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Chapter Thirteen: Demons in the Press

 

I have a love-hate relationship with the Star Tribune, which calls itself the “newspaper of the Twin Cities”, and, to a lesser extent, with other publications staffed by writers of the liberal political persuasion. I love these newspapers because I read them avidly and believe that they still offer the best opportunity to become informed about community affairs. I hate them because, in my view, they have abandoned evenhanded and objective reporting to foist a moralistic, hateful point of view on readers. Instead of reporting hard facts, they personalize the news by telling how selected individuals have reacted emotionally to a given event. In regards to political and social issues, they cheer lead the public on how they ought to feel. In the process, they have become agents of political demonization.

Michael Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics and editor of U.S. News & World Report, once told a gathering in Minneapolis that “feminist thought police patrol every news room” in America. John Leo of U.S. News, who has made a career of debunking political correctness, quoted Peter Brown of the Orlando Sentinel to the effect that “journalists are far more likely than other Americans to approve of abortion, to express disdainful attitudes toward suburbs and rural areas, and to identify strongly with people who see themselves as victims. Reporters tend to be part of a broadly defined social and cultural elite, so their work tends to reflect the conventional values of this elite. The astonishing distrust of the news media isn’t rooted in inaccuracy or poor reportorial skills but in the daily clash of world views between reporters and their readers.”

The perceived media bias has to do with choice of stories. Columnist Michael Kelly of the Washington Post observed that “most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day’s events.” Michael Janeway, former chief editor of the Boston Globe, has described how “the politics of the street came into the newsroom ... Suddenly newsrooms had de facto caucuses organized by gender, race, and ethnicity. Suddenly coverage of controversial stories had to be negotiated within the newsroom as well as outside.”

The editorial department is the least of our concerns. Those of us who disagree with editorial positions recognize that the newspapers at least label it as opinion. At the Star Tribune, editorials tend to exude schoolmarmish pride in the accomplishments of women (and other certifiably good people) or highminded concern when someone oversteps the bounds of community good taste as the editorial writers see it.

That bull in the China shop, Jesse Ventura, was a real problem for the editorial writers. A Star Tribune editorial right before he was elected Governor was headlined: “It’s been fun, but the election’s near.” While it might be a lark to tell people you’re voting for this outlandish candidate, the editorial opined, it’s harder to come up with a rational explanation of why Ventura would make a good governor. “Many will conclude that with all due respect to Ventura ... the time has come to elect a governor who has shown he can do the job.” Hillary Clinton, in town the same weekend, called Ventura a “sideshow”, suggesting that people get serious about picking a Governor.

After Ventura’s surprising victory (which might reflect the fact that people don’t like to be told how to vote), a politically soul-searching editorial in the Star Tribune was headlined “This Odd Election - What will it mean for Minnesota?” It was fun to watch the editorial writers and news reporters deal with the fact that Jesse Ventura would be our Governor for the next four years and try to find the right tone of respect for his office while maintaining the proper values.

I begin to have more serious problems with this newspaper when its moral cheerleading leads to demonization of individuals. The Star Tribune has a tendency to pick trivial events and, because they represent a negative element in its lexicon of political correctness, run a major story or perhaps a series of stories on them, replete with photographs and often on the front page. The stories about Jarod L. Sparks and Michael J. Pigg, two young men who had the misfortune to attend the Ku Klux Klan rally before getting into trouble with the law, are an example.

Even though this did not rise quite to the level of demonization, I also thought it in poor taste for the Star Tribune to run a commentary piece debunking Queen Elizabeth’s mother, the “Queen Mum”, in the week following her death. A disaffected Brit wrote how the English people “saw through” the Queen Mum’s act. In private, she had “extreme right-wing views”. She was a spendthrift with the taxpayer’s money, insisting on all her royal prerogatives. This writer even ridiculed the Queen Mum’s and her late husband’s visits to bombed-out neighborhoods during World War II “which she claimed put her on the same level as the people of East London.” In polite society, people usually cheer persons who have lived to be more than 100 years and do not criticize too harshly those having a ceremonial rather than policymaking role in public affairs. For the Star Tribune editors, the Queen Mum may have had the wrong personal stats.

In February 2000, a Republican state legislator named Arlon Lindner underwent a long process of demonization initiated not by the Star Tribune but his fellow legislators. A DFL state representative from St. Paul, who is Jewish, was arguing on the floor of the House against a proposal that would allow House sessions to begin with denominational prayers. “Don’t impose your irreligious left views on me,” Lindner snapped at this man. He went on to say: “You know, we’re told there’s one God and one mediator between God and man. The man is Jesus Christ. And most of us here are Christians. And we shouldn’t be left not able to pray in the name of our God ... And if you don’t like it, you may have to like it. Or just don’t come.” It is reported that there was an audible gasp in the House chambers following those remarks. Four DFL legislators brought charges of anti-Semitism against Lindner in the House Ethics Committee.

I thought Lindner’s remarks, however ill considered, to be well within the limits of permissible free speech. In fact, for Lindner’s critics to use a government agency to try to silence or censor him for expressing his religious views was itself a violation of the doctrine separating church and state. I said so in a letter to the editor published in the Star Tribune, pointing out that, while I was not personally a Christian, “neither do I have a chip on my shoulder with respect to people who are”. Since Republicans controlled the House and its Ethics committee, Lindner was not punished.

Even so, Arlon Lindner was a tainted man. The next time he let his fundamentalist Christian views show in public the Star Tribune weighed in with a series of reproachful, front-page articles. The occasion was the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Twin Cities in May 2001. The Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist, was invited to address the Minnesota legislature. Lindner let it be known that he would boycott the Dalai Lama’s speech. He would sit it out in his office. Since this decision smacked of religious intolerance, Lindner was again severely criticized. The same tone of moral outrage was heard. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama himself was asked about Lindner’s statement. He simply replied, “He’s entitled to his opinion. There are many different views in this world.” I thought that was the way this incident should have been handled from the beginning.

Several months earlier, a locally infamous man named Elroy Stock was in the news again when he sued Augsburg College for breach of contract. Stock was an accountant who had retired from West Publishing Company. Having made lots of money from his West Publishing stock, he wanted to make a gift to Augsburg, his alma mater. In 1987, Stock agreed to give this college $500,000 to construct a new building. Part of the building would be named the “Elroy M. Stock Communications Wing.” All went well until WCCO-TV’s investigative journalists reported that Mr. Stock had sent letters to hundreds of interracial couples or persons who had adopted children of different races. Stock was a devout Christian who believed that the Bible forbade interracial marriages and mixing of blood. Augsburg was pressured to return the money to this unworthy donor.

The original scandal was that the college declined to do so. It decided to keep Stock’s money while also weaseling out of its commitment to give Stock a conspicuous honor. Stock’s money was used to build a wing on the building where a small plaque in the hallway disclosed “Major Funding by Elroy Stock”. But Stock had a commitment in writing that the wing would officially be named after him. When he repeated his request for satisfaction of the contract in 1999, the college refused. The building was built, and that was all there was to it. So Elroy Stock sued the college.

I do not remember whether Stock prevailed in his lawsuit. I do remember an article about him in City Pages. The graphics were remarkable. A caricature on the front cover depicts Stock as a hunchback handing out money. His face is green-colored. He has droopy eyelids, a cross on his belt buckle, and dark horn-rimmed glasses. His two arms are thin as a snake’s body. A photograph of Stock accompanying the article manages to make him even more sinister-looking. Stock’s right eye bulges out in an unfocused way as his left eye, lurking in the shadow of his face, looks straight at the camera. This photograph occupies a full page. I do not know how the photographer managed to get this, it is so monstrous-looking.

Stock’s vital statistics also fit the part. He was a 78-year old “virgin bachelor” who lived by himself in Woodbury and seldom traveled outside the state. He cooked his own meals from canned food. He apparently spent most of his days scouring the newspapers in search of information about couples in interracial or interfaith marriages. He then would mail these persons copies of religious texts which he had reproduced on a photocopying machine in his home. The City Pages story reported that, after the WCCO expose broke, “both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press weighed in with editorials supporting the college’s decision to keep the cash, while excoriating Stock as ‘pathetic’ and ‘vile’.” There were, of course, the usual quotations from recipients of his letters who felt violated.

I, too, received one of Elroy Stock’s letters. It was shortly after I had published an opinion piece in the Star Tribune about “hate crimes” legislation. The envelope, which bore Stock’s name and return address, contained photocopied sheets of religious literature in which certain passages were underlined. That was all. There was no cover letter to explain the point of this communication or what Stock wanted me to do. I could not make sense of the underlined passages. Stock’s mailing could be described as “creepy”, but nothing more. If he had known that I had recently been married to an African-American woman, it might have changed his message to me but would not affected my attitude toward him. Elroy Stock was a character in the Twin Cities subculture of notorious racists or religious nuts, a celebrity in his own way. To receive one of his letters was rather intriguing.

Besides, his views on interracial marriages were not that unusual. I once heard a college student, my Yale classmate Tommy from Baltimore, ask Dr. Martin Luther King if the end of segregation might not mean more interracial dating and births of mixed-race children whom neither race would accept. King’s response was not to condone this practice but to state that, in his opinion, desegregation would not necessarily lead to more racially mixed marriages.

Another example of Star Tribune demonization is based on events in the fall of 2002. For years, as I drove down Lake Street in Minneapolis, I would pass the River Lake Gospel Tabernacle, a large brick building with a sign proclaiming “Jesus Light of the World.” A father-son team of evangelists, Luke and Paul Rader, used to preach there. I remember reading once abut a young man nationally prominent in the New Left with the colorful name of Dotson Rader. He might have been Paul Rader’s son. Anyhow, this empty building gave testimony to a religious culture which had once flourished in the Twin Cities. Billy Graham began his preaching career here in the 1940s. There was a kind of poor-white Protestantism that fed the souls and bodies of Depression-era Minnesotans. Bereft of worldly hope, hundreds of society’s down-and-out would gather at the Gospel Tabernacle for meals and spiritual upliftment from singing Gospel songs at the Sunday revival meetings. The Raders also conducted one of the first radio ministries in the country. Even though I never affiliated with this type of religion or set foot in the Raders’ church, the place had a romance about it that kindled my imagination as I drove past this building.

After being abandoned for decades, a developer purchased the site and made preparations to raze the building to make room for an apartment-and-retail complex. He sought approval of this plan from the Heritage Preservation Commission. The commission’s staff proposed to designate the site as a historic site and recommended that a plaque marking the tabernacle be placed in the building to be constructed. These plans came to the attention of Stephen Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Silberfarb and his colleagues objected to the anti-Semitic content of Luke and Paul Rader’s sermons.

The demonization machine at the Star Tribune swung into high gear. Three lengthy articles about this controversy followed. A rabbi prominent in interfaith affairs published a commentary piece. Under pressure, the Commission staff decided not to recommend commemorating the tabernacle and its broadcast facilities. The Commission itself voted to overturn the staff recommendation. The project next went to the Zoning and Planning committee of the Minneapolis City Council, which voted unanimously not to allow the plaque. The final step was a vote by the full City Council which was scheduled for November 12th but was, instead, settled by an administrative decision. The hate-spewing Raders would not be recognized in any way.

What did these preachers actually do? According to an unpublished doctoral thesis written by a man now on the staff of the Jewish Community Relations Council In Cincinnati, they “preached that Jews were cheating, blasphemous and unfit to live.” Luther Rader said that “Satan’s synagogue” controlled international finance. He called the New Deal the “Jew deal”. Also, the Raders preached that Anglo-Saxons were the “true Israelites.” Someone remembered that Paul Rader had remarked in a 1946 sermon that “the Jews aren’t fit to live.” This was juicy enough, but who remembered it and when was it said? What exactly did Paul Rader say? All this loose talk dredged up from unavailable texts that were compiled by highly partisan individuals, it seemed to me, amounted to a kind of McCarthyism of the cultural left, a smear campaign against “defamation”, to which only a sleazy, religiously and politically opinionated newspaper would devote coverage.

The Star Tribune articles quoted Hy Berman, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, to the effect that in 1946 Minneapolis was the most anti-Semitic city in the United States. “It (the River Lake Gospel Tabernacle),” said Berman, “was the worst place, barring none in the Twin Cities, as far as anti-Semitic vitriol (was concerned.)” So notorious was this place that “Jews were afraid to walk past Lake and River Road.” (Characteristically, the Star Tribune is here reporting personal feelings as a substitute for fact.) The idea of rampaging Christians assaulting Jews on the street after listening to one of Rev. Rader’s anti-Semitic sermons seemed quite ludicrous to me. During the same period there were, in fact, violent Jewish gangs in Minneapolis that assaulted people who said or wrote the wrong things. Isadore Blumenfeld, a.k.a. “Kid Cann”, was the leader of one such gang. His organization is believed to have murdered a crusading newspaper editor named Walter Liggett.

I thought it my duty to make at least a feeble attempt to present the truth in this politically charged environment. I contacted my City Council representative about an opportunity to make a public statement before the full Council took a vote. Her assistant called back to report that the matter was “a done deal”. There would be no further opportunities for comment.

During this time, the Star Tribune also devoted much coverage to allegations of anti-Semitism at St. Cloud State University. Three Jewish faculty members had sued the state university system because they were not promoted or given tenure. Anti-Semitic “ethnic slurs” proved that the reason was that the professors were Jewish. One of the plaintiffs said that “History Department colleagues tried to discourage him from talking about the Holocaust and talked about having to fumigate his office.” Under the $1.1 million settlement, the plaintiffs received $265,000 (and their lawyer an equal amount), the college agreed to create and fund a Jewish Studies and Resources Center, and all students and faculty members were required to take diversity-training courses that included a section on anti-Semitism. I thought that lawsuit settlements were a poor way to set college curricula.

My problem with the Star Tribune was that it was essentially cheerleading the public to reach negative conclusions about St. Cloud State. Again, juicy details such as the remark about fumigating the professor’s office were given without context. Essential facts such as the percentage of Jewish faculty were omitted. This ongoing story appeared often on the front page of the newspaper or in editorials. A front-page story in the Star Tribune’s Sunday paper was headlined “St. Cloud State still finds prejudice” because a recent poll had found that 20% of the professors believed that there were too many Jews on the faculty and they had undue influence over university policy compared with 57% who disagreed with that statement. Zero tolerance of dissenting opinions on such questions seems to be the policy of this newspaper.

The worst kind of reporting by the Star Tribune involves last-minute attacks on political candidates whose philosophy its editors and reporters dislike. What long-time resident of Minnesota can forget the 1990 election campaign which produced not only the first election of Paul Wellstone but Arne Carlson’s improbable election as governor through a write-in campaign. The endorsed Republican candidate was Jon Grunseth, a conservative with backing from Christian fundamentalists. Two weeks before the election, the Star Tribune ran a lengthy, front-page story telling how Grunseth had hosted a July 4th party at which Grunseth and teenage girls swam nude in his backyard swimming pool. Grunseth promptly abandoned his candidacy, setting up the opportunity for Carlson.

In 1998, the Star Tribune again intervened in an election for state senator in district 58. John Derus, for whose campaign I had distributed literature, was running against Linda Higgins. Derus, a former Hennepin County Commissioner, represented old-style, labor-oriented Democrats while Higgins was a feminist candidate. On election day, the Star Tribune ran a picture of Derus with a caption identifying him as having been involved in a charity swindle. Derus had nothing to do with any swindle. The Star Tribune later claimed that it had mislabeled the photograph because of a “computer glitch”. Some, remembering that this newspaper had maligned Derus once before, were not so sure.

The 2002 race for U.S. Senate, in which I was a candidate, provides another example of Star Tribune intervention in political campaigns. In this case, the demographically unlikely victim was Ed McGaa, a native American who was the Green Party’s endorsed candidate for Senator. It is thought that some liberals disliked McGaa because his candidacy might take votes away from Paul Wellstone. Possibly he was disliked because of his expressed pride in being a veteran.

In any event, the Star Tribune ran a front-page article about Ed McGaa on September 3, 2001 - one week before the primary election - which pointed out that in 1986 McGaa had written a letter to South Dakota state officials supporting a business venture that called for shipping sewage ash from Minnesota to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, extracting gold and other metals from the ash, and then redepositing the treated ash in the soil. Evidently, the company involved in this operation was unable to deliver on its promises and the contaminated ash sat in warehouses for a long time. McGaa was an employee of that company. The Star Tribune story implied that he was an environmental hypocrite who, perhaps knowingly, had participated in a scheme to dump toxic waste in South Dakota. Was this the type of person who should be representing the Green Party in its race for U.S. Senate?

I read the article carefully, looking for the meat of the case against McGaa. Sure, he was involved in a failed business venture, but did that show evil intent? A subtitle to the story stated: “The Green Party candidate said he had no regrets about being involved in the project.” I found no information substantiating that statement. What I did find were quotations from some of the project’s South Dakota critics attaching adverse labels to McGaa. It was a prime example of Star Tribune-style emotional journalism in which the way people feel takes the place of facts. For example, a critic named Deb Rogers was quoted: “How the Greens got messed up with him (McGaa) I’ll never know.” She added: “If ten years ago someone had predicted this to me, I would have laughed them out of the room ... I mean, you can’t even imagine a person who is less compatible with their (the Green Party’s) philosophy.” And again: “My bottom line is that this guy caused a lot of damage in South Dakota.”

The Star Tribune article did acknowledge that that others, including officials of the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission, were also taken in by the business firm’s proposition. Its newsletter had described the process as “the ultimate in recycling” and claimed that adequate environmental safeguards had been taken. Pointing out that he was simply an employee of the firm, McGaa asked “Why do you want to turn around and blame Mr. Indian here?”

I was on the campaign trail, sitting in the lobby of a newspaper office in Mankato, when I read in the (Mankato) Free Press: “Green’s McGaa losing party support”. The opening sentence said: “Some Green Party members, including gubernatorial endorsee Ken Pentel, are distancing themselves from their endorsed Senate candidate, Ed McGaa, after learning that he was part of a 1980s business deal involving sewage ash shipped from Minnesota to South Dakota.” So, McGaa was being left hanging in the wind. I saw McGaa as a victim of one of the Star Tribune’s patented last-minute political attacks. The facts of the case did not seem to me to justify the treatment he was receiving.

When I returned home, I telephoned McGaa and, as a U.S.Senate candidate from a rival party, proposed that we jointly picket the offices of the Star Tribune. McGaa declined, saying that he had several other opportunities to tell his side of the story. But he did appreciate the call. I also wrote a letter to the editor of the Star Tribune defending McGaa against his critics. To my surprise, the Star Tribune published this letter on September 6th - four days before the primary election. I was appeased.

The result of this incident, however, is that Ed McGaa lost the primary to his Green Party rival, Ray Tricomo, by a margin of 3,438 to 2,567. I also lost in the Independence Party, but, as a second-place finisher, received 2,000 votes more than McGaa’s and Tricomo’s vote total combined. As the Greens had deserted McGaa, it appeared that Minnesota voters were now deserting the Greens.

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