When Matt Entenza withdrew from the attorney general's race on July 18, it seemed to put an abrupt end to one of the more sordid interludes in recent DFL history: a dig for political dirt on the party's gubernatorial frontrunner, Mike Hatch, initiated by someone who was not only a fellow Democrat, but Hatch's own presumptive successor in the AG's office. It came as no shock to veteran Capitol watchers to find Hatch and Entenza feuding. Tales of their run-ins, and of Hatch's alleged efforts to persuade other Democrats to run against Entenza for AG, have long been common currency in the gossip mills. (One obvious root of the animus lay in their political résumés. Hatch had made reining in HMOs the chief mission of his eight-year tenure as attorney general. Entenza is married to a prominent health care executive, Lois Quam, whose lavish paycheck enabled Entenza to become a principal financial donor to the party, and one of its rising electoral stars.)
Entenza's fast exit from the campaign left a number of questions about the affair hanging. Among them: How had Hatch learned of the inquiries that Gragert Research, a Chicago firm, was making about him? How had he verified Entenza was behind it? And for Entenza's part, why did he cut and run so quickly after the episode was disclosed?
But when the matter resurfaced in the news last week, it wasn't a reporter doing the talking. Just days after the Star Tribune emailed a list of related questions to Mike Hatch, and before they had published any postmortem story, Hatch filed a preemptive complaint (2.5 MB PDF) with the Minnesota News Council. In it he claimed that the questions put to him by reporters Dane Smith and Mike Kaszuba contained "the most sleazy type of innuendo" and amounted to an effort to "swiftboat" his family by further investigating the claims churned up by Entenza's dirt-digger.
The news council complaint—quickly dismissed on the grounds that there was no story to examine—is likely to hurt the notoriously pugnacious Hatch in his electoral fight against the ever-affable Tim Pawlenty. The fact that Hatch jumped the gun on his complaint to the council likewise made it easy for the paper to backpedal toward the high road. On Sunday the paper's editor, Anders Gyllenhaal, wrote that while Hatch's "litany of complaints" included "personal attacks on those assigned to the story, charges of bias, and sweeping, off-base conclusions about the motives" of the Strib, he and his reporters would "ignore the heat" and continue to ask "sometimes tough and uncomfortable" questions.
But the most interesting questions raised by the matter are about journalism and the Strib. Namely: Is it the rightful job of reporters to try to verify allegations or implications of a personal nature that surface in a partisan mud-slinging battle? And, by the way, is it wise to employ a political editor known for his own partisan sentiments?
On the latter count, Hatch's complaint names not only the reporters who approached him; it adds Strib political editor D.J. Tice. The paper's management set itself up for just this sort of controversy two years ago when it hired Tice to manage and coordinate the paper's statewide political coverage, a job that requires rigorous nonpartisanship in reputation as well as behavior. Yet before he joined the Strib, Tice had long been an editorial columnist with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, writing under his own byline with a distinct ideological preference for Republicans. (Full disclosure: I stopped writing for the Tice-led Twin Cities Reader in 1991 when the paper went on record with its support for the first Gulf War.)
The thrust of the questions emailed to Hatch by Strib staffers Dane Smith and Mike Kaszuba was twofold: first, to determine whether Hatch had someone contact Entenza's office to verify that Entenza was behind the inquiry into Hatch's past, and second, to ask after the significance of a parking ticket placed on a Hatch-owned car on December 20, 2003. One implication of the questions was that Entenza's researcher followed up on the ticket because it was issued at a public spot where anonymous gay sex was thought to occur, and thus might be used to smear Hatch. The email also proposed that Hatch may have "fudged a little" when he told law enforcement officers he was responsible for leaving the car illegally parked, and suggested that he was instead protecting one of his daughters, who left the car after Hatch came to console her about a "boyfriend problem."
Reading the Strib email (800 KB PDF), it isn't hard to see why Hatch hit the roof. It is hard to see why the minutiae of a nearly three-year-old parking ticket, or the love life of a candidate's daughter, is a burning issue in the governor's race. I wrote to the Stribbers named in Hatch's complaint to ask what made such questions relevant to the local paper of record.
Tice, in particular, seemed to have no problem finding a moral equivalency between Entenza's alleged actions and Hatch's purported use of deception to verify that Entenza was the one behind the opposition research campaign against him. "[I]f the rumors are true that Hatch ordered someone to misrepresent themselves as an investigator in a phone call to Entenza, and presumably relate other untruths, it would be an unusual procedure for the state's chief legal officer to be engaged in this vis-a-vis another public official. Whether it is relevant to the governor's race is for voters to decide. But...it would shed further light on the level of animosity and deception between these two high-ranking government officers," Tice wrote.
He applies the same logic to the rumor—never proven—that it was Hatch's daughter who received the parking citation in question: "If Hatch misrepresented the facts concerning the parking ticket it would be a public lie, and would bring his credibility into question no less than Entenza's credibility has been brought into question by some of his statements that people found implausible." Does Tice really think that a dad who may or may not be taking the blame for a daughter's carelessness is the same as a political candidate who undertakes to dig up dirt on a member of his own party? Apparently so.
After Hatch publicized his complaint to the news council, Gyllenhaal took to the stump in other media outlets, arguing that the paper couldn't be guilty of bias because they were simply fact-finding, with no particular premise in mind. Tice and Smith echoed this point to City Pages: "There was no specific 'story' in the works, just an attempt to resolve contradictions and solve mysteries left over from the Entenza affair," Tice wrote to City Pages.
Then why does the preamble to the Strib's questions note that "We are preparing a story that attempts to answer some rather obvious lingering questions..."? And why do the Stribbers balk at waiting five days to meet with Hatch, who had asked to postpone the interview until Wednesday, July 26? If there was no "specific story" planned, why such urgency?
On Thursday, July 27, the Strib did indeed publish a story about the Entenza-commissioned investigation of Hatch. As it turned out, the piece revolved mainly around a law enforcement official who alerted Hatch to the existence of a private investigation that seemed to be tilted against him. The story contained nothing that touched on Hatch's family or the candidate himself in unflattering terms. Is it the same piece the paper would have done absent Hatch's complaint? We'll never know, but two things bear watching for in the heat of the campaign to come. The collateral damage from Mike Hatch's hair-trigger temper is one; the ideological tilt of the Strib's politics coverage is the other. A liberal editorial page does not mean a liberal, or even neutral, news section.