Mute Point

Mary Fallon

Like their peers who cover local sports, competing reporters at the state house in St. Paul compliment each other before the morning bell, gossip at lunch, and trade tall tales over cocktails after work. When they get started talking inside baseball, you can't shut them up. Unless, of course, one of their number happens to find his or her way into the spotlight--actually becoming a story rather than simply covering one. When that unthinkable thing happens, the whole loose-lipped bunch can be expected to run for cover. "Sure, we slap each other on the back all the time around here," a seven-year vet whispers on his outstate paper's cell phone. "But when someone gets in trouble, when people are worried about losing access, then it's every man for himself."

John Yewell, staff writer for the Saint Paul Legal Ledger, faced this institutional reality while running down a January 14 story about a closed-door confrontation between Gov. Arne Carlson and members of the local Associated Press bureau. Yewell says tongues were wagging in the wake of the unprecedented event, which took place in the governor's office January 5, but when he attempted to get comments for his article, everyone clammed up. Minnesota's AP bureau chief Dave Pyle, who was present during the set-to, was willing to provide only the barest assessment of the events. The only other reporter Yewell could persuade to open up on the record about the fracas was WCCO-TV's Capitol reporter Pat Kessler, who hadn't even taken part in the affair. "And believe me," the writer says, "I asked everybody."

Still, by cobbling together off-the-record secondhand chatter with a handful of Pyle's on-the-record recollections, Yewell was able to break a story no other local media outlet has bothered to follow. The gist: Carlson, peeved at some stories filed by AP reporter Rochelle Olson, had one of his flacks convene a meeting between the governor and the AP's entire state-house crew. What resulted, according to Pyle, was a brawl, complete with Carlson shouting, pointing his finger at Olson, and threatening to see to it that she lost her job. In Carlson's corner were legal counsel Tanja Kozicky, director of strategic planning Tim Sullivan, and media spokesperson Val Gunderson. Pyle, news editor Doug Glass, and reporter Bill Wareham came along to defend Olson. The governor plopped down a file of AP stories and accused Olson of biased coverage. He was especially irritated by a story she wrote for the wire on October 26, 1997, titled "Carlson flip-flop looms over public data access." (Olson's piece points out that in 1989 Carlson, who was then state auditor, filed a report concluding that state and local governments have no business getting in the way of the media's watchdog efforts. More recently, he has endeavored to set up an administrative office to decide what government data should be made public.)

Paraphrasing off-the-record comments made by his colleagues, Yewell concluded the January 5 blowup solidified Carlson's reputation as "thin-skinned." He quoted Kessler's opinion that the governor was "going after" a top colleague, trying "to destroy someone's career."

Though he remains reluctant to discuss specifics of the meeting, Pyle says the facts and tone of Yewell's piece were dead-on. "There was nothing constructive about the meeting whatsoever. In fact, it was pretty ridiculous," says the bureau chief, who is serving as the AP's official spokesman regarding the matter. "They cited some examples of things they thought were biased, but ultimately it was the standard politician not liking a critical story. In the end, it just spiraled out of control. At one point they put us in the position of trying to defend the media's handling of the Richard Jewell case! It was everything but the kitchen sink."

Now that the story has appeared in print--albeit only in the Ledger -- more reporters are willing to opine publicly about the bizarre nature of the AP meeting. John Sundvor, a columnist for Forum Communications, which publishes seven Midwestern newspapers including the Fargo Forum, says he was surprised at what his AP colleagues recounted to him. "I've been here eight years, so sure, every now and then the governor will send someone down here to tell me how unhappy he is with something I wrote," notes Sundvor. "One time he even threatened to take me to the Minnesota News Council. He doesn't like criticism, and he doesn't want to be the subject of things that are unflattering. I just brush that kind of stuff off as part of the deal. But the AP thing was unusual. Instead of complaining about a particular story, they basically said get rid of her."

Sullivan, who says it's only natural for the governor to challenge the press when they challenge him, maintains that his boss merely aired justifiable beefs in a professional, nonthreatening manner: "If you take the three journalistic values--balance, accuracy, and fairness--we felt we had legitimate complaints on all three grounds," Sullivan contends. "Sure, there were some contentious moments. But come on. We're all big boys and girls. This was the only time we'd raised this serious level of concern with any news outlets. And we wouldn't have done it unless our reasons were substantive."

Nevertheless, when asked to break down Olson's offenses, Sullivan is sketchy. He briefly refers to the data-access story, then reverts to more general statements about balance, fairness, and accuracy. He is, however, acutely aware that with nearly a year still left in office, the governor has expended a chunk of political capital with the press. "I actually like these guys and respect they job they do, particularly the print reporters," he says. "And I know there's a natural institutional tension. So I expect it will take people a while to get over what they might've viewed as an attack."

Given this seeming self-awareness, it might appear a bit out of character for Sullivan to approach WCCO reporter Pat Kessler in the Capitol's basement halls after the Ledger piece was published and loudly lambaste him for allowing his two cents' worth to appear in print. But that's precisely what occurred. "Tim was upset about how I characterized the governor's meeting, which I did not attend," Kessler recalls. "He was particularly upset about me ascribing motives. First he left a voicemail, then he confronted me personally. He blew off some steam." Adds the TV reporter, "I told him he ought to be ashamed of himself. I said what I said, and no, I won't retract it. I think that meeting was an act of sabotage. Sure, there's always an adversarial relationship down here. People in politics are impassioned, joyful, angry-type people. But this is a little different. This is intimidation."

"Look, Pat's a fine reporter," Sullivan retorts. "He had expressed concerns to me privately about this issue, and that's fine. But we thought it was crossing the line when he said we were out to get Rochelle. He was attacking the credibility of the office."

The clamor has given way to an uneasy, unspoken truce. Pyle says Olson will continue to file her stories, which he praises as "aggressive" and "hard-hitting." Sullivan says the Olson matter is water under the bridge and is quick to praise the AP for its "overall" integrity. Olson won't comment about the incident, saying she's too busy to give it any more thought.

Kessler, meanwhile, agrees with John Yewell that the whole affair may have backfired on the governor, resulting in a renewed sense of commitment among the Capitol press corps. "Reporters are not here to be anybody's friend," says the WCCO reporter. "They're here to tell us what happened. And no amount of intimidation or anger or leaks by a blustery politician is going to change the way we cover the news. But I do think this incident has helped to strengthen people's resolve as to why we're here."

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