Thursday, May 16, 2013

How Should We Judge Minnesota Media?

The idea of being judged at all, let's get that out of the way, is fairly anathema to Minnesota media. And why should it not be? They hardly police themselves because they're all in on the game, yo. And no organization or ad hoc collection of activists on a sustained basis exists from which to cast a cold eye upon the manner and style of that which they do cover, to say nothing of the infinitely more important topic of those things they knowingly do not cover. Their sins of commission pale in contrast to their sins of omission. What isn't covered is very important but it is akin to what hasn't happened to ourselves: very few of us awake grateful we didn't die during the night. Few indeed are those antiquated things known as letters to the editors railing about stories not given coverage. Most likely those letters never get published in the first instance by which the snake swallows its tail.

No, for some reason media in Minnesota have had a relative pass from scrutiny and, worse, accountability. Mind you, this has hardly made them better, sharper, faster, more serious. To the contrary, with notable exceptions, local media are stale, predictable, thin skinned and insulting to educated citizens. They don't mean to be, it's just whom they've become. With editors, to the extent they exist in any meaningful sense, obtuse and politically correct to a fare thee well, the average reporter will do as their "news" environment suggests. This is understandable; when it comes to examining media conduct a clinical, almost anthropological approach is best, less "Coming of Age in Samoa" than "Tristes Tropiques."

The small clutch of political reporters in Minnesota lean demonstrably left and most of them are nice people. In Minnesota, being certified nice has the effect of shutting down any criticism or substantive discussion. The effect of this is to leave us awash in mediocrity from our playwrights & theater to education to political leaders to food. Certain exceptions obtain but mostly to reinforce the overarching blandness. It's as if Minnesotans like what they know and know what they like and you can go back to where you came from, thanks, if you don't care for it. Minnesota nice is cultural propofol. The movie "Fargo" wrote itself mostly by the Coen brothers simply being awake.

Against this background Minnesota media criticism is fraught with peril. Egregious mistakes are welcomed to be pointed out because this provides a cost-free veneer of professionalism and objectivity. Anything more advanced is unwelcome despite what might be said by any given reporter on Twitter. And it is on Twitter that the need for corrective action in the content, style and subject matter of local reporting shows itself most acutely. I've previously written that Twitter is a kill box for journalists; that piece can be read here. The savviest use of Twitter by a journalist, in my view, is Jim VandeHei's. He co-founded the once promising, now lazy redoubt of yet another liberal media organ Politico. He follows no one and the number of his tweets is zero. Why bother? VandeHei monitors the environment of Twitter without allowing it to reveal himself. His peers would have done well to emulate his example early on but it's far too late now, the admixture of being where it's at and ego proving far too seductive to resist.

Consequently, traditional reporters and journalists are a bit aghast at being called out. They haven't realized how much of themselves they have given away on Twitter. But there you have it and things aren't going back to a time where they--and we--were not on Twitter. Careful observers can practically predict what individual reporters will cover and the manner, slant and style of their product. Interaction with them on Twitter is a milieu all its own, at times having self-abasing protocols that rival those at court of the Sun King. It's an article of faith among republican staffers that if they suck up to reporters they'll get better coverage. No. Of course everyday common courtesy should be the norm. Amusingly, one reporter told a mutual friend that I was mean. This has to be decoded from the Minnesotan: I say what I think. I know myself well enough by now (and at the risk of appearing Stuart Smalley-ish) to have no doubt that I'm a nice guy who genuinely likes other people from either side of the aisle and possesses something of a sense of humor. So, like her reporting, I didn't take her remark seriously. Hope that doesn't sound mean!

Local media, then, should be judged by the same standards we judge national media but, perhaps, with an allowance for just how peculiar the state is; few others have an iconic film made about them but then this leads us into what I've termed Lars Leafbladism™: a mindless, feel good, uncritical regard for ourselves and all things Minnesota nice whose political default position is shallow, received, unsophisticated liberalism. Leafbladism™ is the nurse who administers the propofol.

The debate and passage of same sex marriage showed local media at their worst: cheerleading, fawning of those (five) republicans who supported it, saddled with lazy stories about Bob & Ted, Carol & Alice. If the personal is political (a category error of enormous magnitude but a conventional premise among the left) and they report on the personal they've just committed political journalism. Right? Except of course they haven't but they can't see that. This explains why they cover with relish the sad sack stories trotted out before various legislative committees: it's all of a piece. How foreign to them, then, is criticism that says they aren't really doing their job. Or at least not well, not with vigor and rationality and a bit of skepticism toward the narrative served up by democrats. Admittedly, though, it's hard to criticize one's own.

Local political television is its own tale of woe. "Almanac" and "At Issue" routinely offer nothing new, nothing edgy, nothing that engages a viewer in search of intellectual stimulation. The same guests, the same format, the same talking points, the same lack of vitality in questioning week in and week out. One only needs to know the name of the "guests" (most of whom by now probably have their own reserved-by-name parking spot) to know the arc of the show and to know that, yet again, they'll miss nothing by not watching. I also believe, call me crazy, that producers deliberately get the weakest representatives from the republican side and, to be fair, they are legion. Perhaps producers should take a risk (the concept is foreign to them) and have others on their shows. The result might actually be interesting, worth watching.

There is a dark side to the local media's reflexively tilted coverage in Minnesota and that is their complicity in not covering stories that would reflect badly on the DFL, democrat politicians or the general progressive narrative. It's as though they think the rest of us believe that what is covered actually constitutes, pace Walter Cronkite, "the way it is." The loss of media monopoly is admitted but not recognized by them. Gov. Dayton's lecture to the Humphrey School last fall is a telling case in point. I appeared something of a mad man in asking for the video that local television stations possessed but deliberately chose (but for 15 seconds) not to air or make available to the public. Then again, local media are strangely incurious about Dayton's routine, sudden, one day illnesses that are announced at the last minute. If he were unfit to govern, or even partially so, our friends in the media would be the last to let us know. Because, for the slow of thought, he's a democrat. Were he a republican, local media would puff and preen and insist that their inquiries were perfectly reasonable, no! demanded by their obligation to the general public to inform, truth to power and all the other myths they tell themselves.

Sustained coverage of the coverage is long over due in Minnesota. I have some ideas in that regard but the point now is simply to establish a marker, a standard, some sort of benchmark. Unfair criticism of media is welcomed by them because it is used to discredit fair criticism. This is an old trick but an effective one.

No, the focus must be on media product which can consist of a few elements examined repeatedly over time: story choice, angle, use of sources, failure to disclose important facts (liberal funding of "studies" is a good one), and that not-so-ephemeral quality known as even handedness. Forget about quality of writing (there's a fool's errand) or production values (suicide inducing) and center on what is now lacking in Minnesota media coverage: balance and fairness. I don't expect media per se not to consist mainly of liberals. I do hold out hope that by being observed in public in a sustained way they will internalize notions of those things to which they only now give lip service: neutrality, objectivity and honesty.

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