank and file to ask tougher questions, dig deeper for the truth, and keep in mind the age-old adage to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This view, while critical of the status quo and revolutionary at a paper infamous for throwing softballs, runs contrary to the mind-set of those behind the Twin Cities Project on Media and the Public--business and community leaders who seem to prefer feel-good features over thorough investigations.

"Specifically, [the project's] conclusions about business are laughable. If anything we need to be tougher," Fiedler says. "We have to be more skeptical, get people to tell us what's going on, and get independent verification. That's what makes for 'positive' stories. Even if it's uncomfortable. Our job isn't to promote business. It's to help investors and taxpayers understand where their money is going and how it's being used."

Tevlin agrees. "It's much more dangerous for our readers to be exposed to overly positive coverage versus some vague notion of negative coverage--especially when it comes to public companies. We've done positive features about a public company and a week later their stock crashes through the floor. Then we get calls from people who say they went broke because they read our story."

The size of the schism between critics like Johnson and those who view the Strib as too easy on the business community isn't lost on McGuire. "Look, on one side you have these folks who say we're too aggressive, too cynical," he says. "On the other side, you guys [City Pages] are kicking my ass because I'm not hard enough. That's just the nature of working at a big-city daily. I'm aiming for balance. I believe our job is to stimulate debate in this community."

Ultimately, Johnson and Moss say, such a debate is exactly what the sponsors of the Twin Cities Project on Media and the Public had hoped to inspire. The level and length of those deliberations, however, will remain limited until there's more to bring to the table than a dated, poorly sourced study and the entirely unsurprising conclusion that in these days of concocted attributions and fabricated stories, the public isn't enamored with its media.

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