Minnesota Bound--and Gagged

Thomas N. Collins

Dig out your duckboots and your blaze-orange vest: Ron Schara Communications is gassing up for its busiest time of year. As any nature boy can tell you, it's the killing season, and hunting is in the air--and on it too. These autumn months Ron is awfully busy. The retired Strib writer continues to pound out at least one column a week for his former employer, while managing to put together Minnesota Bound, his weekly half-hour show dedicated to the appreciation of Minnesota's great outdoors.

But though he's introduced each week as an "award-winning outdoor journalist," you'll need to be reminded that Schara is also a professional one. It's not that his show lacks polish; on the contrary, it's as burnished as you can expect any Hi-8 advertisement for hunting, fishing, and motor sports to be. Instead, questions as to Schara's credibility seem to hinge on the curious advertorial slant of the show (KARE-11, Sunday, 11:05 p.m.). The fact that Minnesota Bound is underwritten by motorboat companies, hunting suppliers, and the Minnesota Lottery could be seen as disturbing enough. That Schara himself stumps for many of these products and services during the commercial breaks makes you wonder whether it's not an outright infomercial. "All trails lead to Midway Ford," he says from the bed of a late-model pickup, his ever-faithful dog Raven wagging cheerfully beside him. And in Schara Country, they do.

"It's not meant to be 60 Minutes," says Chris Niskanen, outdoors editor at the Pioneer Press. "I mean, Ron's not doing 60 Minutes of the outdoors. If you watch Saturday morning TV, it's not uncommon for outdoors programs to have commercials about products, whether they're guns or fishing equipment, while the people in the show are using the same products. It's very common. I don't think TV viewers are being hoodwinked in any way. Anyone who watches Saturday morning outdoors shows knows that's part of the business."

The comparison to Saturday morning TV is apt. In recent years, these time slots have been overrun by paid programming. Infomercials for everything from Nordic Track to the George Foreman Grill control the airwaves until the denizens of the PGA, the NCAA, and, or course, the PBA roll out some time around lunch. Even in its late Sunday night slot, sandwiched between other news and specialty sports segments on KARE-11, there isn't much to distinguish Minnesota Bound from the other advertorial programming of a Saturday morn; the show is soft as church music.

Yet there's no question that Minnesota Bound comes directly out of an older tradition that has, for decades, produced fishing and hunting programming from Northern Minnesota--shows like Babe Winkelman's Outdoor Secrets. The difference here, perhaps, is that Schara has tried to leverage his position as an erstwhile journalist to establish a broad interest in Minnesota Bound. "He's trying to paint with a broad brush," says the Star Tribune's current outdoors specialist, Dennis Anderson. "You know, he's not affecting a Southern twang and hookin' a bass." A guy like Babe Winkelman, on the other hand, has no compunctions about dedicating a whole show to the bloody joys of blasting a few ringnecks ("harvesting," they call it) out of the sky.

It wasn't always so for Ron Schara. In his not-undistinguished career at the Strib spanning nearly three decades, Schara developed a voice for traditional outdoors reporting and commentating. While the magazine approach of Minnesota Bound is the shape of TV today, there are longstanding traditions of newspaper coverage on the state's hunting and fishing communities--traditions Schara helped shape over the years. Dennis Anderson points out that Minnesota readers are "considerably more attuned to hunting and fishing as an outdoor beat than other large urban areas like Chicago or Cleveland. One out of two people in the state, generally speaking, fishes. A fairly high percentage either hunt or have people who hunt in their families. So those sports or activities command a good deal of coverage."

The Pioneer Press's Niskanen concurs: "We have a very strong hunting and fishing community in Minnesota. It's like covering baseball during the Twins season, you cover duck hunting and deer hunting, and things like that. And I think in the Twin Cities as a whole, we have probably the best outdoor writers in the country."

Is Ron Schara one of them? Like any old-timer worth his flannel, he's not always in tune with changes in the perception and practices of sportsmen in these feel-good, PC times, nor with the pretense of objectivity in meat-and-potatoes journalism. Even today, he tends to climb atop his weekly Strib soapbox to gripe about the vagaries of nonresident hunting fees and ATV grouse hunting (in which the 18-49 crowd speed hell-bent through the brush, opening fire on sluggish fowl)--subjects that must seem pretty unsavory to a nonhunting urban readership.  

But at least Schara's able to express his opinion in the paper; on Minnesota Bound, he appears to be so beholden to advertisers and sponsors (or so determined to appeal to a general-interest audience) that he says virtually nothing about anything.

If you're one of the poor souls (or brave shut-ins) who depends on KARE-11 and Minnesota Bound for your worldview, you might be forgiven for assuming that outdoor recreation in this state must necessarily involve either a firearm or an internal-combustion engine. And for many Minnesotans, that may well be true. But in the land of 10,000 lakes, this kind of soft-water journalism doesn't do anything to improve the bad reputation either of TV or sportsmen. And in spite of his signature admonition to "introduce the great outdoors to a kid," most preadolescents would find Schara's dumbed-down approach more demeaning than a BB-gun safety seminar.

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.

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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