Off Beat

Faking It

OFF BEAT WOULD be the last to condemn the time-honored tradition of journalistic pseudonyms. But we couldn't help being struck by the tale of woe of former Star Tribune subscriber Chuck Strinz. In a September 24 letter to the Strib's subscription department (cc'd to Off Beat), the Eagan resident complained that he'd received a letter in early July from one "Jesse Alden of Customer Service," demanding a $50.10 payment for a past-due subscription. Strinz called the phone number listed in the letter and explained that he'd never renewed his subscription and therefore didn't owe a cent. Having been, as he puts it, "assured that my bill would be cancelled," he was surprised a few weeks later to receive a second letter from Jesse Alden, again demanding payment. Strinz called the paper again and requested to speak with Alden. It was then, he notes in his letter, that he "learned that no such person exists." (Reached by phone, Strinz tells Off Beat that a customer-service rep told him flat-out, "There's no one here by that name.") Still, he was ready to forget the matter when he was again promised that the invoice would be voided. Then came a third letter about the disputed bill--this one from a collection agency. Now Strinz has requested a formal apology from the Strib and has complained to the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, alleging that the paper engaged in deceptive practices. We asked Strib spokeswoman Patty Jones whether the paper does indeed use fake names for customer-service reps. In a terse response left on Off Beat's voicemail, Jones offers only an artful dodge: "It's not our policy to comment on the specifics of a customer-service complaint. However, we have contacted the customer and we regret any inconvenience we may have caused him. I think that this matter has been handled. That's our response."

The Strib According to Steve

OFF BEAT OCCASIONALLY feels for our colleagues at the Newspaper of the Twin Cities: Very rarely do they get to conjure the sassy prose that fills this column each week. For longtime Striber Steve Brandt, though, at least there's the Minneapolis-Issues e-mail newsgroup.

Brandt has been posting to the group for the past two years; a sampling of recent exchanges yielded a veritable gold mine. In June a participant claimed she'd traded e-mails with Star Tribune reader representative Lou Gelfand over a possible correction. "There will be no correction," Brandt countered authoritatively. "The Star Tribune doesn't run corrections for what readers infer from an article, because the possibilities are endless." Though Brandt, who reports on Minneapolis community issues, often signs his posts identifying himself as a staff writer for the paper, on this occasion he offered that he was a writer "for an English-language daily newspaper published in Minneapolis."

Brandt often takes matters into his own hands when clarifying stories (such as a painstaking explanation of how the Strib screwed up some poll results back in July), but the Steve Brandt we love is the pithy pit bull who goes to the mat at least once a month defending a piece. "The stats for crime in Prospect Park before and after lighting are downtown," Brandt replied to one newsgroup participant who had a bone to pick over an old Brandt story about how streetlights had reduced crime in the Minneapolis neighborhood, "if [he] cares to put down his money, as the Star Tribune did." Brandt has also asserted that mayoral endorsements never affect the paper's news coverage of candidates, and that the Highway 55 reroute could be "argued on ideological grounds into perpetuity."

The reporter can also post on the lighter side. On September 19 he recounted "the great Twinkies caper of 1985," when a city council candidate was jailed for currying favor with voters by doling out the cream-filled snack cakes. And more recently, in a discussion thread on rodents and gardening in the city, Brandt offered this priceless advice: "Metal mesh works well for tulips, but you can avoid having to use it to plant daffodils. Squirrels leave them alone, in MINNEAPOLIS at least. They also seems [sic] to ignore scilla, which give a nice blue contrast against daffodils. Does either mayoral candidate have a position on this?"

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