Bigger Than Bite-Size

When confronted by 20 years' worth of City Pages news stories, it's striking how difficult so many of them are to excerpt. The best of these articles are so meticulously researched and organically reasoned that their "nut graphs"--the collection of sentences meant to sum up a story in bite-size form--almost inevitably undersell the wealth of information and ideas to follow.

A case in point is Jennifer Vogel's 1994 investigation "Hit Parade: Minneapolis's ten most expensive cops, blow by blow." The premise was simple enough: Go through the civil lawsuits that resulted in damages paid out by the City of Minneapolis to citizens who were physically abused by members of the Minneapolis Police Department over a certain period of time, assign those dollars to the cop or cops who performed the dirty deeds, and tally up the results. But Vogel didn't stop there. Buttressing the court files with interviews from lawyers and investigators, she treated each incident as a mini-story, recounting the brutality in gruesome, painstaking detail and revealing how often, and how routinely, certain cops lashed out with little or no provocation against people they were being paid to "protect and serve." Vogel also noted the number of citizen complaints lodged against each of the ten officers (they ranged from three to thirty-two) and added a "dishonorable mention" sidebar--again with details--about violent officers who hadn't amassed enough damages to ascend into the ranks of the elite thumpers.

By the time a reader got finished with Vogel's piece, it was nearly impossible for him or her to rationalize the incidents as the handiwork of a few bad apples, and equally impossible not to suspect that something was fundamentally, institutionally flawed in the way the MPD went about its business. (Given the millions of dollars in damages, judges and juries were coming to the same conclusion.) Yet to recount even one of the top ten cops' sordid histories would eat up 500 words, and to isolate or synopsize a few cases here and there would betray the abiding purpose of the piece.

Similarly, when Steve Perry and Monika Bauerlein analyzed the Legislature's pending bailout of Northwest Airlines back in 1991, they did more than simply crunch the numbers involved in the deal. Their story also revealed how NWA executives Al Checchi and Gary Wilson had walked away with a bundle from the Marriott Corp. while hurting that company's overall performance; how Northwest had accumulated enormous debt while paying the duo millions of dollars annually under an independent contract; and how the airline would inevitably have to go looking for a corporate partner in order to survive (which eventually happened with the KLM-Northwest merger).

This form doesn't do justice even to the stories that did prove more easily excerptable. How much of their meaning, after all, lies in the context of the time, and the continuity of the coverage? Pieces like the ones Patricia Ohmans wrote in the mid-Eighties on behalf of parents wrongly accused of molesting their kids at the height of hysteria over the Scott County child-abuse scandal. And the dogged series penned in recent years by Beth Hawkins about Johnny Edwards, the specious snitch who manages to come up with damning testimony against others whenever he's in trouble with the law.

But if "news" is defined simply as revelation of fresh, important information, the following selections--plus some others that were too good to make the cut--eminently qualify.


Wherever [Marv] Davidov has traveled since first getting involved with politics after dropping out of Macalester College in the 1950s, the FBI has followed: to Mississippi, where he risked his neck on the freedom rides that launched the civil rights movement; to Miami, where authorities stopped him from sailing to Cuba on the final leg of a Montreal-to-Havana disarmament march; to Berkeley, where he helped Allen Ginsberg and others organize some of the first Vietnam War protests; to Minneapolis, where he led protests agains the Honeywell Corporation's manufacturing of deathly weapons; [and] to Lowry, Minnesota, where he ended up in the local caboose after protesting the construction of a power line opposed by many local farmers.

Jay Walljasper, October 1, 1981


Thomas R. remembers the first day in prison as the day the admissions officer squirted DDT from a flit gun at his underarms and pubic hair. No one had ever done that to him before. Just a sanitary precaution, the officer said. They took his mug shot, gave him some coveralls and a pair of ugly brown shoes, and locked him in an adjustment and orientation (A & O) cell where he would remain for a month. It's a form of quarantine, a guard told him that evening. Say you were to come in here with a communicable disease, or maybe you've got some violent tendencies. We want to know that.

Bruce Rubenstein, April 22, 1982


Everyone on the Range knows what U.S. Steel did when the Reagan administration provided it with a tax break with which the company and its corporate colleagues were supposed to do their part to "rebuild American industry." U.S. Steel bought Marathon Oil. In Hibbing, high school freshmen and coarse-speaking Finns who order beers as their fathers did in the old country (kalja! they say) are aware of this fact....

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