Off Beat

There's (Not) a Riot Goin' On

Maybe it's just a matter of semantics, but some readers of the Star Tribune's coverage of the violence in the Jordan neighborhood were mystified by the newspaper's choice of fightin' words. Apparently, when an 11-year-old boy is wounded by police, and an angry mob then assembles and beats two Strib reporters, burns a television station's van, and bashes in the windows of a city bus, it's a melee.

A melee, according to the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, indeed consists of "confused, hand-to-hand fighting in a pitched battle" or "a violent free-for-all." Accurate enough, but when was the last time you heard somebody actually say "melee"?

The lingo led to some spirited discourse among Strib staffers via the "morning note," an electronic bulletin board where employees debate various editorial issues. Some wondered if the word riot would have been a better fit, something that packs a little more punch. "If kids throwing rocks in the Mideast is a riot, then this is a riot," posted staff writer Jon Tevlin. "If anyone is arrested, my guess is, among the charges will be 'inciting a riot.'"

American Heritage defines a riot as a "wild or turbulent disturbance created by a large number of people," or "a violent disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled for a common purpose." (Other definitions refer to "merrymaking" and "debauchery.") Reporters and readers alike have wondered whether the newspaper is sidestepping the issue, trying to sugarcoat the events in the predominantly black neighborhood so as not to appear racist.

"That is certainly not the case," maintains executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal, adding that many African Americans were upset with the Strib for printing so much coverage in the first place. "Our job is to be accurate." Gyllenhaal, who has been on the job only since June and is presumably not inculcated with Minnesota Nice, says that his news experience led him to believe the events in Jordan "seemed to be less than something of a riot," citing events he covered in Miami "in which dozens of people were killed and buildings were burned." Gyllenhaal admits there has been controversy over the linguistics, but that "we are always second-guessing what we do, constantly discussing our decisions and whether we fairly portrayed events." The police, he notes, were not calling it a riot.

In subsequent coverage, the newspaper has also used rampage ("a course of violent, frenzied behavior or action") and, more recently, the toned-down disturbance ("the act of being disturbed," "the condition of being disturbed," or "something that disturbs, as a commotion, scuffle or public tumult").

Only columnist Doug Grow has used riot. "I did it because every other word seemed so strained," Grow says, adding that he wishes newsroom debate centered on more compelling questions of the newspaper's coverage. "I don't know if in this case it's grappling over being politically correct. I hope not, anyway."

News hounds will note that the St. Paul Pioneer Press did use the term riot in a headline concerning the melee. Gyllenhaal remains unmoved: "Our coverage, I hope, speaks for itself." --By G.R. Anderson Jr.


Case Dismissed

Kirstie Zahansky was all set to defend herself against a charge of driving without insurance at the court hearing scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on August 28. The case stemmed from an incident a few weeks earlier when someone stole her truck and later crashed it into the Dowling Environmental Learning Center. Even though Zahansky reported the truck stolen, the Minneapolis police issued her a ticket for driving without insurance (See "MPD Hit and Run," August 28, 2002, available at

When she arrived an hour early at Hennepin County District Court, Zahansky was surprised to find that someone had highlighted her name on the docket and written the word "dismissed" next to it. Relieved as she was that the charge was dropped, Zahansky explains that she is still a smidgen aggravated by the entire incident. "I don't know why they gave me a ticket in the first place, so I'd like to hear their reason for dropping it," she says, adding that she's especially upset about the police officers' insinuations that she may have been lying about what had happened. "Obviously that's not true because they threw out the entire thing before it even got before a judge." --By Leyla Kokmen