James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The press helps the rich guys win again

Oh how terribly we miss a free and honest American press.

A big story in Minnesota over the past several months, and periodically for the last 10 years, is the saga of a push to build a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins big league baseball organization, mostly at public expense.

I've avoided getting involved in the controversy because, although it exemplifies to some extent all the evils of a government run by and for the very rich, it seemed minor compared with the horrors committed on a daily basis by the people who run the United States government.

Also, I must confess, because it's a royal pain in the behind.

People have been screaming at each other, even threatening each other, over a baseball stadium while most of those same people ignore the deliberate destruction of our public educational system, the very physical environment in which we live and the freedoms on which this country was built.

Although I admire the people, one or two of them close friends of mine, who fought against such long odds to prevent the inevitable victory of the super rich guys -– especially those fighters who also have had time to deal with the bigger issues -- I had no stomach for that fight.

Suddenly and too late, I realize I was wrong to ignore it, if only because what has happened could not have happened had the corporate press done the job our national founders intended it to do. In fact, the Twin Cities press made itself a perfect example of how and why the corporate news media are helping to destroy American democracy. Many of us who stood on the sidelines should have been out there handing out leaflets and making telephone calls.

Almost daily, I send angry and/or frustrated notes to the people who run the former newspaper that I formerly worked for, but until today, as I write this, I rarely if ever blasted them for their shameful performance on the stadium. (Actually three stadia, but that's another story.)

This past weekend, the Minnesota Legislature decided to allow the building of a new Twins stadium. The bill it passed permits Hennepin County, in which are located Minneapolis and its major suburbs, to impose a sales tax to pay the majority of the cost of building the new profit center for billionaire Carl Pohlad, Twins owner.

A state law adopted some years ago requires that a public referendum be held to approve or disapprove such an arrangement. What the Legislature actually did was to say the county could impose the tax without the legally required public vote. Given that the county board already has approved the deal, it is done.

Legislators from other parts of the state, Democrats as well as Republicans, think that's a pretty good deal and climbed aboard. Their constituents won't be paying, except for a few cents here and there paid for minor purchases made during brief and infrequent visits to Minneapolis.

A couple of Hennepin County Democrats joined the Republicans in the sellout, and a few Republicans voted against it. It is a bipartisan screwing of the public. Our right wing governor is all for it – but he's always for a deal that feeds the rich at the expense of everybody else.

Both Twin Cities daily newspapers –- The Star Tribune and, to a much lesser extent, the St. Paul Pioneer Press –- supported the deal to tax Hennepin County residents to make Pohlad even richer. St. Paul is in Ramsey County, by the way; it's citizens won't be paying the sales tax.

In truth, to say the Star Tribune supported the reeking deal is a gross understatement.

The paper hammered and hammered, and relentlessly hammered the public with propaganda on behalf of the stadium.

Absurd old columnist Sid Hartman pushed the deal in more than 100 columns – though it must be admitted that anybody with any sense ignores his opinions on everything. Sid is a silly old man who was a silly young man. He always has truly believed that sports, notably professional sports, are the only important human endeavors.

But the paper's other sports columnists regularly joined the chorus, as did editorial writers and, with some frequency, general columnists. Only one, Nick Coleman, dared to criticize the stadium package, and he reported that he was the subject of a great many hate messages from the sports-crazed –- real hate messages. “News” coverage was slanted in favor of building the stadium to a degree that would have embarrassed the likes of Hearst and McCormick.

It's not so much that the writers told complete falsehoods. The pieces of the story that got covered, and how the stories were played, and the things that were not covered all figured into the mix. And headlines often were written to favor the “build it” agenda. No one in the press ever -– not once -– called into question the financial claims made by Pohlad and his employees, although none of them has, to this day, seen the baseball club's or Pohlad's books.

The epitome of the coverage came yesterday, May 22, when two columnists went nuts over the stadium deal on the front page of the sports section.

One, Jim Souhan, who sometimes seems rational, did a foolish piece thanking everyone involved in pushing the stadium deal over the desires of the public that must pay for it. (Polls consistently have shown that the residents of Hennepin County are against the deal by seven to three or more.) Souhan gushed his thanks to four Twins executives for their efforts –- just as though they aren't making very, very nice money doing Pohlad's work.

The other, Patrick Reusse, committed what I regard as an unforgivable sin against journalism and the public.

First, a little background:

There are almost 296 million people living in the United States –- and that's just those who have been counted by the U.S. Census, so the actual number undoubtedly is higher. Of that number, according to generally accepted figures published by Forbes magazine, only 77 individuals have more personal wealth than Carl Pohlad. Over the past five years or so, the period since I started watching again, his net worth has grown at a rate of about $100 million a year. He is the proud, if dour, possessor of roughly $2.8 billion in personal assets.

Pohlad bought the Twins in 1984 for $36 million. The most conservative estimate of the team's value this year, before the stadium deal was approved, was about $216 million. That's what the club would sell for (at minimum) should Pohlad have decided to sell. The stadium deal instantly creases the value by an enormous sum, quite possibly double what it was it was a few days ago.

Reusse's column was devoted to making it appear that poor old Carl had barely scraped by through his years of Twins ownership and that he will profit hardly at all from the new $522 million stadium.

The numbers almost certainly are phony, and the column little but a series of lies.

The columnist rattled off a bunch of numbers and what we are to take as facts.

He said Pohlad covered his baseball losses over the years with “a bank loan.” First, he offers no evidence of that. Secondly, Pohlad's wealth is rooted in his ownership of numerous banks; one may assume that if he took out any loans, the terms were – shall we say – favorable. And, third, he could have covered any losses out of pocket had he chosen to do so. Borrowing in such circumstances offers substantial tax benefits.

Reusse notes that the state legislation requires the Twins to pay something to Hennepin County for 10 years once the stadium is open. The amount is 18 percent of gross income the first year, but declines 1.8 percent every year until Hennepin no longer gets a dime. Reusse says that under the new deal, poor Carl will have to pony up $130 million toward building the new stadium, and if he sold the team right now for $400 million (a low estimate), he'd owe the county $72 million, so his profit since purchasing the team would be only $18 million.

Well...In the first place, there is no reason in the world the ancient billionaire would sell now. The deal with Hennepin County gives him every cent of profit that is to be made from the stadium – from parking, concessions, rentals, every damned thing the arena produces. In the second place, in 10 years, when Pohlad probably will be in the ground, his heirs will get nothing but gravy; no more payments to the county, the public, to anybody. The Pohlads will control the stadium, lock, stock and turnstile.

But here's the first unforgivable sin: Reusse names no sources for his supposed facts. He doesn't quote anybody about the bank loan, nor does he say how he knows the Twins have lost money. The only possible source is the Pohlad group. It is very wrong not to say that.

Sadly, that's the usual thing for local news outlets. The Pohlad bunch says they have been losing money for years, and the news guys repeat the statement as fact. By now, all of Minnesota accepts it as true, although no one has any idea what the claimed losses total. Nor do they actually know there have been losses.

Which gets us to the second unforgivable sin: Reusse and the others who tell us periodically of Twins financial losses have never seen the Twins or Pohlad books. Neither have the billionaire's allies or foes in the Legislature or on the county board. No one who is not an insider has ever seen the real numbers. Until someone gets to examine the books in detail, in company with some genuinely neutral expert who understands what he sees, the claims of losses or other financial hardships should never be accepted as fact.

No reporter worth a week's salary would take and repeat as fact such statements from a politician, a business, an artist. If you can't see and verify the numbers, you must either refuse to use them or, at the very least, state that they have not been verified and should be viewed with skepticism. It's the rule if you're doing honest journalism.

To this I will add: For several years, a part of my job was to keep an eye on Carl Pohlad and cover his bank operations and some of his other enterprises. I found him and his employees to be untrustworthy to the point that I would not take anything not obviously true – such as “we're changing the name of the bank” -- as fact until and unless I could verify it through other sources.

The Twin Cities corporate media are not doing honest journalism.