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Stiffed by the Star Tribune
A week was now left before the general election. One major campaign event remained. That was a half-hour debate between the 5th district Congressional candidates at Minnesota Public Radio at its studios in St. Paul on Tuesday, October 28th. The debate, moderated by Gary Eichten, would begin at 11:30 a.m. We would have assigned parking spots in a lot behind the building.
Before this happened, however, Steve Brand’s article on our race finally appeared in the Star Tribune. The article, titled “Ellison has fewer foes and a far easier path to victory”, began on the first page of the Metro Section on Monday, October 27th, and continued over to another page. I was shocked. Nowhere in the article was the debate at the Jordan New Life Community Church mentioned. Instead, it was largely a repeat of what Brandt had written in July, before I filed for office. The gist of it was that Ellison was, by far, the superior candidate and would easily win. As much space seemed to be given to describing the 2006 race for Congress and other events in Ellison’s career as to covering the 2008 contest.
I looked through the article to see what Brandt said about me. (link to the article) This was contained in two sentences. Brandt wrote: “William McGaughey, a landlord who is a frequent candidate, hadn’t raised enough (money) to file federal campaign finance reports.” Later on, in a sentence about Ellison’s “North Side base” and Barb Davis White’s having graduated from a high school in north Minneapolis, he wrote: “McGaughey also lives there.” That was it. That was the Star Tribune’s entire coverage of my campaign.
If I thought I had it bad, I saw at the end of the article what reporter Brandt had done to Barb Davis White. He was contemptuous of the small amount of money - $43,437 - that her campaign had raised. Then there was this: “But her campaign’s paltry treasury didn’t stop Davis White from spending more than $400 in campaign funds at a Minneapolis hair and wig shop on hair extensions. ‘I have picture to take. I have to be at places,’ she said in explaining why that was a campaign expense.” Maybe Brandt was thinking of how $400 haircuts had sunk the Edwards campaign. (A clue to how poison-pen journalists at the Star Tribune wish flavor an article morally, I have learned, is how they phrase the last sentence.)
Well, this was simply outrageous. I emailed Steve Brandt and told him so. Brandt sent this message in response: “Bill: I anticipated that you would not be happy. One yardstick I use in preparing an article is the degree of effort by the candidates to raise the money and the campaign infrastructure for a district-wide campaign. By this yardstick, you fell well-short of even the effort that the Davis campaign has made. This is not to say that your ideas were lacking; I have been impressed by your thoughtfulness. However, here's the choice we face as reporters: Do we give equal treatment to candidates who have not generated the resources to take their message district-wide, and is that fair to the candidates who have? In the news pages, our answer is that we generally give attention in proportion to the vigor of the overall campaign. We use a different standard in our voters guide, where candidates are given equal shrift.”
Nuts to that. Even a person who did not run (the prospective Green Party candidate in July) had received more coverage than I in the Congressional this year. I wrote Brandt: “I have many lawn signs and have talked extensively with voters around the district, many of whom say they are fed up with the two-party system. Please ask Tice to list me among the candidates in My Vote on startribune.com. Do you use money raised as a criterion for that, too?”
The request of (Doug) Tice referred to the fact that the paper’s online version, Startribune.com, of which Tice is the editor, neglected to include my name in its list of candidates running for Congress in the 5th District. Only Ellison and Davis White were listed in the MyVote column to the left when a person clicked on that web site. According to its own description, MyVote was supposed to help voters “get information about all of the candidates on your ballot”. I would also be on the ballot for U.S. Congress in the 5th district; yet, with less than a week to go before the general election, the MySpace listing omitted my name. That omission was subsequently corrected.
It could not be by accident, I thought, that the MySpace listing on Startribune.com left me off the list of people running for Congress in the 5th district. Steve Brandt had also largely left me out of his article about the Congressional race. The Secretary of State’s website, and many others, has the correct listing of candidates. The Star Tribune’s political team was not stupid. No, this was a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the election by pretending that certain candidates did not exist. But I did exist as a candidate. I may only be a gnat while the Star Tribune is an elephant, I thought, but, by golly, I would not take this slight lightly. With a little ingenuity, my sting would penetrate its thick institutional hide.
The picketing option
The picketing event was on. I’d take my fight to the front door of the newspaper’s headquarters. I sent off an email to that effect to Steve Brandt. The Star Tribune’s top editor, Nancy Barnes, got one, too. So did a dozen other media people. By this time, the financial bailout was on everyone’s mind. Was the Star Tribune, I asked, “too big to fail”? Could it publish whatever it wanted about Twin Cities political campaigns and suffer no adverse consequences? With a megaphone admittedly smaller than the Star Tribune’s, I would emphatically say, “no”.
So the Star Tribune would not cover campaigns that were inadequately financed. Maybe that was because the newspaper thought it stood to get some of the money. “Viable” campaigns had to advertise in its newspaper. This was a “pay to play” proposition. Both Don Allen and I understood the situation that way. But subscribers expect some coverage of election campaigns as part of the news reporting. That was why they bought newspapers, wasn’t it?
I remembered an old comedy routine from the 1960s. Comedian Pat Paulson was running for president. Ss a candidate, he was once given a tour of an automobile factory. His eyes glazed over while he was being shown the various steps in the production process. The tour leader asked Paulson what he wanted to see. The candidate answered: “where the bumpers are kept”. When he was shown a stack of front and rear bumpers, he started putting “Paulson for President” campaign stickers on the bumpers. That was the candidate’s narrowly focused approach to campaigning. And so, I thought, the Star Tribune political team was narrowly focused on the money aspect of campaigning, perhaps because that’s where it thought its next meal might be found.
Addressing the money issue two weeks earlier after a conversation with Allen, I had written a broadside. The headline had read: “As Star Tribune advertising revenues decline, the paper refuses to cover Congressional campaigns that are financially incapable of maintaining significant ad budgets.” The text was as follows:
“ Maybe you haven’t heard much about the 5th District (Minneapolis) Congressional race. Maybe you don’t know who Keith Ellison’s political opponents are. That’s no accident. The Star Tribune still hasn’t run an article about this campaign in the more than three months since the candidates filed in mid July.
The information provided to voters has been skimpy. After filing, the Star Tribune did not report the names of the candidates for Congress in the 5th District. After the primary, it did not report the number of votes received by each candidate. Unlike previous years, it did not publish a Voters Guide for the primary.
Ellison, the DFL incumbent, has been mentioned more than forty times in Star Tribune articles since filing. An opinion piece of his was published in the Sunday paper. The Republican and Independence Party candidates have been named twice - once before and once after the primary - to the effect that they were running unopposed in their respective party primaries. Both were single-sentence statements of that fact.
This is what we call “gatekeeping journalism”: a tendency to decide which candidates and what positions are respectable and to defeat the disfavored candidates and views through silence - withholding the oxygen of information that voters need to cast intelligent votes. For decades now, the Star Tribune has been a prime practitioner of this art. It has aspired to shape as well as report political news.
It has also aspired to make money off elections. Star Tribune representatives have told us that, without a certain level of campaign contributions, they do not consider a candidate viable and therefore will not cover such campaigns. Meanwhile they send fancy advertising brochures to each of the campaigns.
Democracy cannot survive if the voters lack information about their ballot choices. Tell the Star Tribune’s editors, managers, and bosses in New York that you will not accept a shoddy product.
Subscribers pay good money to receive news of their community including elections. One payment should be enough.”
Now, on October 28th, the day after Steve Brandt’s article appeared, I sent out a press release announcing that I would be picketing Star Tribune headquarters between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. on the following day, which was Wednesday, October 29th. I said that the Republican candidate for Congress might join me. (She did not.) The issue was Brandt’s biased reporting which followed three months of the paper’s ignoring our campaign. “When newspapers show bias to this extent,” I wrote, “they become part of the political news and legitimate targets for protest demonstrations.”
Surprise announcement on the radio
I also had another announcement in mind which would be even more spectacular. It was the MPR debate. The “Midday Show” on Minnesota Public Radio is one of the most popular sources of political information in the Twin Cities. The show has a huge audience. This is where I would drop my next bomb shell on the Star Tribune.
I was first to arrive at the MPR offices on Cedar Street on Monday morning. Soon Ellison, Davis White, and their campaign managers, Larry Weiss and Don Allen, joined me in the lobby. We went upstairs to the recording studio and waited in a side room while moderator, Gary Eichten, finished with his previous guests, the 4th District Congressional candidates. I shook hands with Betty McCollum when she came out the door. Then we three 5th district candidates went in and sat around a table across from Eichten, me in the middle. There were the usual policy questions. We had been through this routine before. However, it was less debate and more discussion. The war and the economy were major topics.
By this time, I had decided that my strongest position against Ellison was regarding the bailout legislation. He had voted for it. Ellison was also a member of the House Financial Services committee, a lead player in that situation. I had also recently seen a television program explaining how derivatives, or “credit default swaps”, had been a major factor in the financial crisis. I blamed Ellison and his colleagues on the committee for failing to deal with this dangerous situation. Why had not derivatives been made illegal if they were so toxic? Keith Ellison’s response was to say, yes, we do need to look at derivatives. But he also blamed Phil Gramm, a Republican Senator from Texas, for deregulating the banking industry in 2000 and letting Wall Street go wild.
The half-hour interview went by quickly. We were each given time for closing statements. This was my chance. Instead of stating any positions, I pointed out that the Star Tribune had failed to cover the 5th Congressional District race until yesterday, when it did a hatchet job on Barb Davis White and me. I specifically mentioned its making an issue of her hair. I would therefore be picketing the Star Tribune offices on Wednesday morning between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. I invited Barb to join me on the picket line. “You, too, Keith,” I said.
Sitting on my left, I could see that Barb Davis White could barely contain her excitement. Although we had discussed the problem before, she couldn’t believe that I would have the guts actually to say this on the radio. She told me later that black women in north Minneapolis had been calling her to come to her defense about the expenditure for fixing her hair. Keith Ellison also allowed that I had a point. It had not been fair coverage. “You were screwed,” he remarked graciously as we walked together out the studio.
The deed was done. What remained now was for me to make the picket signs and send out the press releases, including to national media. I had the rest of the day to get ready for this encounter. I would use the existing sign, “Bill McGaughey for U.S. Congress/ Independence Party/ Can We Talk about Jobs?” and make a new one: “Is the Star Tribune too big to Fail?” Nothing like rubbing salt in their wounds - the paper was, in fact, financially troubled. Craigslist, not I, was mainly responsible for that misfortune.
Two hours in the cold
Wednesday morning, October 29th, with the help of an alarm clock, I arose early, loaded the car with signs, and drove to the Star Tribune headquarters on Portland Avenue. Fortunately, I could park quite near the door. The parking meter just down the street did not need to be fed until 8:00 a.m.; and for the hour after that, a half dollar would suffice. I stuck one of my “McGaughey for Congress” lawn signs in the front window of my car, facing in the direction of the protest, and then took another lawn sign and the two larger signs with me to a place on the sidewalk near the Star Tribune front entrance. One of the lawn signs could be leaned against the building. A larger sign, the one about the paper’s being “too big to fail”, was attached to a fire hydrant with bungee cord. I held the other sign in front of me. I also had a canvas brief case with flyers to be distributed to Star Tribune employees.
It was cold, but I was dressed for the occasion. A red “2008 Beijing Olympics” wool cap kept me head warm. It had not been twenty minutes before a truck pulled up next to the curb. The driver said he was a reporter from KARE-TV. He did his own camera work. This reporter, Mike Stern, wired me up for an interview and then began shooting. Why was I doing this? What was my experience in the campaign? There was a good, easy conversation. I talked for several minutes on camera, Stern took shots of the signs and the buildings, and then finished. He loaded his gear in the truck and drove away.
Not too much time went by before another reporter appeared. This was Terry Yzaguirre from the MPLS Mirror blog. She told me that she was working on a project about the effect of the DFL party’s total control of Minneapolis city government. What cosy relationships existed with interest groups? My protest demonstration would fit nicely into that theme, she said. Yzaguirre again asked me questions as she shot video.
Of particular interest to her was the fact that Keith Ellison’s son had substituted for his father in the Jordan New Life Community Church debate. I said that the Congressman had been called back to Washington. Yzaguirre thought that Ellison had been at an event for a legislative candidate, Jeff Hayden, the same evening. She would check on this. I remarked that Ellison’s son, Isaiah, had done an adequate job as a debater. Yzaguirre said, “Maybe we should vote for him, then?” I smiled and said that would be fine with me.
The picketing was already a success. Two media people had interviewed me. The rest of my two-hour event was a mixture of boredom and occasional conversations. My target audience was Star Tribune employees arriving at work. I gave each a copy of my flyer, or tried to do so. Some people took the literature with good humor. For instance, two women who came outside to smoke chatted pleasantly for me for several minutes. Many, however, reacted in what seemed a surly way. Maybe these were veteran or high-ranking employees? The Star Tribune was used to pointing fingers at other people, not having fingers pointed at it. But it was early in the morning and few were in a mood to argue or talk before they had had their morning coffee.
The only person from the Star Tribune who talked with me and identified himself was Eric Ringham, the paper's Commentary editor. Our conversation was not unpleasant. Ringham said he could understand my concern, but I had to admit that I stood little chance of being elected to Congress from the 5th district. The newspaper had to be realistic about this campaign and not pretend that the public was equally interested in the three candidates. Of course, it would pay more attention to Keith Ellison. Fair enough. We did not discuss the money issue.
That evening, I watched both of KARE-TV’s local news programs hoping to see the taped segment featuring my protest. If it ran, I missed. I called Mike Stern the next morning to ask whether his feature had appeared on either broadcast. He thought not. News editors often cut stories when something else comes along deemed to be of greater news interest. But he would check with the news department. Maybe he could arrange to have my interview posted on KARE-TV’s web site. And so he did. The interview was posted. Unfortunately, I could not look at the video because I did not have the proper software on my computer for this. But I was able to play the video shot for the MPLS Mirror blog. I put link to this on my website.
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