Last December, Smart Politics interviewed Michael Brodkorb, author of the high profile conservative blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed. We now turn the spotlight on a journalistic voice of the political left, Minnesota Monitor.
Minnesota Monitor is a popular online newsmagazine that covers not only state and national politics and elections, but also policy areas like immigration, education, and religion, and the media outlet has attracted renowned journalists from around the Cities.
Smart Politics recently interviewed Minnesota Monitor Editor Steve Perry on the content, audience, and influence of his newsmagazine.
Smart Politics: Unlike many political blogs, which are authored by one person and present a single voice, such as Centrisity, Minnesota Democrats Exposed, or our own Center’s blog, Smart Politics, Minnesota Monitor is comprised of many voices, has an organizational hierarchy, and is largely presented as a politics and policy online newsmagazine. The daily operation, coordination, and funding of Minnesota Monitor appears to be much more complicated than other frequently read political blogs in the Gopher State. Please explain the organizational structure and funding of Minnesota Monitor, as well as how you navigate the sea of disagreements that must inevitably surface from time to time with so many voices wishing to be heard among your writers.
MM: The site is operated by the Center for Independent Media, based in Washington DC. We’re one of six state/regional sites in the group; the others are in DC, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and New Mexico. Organizationally, Jefferson Morley, formerly of the Washington Post, is the national editorial director of the group. Here in Minnesota, I’m the site editor and Paul Schmelzer is the managing editor. You can find a list of the organization’s funders at the CIM website, but that’s something the editors and writers frankly never discuss. We’re insulated from the funders in much the same way that advertising and editorial are separate at commercial publications—and for the same good reasons.
The “sea of disagreements” you asked about has never really been a factor, largely because all our writers are devoted to a handful of beats they watch and write about. There’s some crossover in coverage areas from time to time, but it’s rarely if ever engendered disagreements.
Smart Politics: Your writers are identified as “New Journalist Fellows.” Would you say that your policy regarding your Fellows’ submissions is substantially the same as other online newsmagazines? In short, do you have a “hands-on” or “hands-off” approach to editing and censoring their work?
MM: I don’t really know what to make of the question. If you’re asking whether our writers receive journalistic editing, they do—especially on the reported pieces that comprise a growing share of our content. And sometimes that results in rewrites, additional reporting, and fairly substantial changes to the prose. If you’re asking whether we “censor” our writers in terms of the points of view that may be represented in what they write, the answer is no.
Smart Politics: You have had well known and respected Twin Cities journalists write for Minnesota Monitor, such as Eric Black and Britt Robson. Have you found the content or style of reporting at Minnesota Monitor to have evolved over the years with the influx of new journalists?
MM: Well, remember that I’ve only been at Minnesota Monitor for a little over two months. But I do think it’s fair to say that the emphasis has shifted over time from the kind of filtering and thumbnail analysis that happens at pure blogging sites to a greater emphasis on original reporting. Both elements have been part of the mix from the start, and that remains the case, but we’re certainly devoting more resources to reporting now.
Smart Politics: Minnesota Monitor has been cited on occasion in the traditional media, such as the Star Tribune. What do you view as your biggest scoop to date or the piece of reporting of which you are most proud?
MM: Andy Birkey’s piece, October 15, 2007 piece “Michele Bachmann Speech at Church Could Cause Tax Problems�? was a highlight among many major new stories that we’ve broken. Andy was finalist in the 2007 Online Journalism Award for his coverage of gay and lesbian issues. Paul Schmelzer’s, “Who Owns the J-Word? Videobloggers Jailing Raises Questions for Journalists,�? won a Frank J. Premack award for excellence in opinion journalism. Abdi Aynte’s reporting was picked up many times by the local media for his coverage of immigration issues; unfortunately, we lost him to the BBC. What we’re proudest of is that we already have a tradition of hard-hitting reporting.
Smart Politics: How would you describe the partisan breakdown of Minnesota Monitor’s audience? Do you have a sense, judging from the level of agreement or disagreement in the comments to your blogs, as to what percentage of Republicans, Democrats, and independents comprise your readership?
MM: Not really. I assume that there are more liberals and moderates than conservatives. But we get plenty of conservative comments. I think the audience is pretty varied. I would guess the greatest common denominator demographically is “news junkie�? or “politics junkie,�? not “liberal�? or “Democrat.�?
Smart Politics: When people hear that a blog is “left-leaning�? or “right-leaning�? they may be suspicious of the content, depending on where they fall along the political spectrum. In the case of Minnesota Monitor, you more than likely have a built-in sympathetic audience with folks on the left, and a skeptical audience with folks on the right. One thing moderates, non-partisans, and political independents want to know in assessing the credibility of a media outlet, is what is its policy regarding sourcing. Your Code of Ethics does not quantify the number or types of sources required to publish a story. Will you run a story with a single anonymous source? Will you run a story without corroboration? In other words, what is the threshold that has to be surpassed before you’ll proceed and post an article?
MM: In reported work, we hew to the standards typical of professional newsgathering operations – multiple sources and independent corroboration being very important pieces of that. If there’s anything that sets us apart in our reporting and our sourcing, it’s that we want to put more emphasis going forward on document-based research and reporting than is customary in mainstream news and politics coverage.
Smart Politics: As I just mentioned, Minnesota Monitor presents to its readership a visible Code of Ethics (posted by Robin Marty in August 2006) that purports to guide the reporting and commentary on your website. Publishing this code of ethics on your site serves not only to emphasize to your writers the standards they should uphold, but it also presents an image to your readership that Minnesota Monitor is a trusted newsmagazine, guided by specific principles in its reporting on political news and public policy. I would like to direct your attention to some examples of work published on Minnesota Monitor and get your reaction as to how they measure up to the Code. For example, your Code states in part:
“New Journalist Fellows must maintain a sense of decency and integrity by treating sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.�?
Earlier this spring, Steve Perry wrote an article on Republicans buying up domain names that could be used to attack Democrats in the fall, and preemptively purchase those domain names that might be used to attack John McCain (“Republicans Snarf Up Snarky Anti-Dem Domain Names,�? March 11, 2008). The post closes with the line:
“Mercifully, JohnMcCainisadangerousnut.com remains available.�?
While that sentence could be dismissed as a Daily Show-esque quip, Minnesota Monitor presents itself foremost as a serious news organization, and not entertainment. As such, how do you reconcile this closing line in an otherwise straight-reporting piece with your Code? Would you say it was respectful of Senator McCain?
MM: I’ve never read any code of ethics as prohibiting a sense of humor. And I think most readers, at this late date, not only understand but welcome departures from the flat, earnest tone of mainstream media political coverage. When you’re talking about major political parties snatching up nasty and sometimes even misleading URLs that they can use to the disadvantage of their opponents, as in the item you cite, I would argue you’re talking about a fundamentally undignified and cynical endeavor. Closing with a comment that underlined that aspect of the story seemed a fitting thing to do.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard this question perhaps half a dozen times – always from other journalists, not from readers. I think readers are more sophisticated than the news business gives them credit for being. I also think it’s a fallacy to suppose the problem with journalism is too little respect for public figures. I think you could make a far better case that the problem is too much credulousness and deference toward public figures. To the extent that journalists labor to portray every action and every gesture of their leaders as though they are swaddled in dignity and respectability and concern for the common weal, those journalists do a disservice.
Smart Politics: Your Code also states writers should, “Always be fair, but always favor truth over balance.�? I’m wondering to what extent do you feel a responsibility to present the ‘other side’ (i.e. right-leaning) of an issue? Do you generally feel it is enough to present the views of the left, so long as they are factually accurate, or do you feel the intentional omission of information that is beneficial to the political right is also a violation of the Code? In short, does Minnesota Monitor selectively report news which, collectively, serves to advance a certain political agenda or ideology?
MM: This is an organization whose charter is to promote independent journalism. If some political factions find the notion of holding public officials accountable and promoting good government to be evidence of a “political agenda or ideology,�? there’s nothing we can do about it. But in covering the issues, we don’t practice “the intentional omission of information that is beneficial to the political right.�? To take two recent examples, our critical coverage of the Franken for Senate campaign has elicited a fair amount of anger among some Democrats in our readership. We’ve also covered the bruising battle for the Democratic presidential nomination and the ways it has worked to the benefit of John McCain and the Republicans.
Smart Politics: In September 2006 Minnesota Monitor was involved in the reporting on allegations that Michael Brodkorb of Minnesota Democrats Exposed was a press consultant to GOP Senate nominee Mark Kennedy. Minnesota Monitor was extremely critical of Brodkorb, and explicitly called into question how such ties affected his credibility as a blogger. As you know, many media publications, such as the New York Times, have standards on ethics that forbid its employees from being involved in politics and public policy on a whole host of levels: from wearing campaign buttons, to displaying signs of partisanship, to giving money to political candidates or an election cause, or even marching in support of public causes. Do you have similar policies regarding the limiting of political activities of your staff at Minnesota Monitor? If not, are there writers at Minnesota Monitor who have contributed time or money to political campaigns during their tenure at your publication?
MM: As I mentioned before, I’ve only been here for a couple of months, so I can’t really answer the last question about the site’s history, but I can tell you that I don’t want people writing about politics for us who are personally involved in working, volunteering, or consulting for political campaigns, or who are looking to launch political careers of their own. As for the New York Times policies you mention, however, I think it’s fatuous to decree that journalists and bloggers not behave as citizens in their private lives. We don’t keep tabs on the buttons or the yard signs our contributors may choose to display off the job, or the donations they make.
Smart Politics: Minnesota Monitor has at times dutifully posted corrections and apologies. For example, an apology was served after the publishing of Molly Priesmeyer’s March 25th article, “The Dental Gap: Does John McCain Have Presidential Teeth?�? The apology was published after you became aware the teeth Priesmeyer described, as “a mess of yellowed and contorted Chiclets�? had been broken while McCain was a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. You acknowledge that was an embarrassing incident, and a “lousy joke.�? But if McCain’s teeth had not been broken as a prisoner of war, would this piece still have met the standards of the Code? More generally, is the line between straight news reporting and personal attack commentary bright or gray when it comes to editing the work of your writers?
MM: If you’re talking about serious criticisms/attacks, which the McCain item you refer to certainly was not, the line is bright, and there’s an associated burden of proof. If you’re going to say that a governor’s administration is a testament to valuing political patronage over professional expertise, for example, you have to be able to cite chapter and verse to demonstrate the point.
If you’re talking about snarky, sometimes unkind comments or asides regarding public figures or the news media themselves, you’re talking about something else. I really don’t believe the spirit of the SPJ Code is to prohibit making jokes at the expense of public figures – however ill-judged it may have been to pile on about McCain’s teeth, to use the example you cite.
Smart Politics: Lastly, your code of ethics states writers should:
“Seek to improve the public discourse by never stereotyping based on race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status. Avoid imposing cultural values on others and keep in mind the growing diversity of modern society.�?
Since political reporting comprises a large portion of the beats you cover, it is surprising you have no explicit guidelines against stereotyping based on political party and ideology. Don’t you think such stereotyping is perhaps the biggest cause of the growing partisan divide in this country? By permitting, if not encouraging, political stereotyping, does not Minnesota Monitor contribute to this partisan divisiveness in our culture?
MM: No, I do not think “stereotyping�? is the biggest cause of the growing partisan divide. I think factors such as a costly war mounted on the basis of fabricated threats, coupled with a stateside economy that is foundering badly and the approach of an election that will select a successor to the most unpopular President of the modern age, probably have a little more to do with the growing partisan divide than stereotyping does. And more fundamentally, I do not buy your premise that the growing partisan divide is a bad thing. Considering the enormous change of course at home and abroad that the Bush era has represented, I think anything less than a “growing partisan divide�? would be a symptom of the failure of democracy.
Smart Politics: Thank you very much for participating in our interview.