Where to Bury the Dirty Laundry

Nick Vlcek

As the crowd was departing the now infamous Wellstone memorial service on October 29, WCCO-TV political reporter Pat Kessler appeared on air to report the early reaction from Republicans. His phone had been ringing nonstop, he told anchor Don Shelby. The evening's partisan tone had outraged the conservative pundits on the other end of the line, and they were already demanding equal time. At that very moment, you could feel the ground start to shift. The Republicans, capitalizing on the public's negative reaction to Rick Kahn's momentary lapse of reason, managed to politicize Wellstone's death by accusing the other side of doing the same.

Of course, no matter what happened inside Williams Arena that night, Kessler's phone would have been vibrating. Strategists like Sarah Janecek and Vin Weber knew the three-hour event was the only show in town, and they were sure to be on hand to offer a bit of post-game analysis, maybe a courteous criticism or two, and then emphasize their candidate's tough situation. (Janecek started honing her poor Norm, cursed by acts of God shtick just hours after Wellstone's plane hit the ground.)

That Kahn and Co. had turned the later part of the night into a rally for born-again liberals just made their job a lot easier. Instead of having to gently spin their way into the news cycle, they had carte blanche to start swinging for a knockout.

Twenty-four hours later, as grief gave way to good old-fashioned politicking, all you needed to do was glance at the Star Tribune to see how well the strategy was working. There, on the front page, in living color, was a picture of the soon-to-be senator-elect, grinning ear to ear, tickling a giggling tot. It was such a visual cliché that, scanning for a photo credit, you half expected to see the phrase: "Courtesy of Citizens for Norm Coleman."

Rereading the Strib's political coverage that ran in the days after that picture was published, it's easy to imagine a room full of managers huddled around some sort of editorial abacus, creating a formula to ensure that each major party candidate receive the exact same coverage, quantitatively and qualitatively. Newspapers spend a lot of time attempting to affect this sort of faux objectivity, often abandoning hard-hitting analysis in favor of he said, she said stories that allow both sides to parrot the party line ad nauseam, especially when they don't want whipped-up partisan readers to accuse them of bias right before the polls open. In the wake of the Kahn debacle, though, Strib editors have been especially skittish about printing potentially controversial stories about Coleman.

On Friday, November 1, gossip columnist Cheryl Johnson wrote a short piece detailing an angry phone call that Norm Coleman and his wife Laurie made to Pat Kessler after he ran a profile about the couple on WCCO. During a segment of video showing the Coleman family hanging out in the kitchen, Kessler reported, This Saturday morning Laurie is visiting from California where she is working on a television series. Neither the candidate nor his wife took kindly to the term "visiting," and berated the reporter for what they thought was a blatant attempt to embarrass them. "[Laurie] was just very upset because she thought it was, and she said this, a devious political shot...A way to paint their marriage as something that it wasn't," Kessler told C.J.

The piece ran on the Strib's website that Friday. On Sunday, when the print edition of her column hit the streets, however, the Coleman tirade, unbeknownst to the author, was missing. "Senior editors did not know the item had been submitted for publication online," managing editor Scott Gillespie says. "That was a mistake. We should not have published it online; a gossip item on the Senate race just a few days before the race wasn't appropriate."

When the item did finally run in the paper, two days after the election, it read essentially the same, minus a few quotes from Kessler. Initially, staffers in the newsroom didn't think much about the deletion, in part because it was a gossip item, in part because it seemed to be, in the words of political columnist Doug Grow, a "very close call."

After the paper failed to write anything about Garrison Keillor's vicious and rather bizarre swipes at Coleman on Salon.com on November 7 and 13, however, a few reporters have begun to wonder out loud whether their paper is handling Coleman with too much care.

Keillor's screeds have been the topic du jour on local talk radio for weeks, and the national media has covered the unctuous radio host's decidedly artless mudslinging both as straight news and as fodder for the editorial page. The Strib didn't write anything about the subject until November 14, though, when C.J. (who else?) was given the green light to write a short squib about how Keillor is "catching flak."

According to Gillespie, it is a good guess that this is all the paper will do on the subject, since he's not comfortable repeating Keillor's unsubstantiated claims, including a not-so-veiled suggestion that Coleman's family life is a sham. "We can't just repeat what we can't prove," Gillespie said. "It just doesn't meet our threshold for news."

Reporters at the Strib say that, in this case at least, they are not quite sure where that threshold is, or why. Keillor is a prominent local figure, after all, and his writing about Coleman is the talk of the town. Even if the paper of record decided to avoid any mention of Coleman's marriage, the Salon articles contain a least a dozen other pointed criticisms. And none of them is any more over-the-top or mean-spirited than the unsubstantiated, blanket accusations Vin Weber was feeding reporters on October 29. "What a complete, total, absolute sham," the Star Tribune quoted him as saying in an article that ran the next morning. "The DFL clearly intends to exploit Wellstone's memory totally, completely and shamelessly for political gain. To them, Wellstone's death, apparently, was just another campaign event."

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