In the middle of Keillor vs. Bachmann


Long-time readers — especially those who go back to the early days of Polinaut and/or the “blogs” from the conventions in 2004 — know that I’m a big fan of transparency in the media. I generally think it’s a good thing if people know the secrets of those in a journalism organization. The fact that you may not know the existence of bias, doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Armed with the knowledge, you can detect whether it creeps into news stories. Truth is: Journalists — most journalists — vote and have opinions, just like everyone else. So what’s the big deal?

I’ve come to understand how insanely naive that notion is.

A shudder went through the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom yesterday afternoon: Garrison Keillor went all DFL. Again.

Keillor wrote a fundraising letter on behalf of the DFL challenger to Rep. Michele Bachmann:

Thirty years ago, when I started telling stories about Lake Wobegon, I put it smack in the middle of Minnesota — in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, in fact — where staunch Republicans and loyal Democrats know how to live together without yelling at each other and do what needs to be done to work out our problems.

It’s embarrassing to me and a great many Minnesotans that Michele Bachmann, a politician who is so busy grandstanding and giving interviews on Fox News that she doesn’t have time to serve the people who elected her, represents the 6th District in Washington.

(Update 12:37 p.m. : Bachmann spokesman Sergio Gor says, “The quota on comedy in Minnesota has been reached with the election of Al Franken. Garrison Keilor should stick to what he knows best, which is fabricating make believe stories. Instead of soliciting support from comics, Tarryl Clark should explain to voters why she voted for higher taxes and more useless government spending – every year. This is yet another sign of a desperate campaign.”)

It was big news in Minnesota. “It’s huge,” WCCO political reporter Pat Kessler told a skeptical Dan Barreiro on KFAN yesterday afternoon. “People love him and where is Lake Wobegon? The 6th District.”

He’s right. It is big — if predictable — news. Lesser endorsements have made our news — former state epidemiologist Mike Osterholm endorsing gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner comes to mind — but you didn’t read about Keillor’s involvement here, or our political blog, or our Web site, or our newscasts or on any of our news programming.

Why not? Nobody, least of all me, wanted to touch it and open up the can of worms that is opened whenever Keillor talks politics in the news.

It’s true that Keillor doesn’t work for Minnesota Public Radio and it’s obviously true that he doesn’t work for MPR News. Even when he was based in our building, I never saw him converse with anyone from the newsroom unless it was on the air. He’s his own boss at an office far away from MPR headquarters for his own company, which produces Prairie Home Companion.

He’s not MPR. Except that the perception is that he is. And that’s the problem. Perception.

Let’s acknowledge that public radio has a long reputation among its detractors for being socialist bomb throwers. Most of it is undeserved. I’ve worked here for 18 years and even overhearing private conversations, I can’t tell you the political leanings of most of the people who work in the newsroom. They work hard to provide a fair — there’s no such thing as objective — portrayal of issues, although those who are looking for bias will find it, even when none actually exists. I also acknowledge that plenty of you don’t believe a single word in this paragraph.

But Keillor’s link to Minnesota Public Radio cannot be ignored based on the fact that he doesn’t work for MPR. Let’s face it: The joint is the network A Prairie Home Companion built. Even this Web site started as the Prairie Home Companion Web site. The fact that you can hear audio streams here has its origin in a gift to make it happen from the owner of a once-dominant Web browser company. He was a Prairie Home Companion fan.

Keillor is no stranger to politics anymore. His early battles with Jesse Ventura were legendary. As the person in charge of creating the MPR News Web site, I can admit they were also welcomed vehicles. Any story with both Ventura and Keillor in it was page-view gold, the currency of the digital age.

If Keillor’s relationship with MPR hurt MPR’s relations with Jesse Ventura, it didn’t show. By the end of his term, MPR News was Ventura’s favorite media haunt. He chose MPR’s Midday as the place to announce he wouldn’t run for re-election, proving that Gary Eichten’s professionalism trumps Garrison Keillor’s politics. (Incidentally, my colleague, Paul Tosto, notes that Keillor has not been above taking a few shots at liberals.)

He “came out” during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. It coincided with the release of his book: Homegrown Democrat. He gave pep talks to Minnesota delegates (photo) and held fundraisers while in Boston. I covered that convention. I hadn’t read his book. I was, to coin a phrase, embarrassed by the perception that followed. I attempted to interview Keillor for a story about mixing a media organization’s reputation with politics, but he wouldn’t return my calls. I like to think it’s because he didn’t want to further link two organizations that — technically — weren’t linked. Still, it didn’t make covering the Republicans in New York a week later any easier.

And that brings us back to my discredited theory of media transparency. It was a selfish notion. It failed to consider that the public is quick to transfer knowledge of one person’s politics in a news organization, to everyone else in the organization.

In time, perhaps, people may come to disassociate Garrison Keillor with Minnesota Public Radio and, by extension, Minnesota Public Radio News. From the vantage point of the low-end of the food chain, it’s hard to see how or when that happens.