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Get the Message

Reporter Randi Kaye was, as they say, coming to you live, from the recently vacated Champlin Park football field where Gov. Jesse Ventura had made his return to high school coaching on the evening of September 3. Suddenly a pair of hairy legs appeared in the background behind Kaye and walked purposefully toward the WCCO-TV (Channel 4) news camera. Drawing close enough to the reporter to fill a significant portion of the cameraman's viewfinder--and therefore the TV screens of WCCO's ten o'clock news audience--the legs gave way to a T-shirted torso, partially obscured by a homemade sign that read: "Can't this wait until the SPORTS news?"

Blissfully unaware of the message being delivered over her right shoulder, Kaye prattled on. Nor did she seem to notice when a set of broad shoulders dove low at the hairy legs behind her, spinning around the sign carrier like a four-year-old attempting a cartwheel.

And that was the end of that.

For the time being, at least. The sign toter--or the Crasher, as he has come to be known--first thrust himself into the faces of local television viewers on July 23, when he meandered into live remotes on KSTP-TV (Channel 5) and KARE-TV (Channel 11), adding his human graffiti to reports on a memorial service for JFK Jr. and the homecoming of accused Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist Kathleen Soliah. Since then he has returned at least four times, ostensibly to protest the common practice of leading newscasts with so-called live remotes, which often elevate trivial stories to the level of breaking news.

Though the Crasher has thus far remained anonymous, a City Pages investigation has uncovered several clues regarding his identity. One is his predilection for touting the local media-criticism Web site known as Cursor (www.cursor.org). In fact, the Crasher's initial forays featured messages hyping Cursor, and nothing else. Further, prior to the publication of this story, the Cursor Web site was the only media outlet to have publicly taken note of the Crasher's existence.

In the wake of a busy Labor Day weekend, during which the Crasher turned up uninvited on both WCCO and KMSP-TV (Channel 9), we contacted Cursor cofounder and coeditor Mike Tronnes. The 45-year-old Tronnes, who works as a magazine consultant and editor of literary anthologies, agreed to be interviewed at his south Minneapolis home. He answered the door dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, revealing legs that looked strikingly familiar. Tronnes would not confirm or deny that he is the Crasher, but he did say that he had interviewed the Crasher for Cursor and had "insight" into his motivations which he would be happy to share.

 

CP: How did all this begin?

MIKE TRONNES: Well, from what I've been told, the Crasher started thinking, "These live reports--which all the stations do--are silly. They aren't adding anything to the broadcasts. But these reporters are standing in front of a space that a human could occupy with a message."

CP: Then the signs began carrying protest messages. Why single out television?

TRONNES: TV news is the worst presentation of news imaginable. It has all the tools: It has pictures, can convey emotion, great documentaries and stuff. It can do a lot, but it chooses not to. Anytime they have an opportunity to bring something in that's about entertainment or sports, or now about the personality of Jesse Ventura, they just jump on it.

Also, on a radio talk show you can call up and say what you want about the station's programming. With a newspaper you can write a letter to the editor. But with TV it's like a black hole: There's no way to go after them. If you call the TV stations, they put you into some comment line and you don't have a clue what becomes of that.

CP: Let's talk about how the Crasher started out Labor Day weekend, on the Champlin Park football field.

TRONNES: From what I've been able to garner from talking to the Crasher, he was sitting at home on Friday evening, and he had a sign already made that said "Can't this wait until the SPORTS news?" It was originally intended for a Vikings exhibition game.

The Crasher had been hearing that Jesse Ventura had come back to coach his first game, but that hadn't really registered until he turned on Channel 9 and noticed that they had a live report from Champlin High.

At 9:30 he jumped in his car. At two minutes to ten, he got out of his car at the Champlin parking lot. Two minutes later he was standing behind Randi Kaye from WCCO. He put up his sign for about ten seconds and was just about to turn it around for the cursor.org plug when he was blindsided by the cameraman, who had put his camera on autopilot. The Crasher twirled his way out of the picture, but he's a professional, so he stayed on his feet and was still able to turn the poster around. So if someone was looking closely, for a moment they saw "Patrolling the Airwaves: www.CURSOR.org."  

CP: Any other "actions" that night?

TRONNES: Only with WCCO. But after that--from what I've heard--somebody stuck his head out of the KSTP truck and said, "Cursor go home, Cursor go home!"

Sure, KSTP's ratings are very low, but that didn't seem to be in good fun. The Crasher's philosophy is that he's fighting silliness with silliness. And as an editor for cursor.org, my feeling is that if these people want to do these live reports, fine; but if they're doing these reports in public and somebody wants to come and piggyback on whatever they're doing--I think it's kind of a freedom-of-speech issue.

CP: What about Labor Day? The Crasher made an appearance on Channel 9's remote from the Prince show at the Mill City Music Festival.

TRONNES: The Crasher had a funny sign. It said, "The Program Formerly Known As the News." I think that was his only reason to go down there. He hadn't indicated any other interest in that show.

CP: Anybody watching news coverage from the State Fair or other festivals sees people jostling to get on TV. How is this different?

TRONNES: If people are walking onto sets, they're usually holding up a sign that says, "Hi Mom" or "John 3:16." Or they're flashing a gang sign or doing something that is not a direct criticism of the newscast. If these [TV news] people are freaked out, that's what they're freaked out about: Somebody is calling them on how they're reporting the news.

CP: Does the Crasher's work reflect the philosophy of Cursor?

TRONNES: Absolutely. One of the ideas behind Cursor is the fact that a place like the Twin Cities doesn't have any real celebrities. Drive around town: Whose picture do you see on a billboard other than a media person? And they don't really have any right to be celebrities. They're celebrities because a tremendous amount of resources go into putting these people in front of you on a regular basis. I should say that the same thing that turned those people into celebrities works to our advantage, because everyone knows who they are.

CP: Don't newspapers fall into that same trap? Even City Pages had a house ad starring [staff writer] Mike Mosedale--who, we should note, is a former contributor to Cursor.

TRONNES: And the Star Tribune does make lame attempts to sell their columnists--you know, those things with the picture frames around them. But newspapers don't have to sell their people as celebrities.

I've really gained a great appreciation for the newspaper. It's a question of emphasis: You will routinely see newspaper stories that are this big [holds fingers about three inches apart] that led the TV news the night before. Television news has no perspective. The only perspective comes from an attempt to titillate, or to turn what isn't a big story into an important story. They spend as much time and energy selling you on the fact that you should be watching their story as they do putting it together.

CP: It's rumored that you have a cozy relationship with the Star Tribune's ombudsman, Lou Gelfand.

TRONNES: [Laughs] At one point a friend of mine said they were thinking of doing an intervention. I work at home; I get up in the morning, I read the paper, so if I see something in the paper I don't like, I give Lou a call. This is one of the things I do. I read the paper or watch TV or listen to the radio as much for how they're presenting it as what's on it.

CP: The Crasher seems to be equally critical--or his signs are now reflecting that.

TRONNES: There has been an evolution. We give the Crasher lots of feedback. I'm particularly hard on the Crasher. I don't think it's enough for him to have a sign out there that says, "Patrolling the Airwaves--CURSOR." I think you have to make a statement. You have to go out with a message about the news.

CP: Has the Crasher seen any results from his work thus far?

TRONNES: I happened to watch the WCCO news on [the evening after the Champlin "crash"], and the first story was about a debate about how the Twin Cities area should grow. I sat here and thought, "Is there any way the Crasher could have had any influence on them doing an actual story to lead their news?" Of course, I didn't really think there was. But it did occur to me.  

CP: At least from the thigh down, you and the Crasher look really, really similar. Any comment on that?

TRONNES: I guess at this point there's no chance that I could say, "Pay no attention to the man behind the sign"?


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