Lapdog Journalism

Does the Pioneer Press have a commercial interest in the proposal for a dike around the St. Paul airport?

The Pioneer Press editorial board has been a passionate booster of the proposal to construct a dike around the St. Paul Downtown Airport. In the last six months, the paper's opinion-makers have penned three different editorials endorsing the $29-million levee for the airport, popularly known as Holman Field. It has also persistently ridiculed City Council President Kathy Lantry and her allies on the council for failing to support committing $1 million in city finances to the project.

"We think $1 million is a small sum to contribute for what the city will get back in state and federal monies," the Pi Press opined in December. "Furthermore, we think Holman Field is a good investment, one more asset the city can hold up as it tries to keep businesses here and lure new ones."

Staff curmudgeon Joe Soucheray, who plays the fiscal-conservative card in his column and his talk-radio show, even provided his own enlightened support for the project earlier this month, referring to the City Council as a collection of "dolts, ex-hippies, obstructionists, and assorted Luddites," for failing to pony up money for the dike.

Despite this prolific cheerleading for the flood-mitigation plan, the Pi Press has never managed to alert its readers to one pertinent fact: Its printing press is located adjacent to the downtown airport and would potentially benefit from the new dike.

Last week, St. Paul resident Thomas Montgomery attempted to raise this conflict of interest in a letter to the newspaper's editor. "A publicly financed dike would spare your company the costs and hassle of future flooding which, to my knowledge, has in recent times blocked your access to your printing plant," Montgomery, an attorney, charged.

In response to the letter, he received a call from associate editorial page editor Mark Yost. According to Montgomery, Yost initially insisted that the paper's printing plant had never been adversely affected by flooding. Yost further noted that the printing press is on higher ground than the airport and therefore not susceptible to flooding.

Montgomery was not convinced. After conducting some additional research, he wrote Yost directly, this time asserting that access to the plant had been hindered by recent floods. "If your company has been unable to drive its trucks in and out of the plant or had its ability to do so disrupted by flood waters on the truck route to and from the plant, you have had a negative impact from the flooding at and near the St. Paul airport," Montgomery noted.

In response to this latest missive, Yost changed his story slightly. "I checked with the publisher and the plant and they said that we have not experienced problems getting trucks into the plant during high tide," he wrote in an e-mail. "We have had trouble getting the train in there, but we have the option of deliverying [sic] paper by truck when the train can't get in."

Despite this acknowledgement that the newspaper has been adversely affected by flooding in recent times, and therefore would benefit from the construction of a dike, Yost still declined to run Montgomery's letter. "But please don't let this discourage you from writing in the future," he added.

Montgomery is mystified by the paper's unwillingness to acknowledge the conflict. "Why don't you just say that there's a benefit?" he asks. "Disclosure doesn't really take away anything from their argument."

Discerning Yost's take on this dialogue is impossible because he refused to answer questions. Citing company policy--and a directive from his boss, editorial page editor Art Coulson--Yost referred all questions to the newspaper's communications manager, Pat Effenberger. Neither she nor Coulson returned subsequent messages. Apparently the Pi Press--which relies on the willingness of the public to speak openly with its reporters--doesn't extend that same courtesy to other publications. The paper did, however, issue a statement via e-mail denying that flooding is a problem at the production facility and stating that such concerns in no way influenced its editorials. (After City Pages raised questions last week about the issue, the Pioneer Press ran a story detailing the controversy on Saturday.)

One possible explanation for the editorial board's intransigence is that in recent months it has become consumed with attacking City Council President Lantry. Her opposition to spending city dollars to protect Holman Field, which is owned by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, has become symbolic of everything that the editorial board perceives as being wrong with her leadership. By its view, the airport dike is crucial to the much-ballyhooed and never-ending revival of downtown St. Paul, which is currently saddled with a 25 percent office vacancy rate.

The paper's most recent broadside against Lantry was a strangely reasoned piece last week in which the editorial board essentially blamed her for the departure of Catherine Verfaillie, head of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute. (Verfaillie is returning to her native Belgium for personal reasons.) "After I read it I said to my husband, 'Jeez Louise, tomorrow I'm going to be blamed for the war in Iraq," Lantry laughs.

The Seventh Ward council member continues to believe that the dike for the airport, which is mostly utilized by executives at large corporations such as 3M, is unnecessary. She notes that it has flooded just 5 times in the last 40 years (not 4 times in the last 10 years, as erroneously stated by the Pi Press editorial board last month). "We should spend $30 million dollars because someone might have to spend 15 more minutes in a limousine?" she asks rhetorically. "It seems like an enormous waste of public resources."

 
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