James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The press: Pimping for fun and profit

On Friday, May 26, the Star Tribune showed its present character as surely as if it had hung a red lantern over the door at 425 Portland Ave. in downtown Minneapolis.

The guy who declared “This is a whore house,” didn't do it deliberately, though. At least I don't think he did.

An article on the front page of the former newspaper's business section – the tastefully decorated part of the operation that cater's specifically to a wealthy clientele, which prefers real information – told more than the Strib has said in any previous story about what a new taxpayer-financed stadium means for the public and Midas-wealthy Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad and his brood of arrogant richlings.

You can see the essay immediately below this one for background, but to recap: A few days ago, the Minnesota Legislature passed a measure that will result in the building of a $522 million (before the inevitable cost overruns) stadium for the Twins. The residents of Hennepin County, which contains Minneapolis and its inner rings of suburbs, will pay 75 percent of the cost of the big playpen through a new sales tax.

Assuming Pohlad and/or his heirs hang onto the team for another 10 years, they get all of the profits from the stadium – the huge increase in the value of the team, the income from tickets, parking, food and drink (all of which will more than double) and anything else that turns a buck. Even if they sell several years before that deadline, they'll amass a warehouse full of additional wealth, and we residents of Hennepin County will pay the bills and get a very small payback -- far less than we pay.

The legislative action allowing this scam bypassed a state law that requires a referendum on such transactions. So, although more than 70 percent of Hennepin County residents were against public financing of the stadium, as shown by several polls, we were denied the opportunity to say no.

A bought and paid for coalition of Democrats and Republicans came across for Pohlad and his rich and powerful allies. (The Pohlad crowd passed around more than $200,000 in campaign money to legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, over the past few years. It certainly is much more, but we'll never see a number.)

Pawlenty had opposed a publicly-funded stadium during his days in the Legislature, and he didn't fight very hard for the new plan for further enriching Pohlad, the 78th richest man in America, but once the bill was passed, he quickly planted kisses in an area of Pohlad's anatomy that most of us wouldn't touch. By Friday, he'd declared he would sign the bill the next day at a ballgame. Which he did, wearing a Twins shirt with his name on the back, in a show that would have gagged a maggot.

Up to Friday, almost all Strib stories on the stadium ran on the front page of the newspaper or the cover of the sports section, and sometimes both. Those stories were short on facts, but full of puff for the project. The editorial pages also pushed heavily for the deal, with a similar lack of truth, obviously by order of the publisher and editor in chief.

The piece Friday that exposed the naked fraud was written by Mike Meyers, a superb and gutty reporter – which makes him a great rarity on that staff.

(There are a few other leftover good-to-excellent journalists at the Strib, but they've mostly been pushed into niches where they can do little harm to the bosses' agenda, and they're bailing out rapidly.)

Meyers' piece quoted experts on the size of the gift the Legislature gave Pohlad: The value of the team goes from an estimated $216 million now to somewhere between $400 and $450 million, and maybe higher, as soon as the new stadium opens it doors.

It also said things that none of the puff pieces reported. For example, Meyers noted in passing that in St. Louis, where a new Cardinals stadium opened last month, the team is paying most of the cost of that structure.

He also reported, accurately, that the deal handed Pohlad gives him a bunch of new ways to milk the Twins franchise – ways that were not given to other ballclubs, even those in smaller markets, that also have new playgrounds. And he spoke to the high probability of greatly increased prices for everything associated with attending a ball game.

He came up with a number I don't recall seeing before: That all of the new sources of money will increase the ballclub's income by $40 million a year. That's more than a 25 percent jump --if the team has told the truth about its income.

Meyers noted that Pohlad and his flunkies have long claimed to have lost money operating the Twins in some years – but he used a word that any honest and professional journalist would use, and which the Strib touts never used. That word is “claim.” Strib writers almost always, if not always, stated the purported losses as fact, though the paper's touts have not, to this day, seen any proof that there have been such losses.

And Meyers noted that experts disbelieve Twins claims of the size of losses. He also quoted such experts as saying that any losses that did occur were considerably more than offset by the increase in value of the team.

Then the good and honest reporter did something no other Strib writer has dared to do: He cited the recent history of other baseball teams that got new stadiums to show that the big jumps in income that usually follow the construction of a new stadium are short lived, and that attendance tails off quickly after the initial upward spike.

And he closed with a quotation from a man who has studied such situations, noting that to keep attendance up, new stadium or not, an owner has to field a good and attractive team.

Meyers didn't say, but I will, that Pohlad's pattern of team construction has long been to do it on the cheap – very cheap. There is no reason to expect that once we've greatly increased his already huge wealth he will provide the area with a real major league baseball team.

What makes the Meyers article such an admission of pandering for the newspaper is that his piece of first-rate journalism was held back until the stadium was a done deal. It appeared when it was too late for anyone to use it to twist the tails of gutless legislators or to rally the anti-stadium faction. Holding the piece was a blatantly political act.

Meyers has been on staff all along, and though I have no proof of this, I would bet heavily that he proposed the story long before the Legislature voted. I have in the past witnessed scenes in which one boss or another thwarted his efforts and the efforts of other excellent Strib reporters (now mostly gone) to do honest reporting in a timely way.

I have no doubt whatever that the Meyers story was deliberately delayed so that it could do no harm to the ambitions of Pohlad and other powerful guys, including some of the top people at the Strib.

But here's the worst of it, folks:

The people who run the Star Tribune now, and the people who run most of America's newspapers, see nothing wrong in what they have done. I have heard them talk, I have read some of the things they've written and I know that. To them, a newspaper is a business, and only a business, and it seems natural and correct to them that they use it's resources to further their own interests and those of other members of the ruling class to which they belong.

Oh, sure, they know they have to do some reporting, and some of them will point to coverage of the Enron trial as an example of how they tell the story even when it involves high rollers of the corporate world. But that's sophistry. Enron was a story that could not be ignored, and the guys who've been found guilty never really were members of the club anyway – not like the people who were born to it.

No, the people who own are newspapers think it is the right and natural order of things to line their pockets and boost their friends. The public, you and I, don't come into it. We're a lesser breed.

Oh...Did Mike Meyers know his piece would show his employers for the hypocrites and panderers they are? Maybe, but I know how he works, and I can safely say it wasn't his goal. Like the solid, resourceful, honest journalist he is, he was just trying to give the public information it needed to deal with a situation in which it is involved.

Quaint idea, huh?



On Sunday, May 28, the Star Tribune ran another piece by one of its few remaining top-level reporters containing information about the real effects of the Twins stadium deal.

The new piece, by Jay Weiner, a sports writer who could cover any subject for any newspaper, explains in some detail how, why and to what extent the cost of going to a ballgame is about to rise to levels that will astonish many fans. The article ran on the front page of the sports section.

Essentially, the facts Weiner presents indicate that many people will be priced out of the ballpark. Many of the same people who screamed that “We gotta have a new ball park or the Twins will leave” because the touts on the same newspaper's staff told them that will be looking for other, cheaper entertainment anyway.

My comments on the earlier report by Mike Meyers apply to Weiner's story. He's a fine journalist who has to know that the article that ran Sunday should have appeared weeks before the Legislature caved in. As with the Meyers story, I'd bet that Jay hoped and intended that the piece would run earlier, but I have no way of documenting that.

(People in the Twin Cities can get another perspective on the Twins Stadium, with information that I haven't seen elsewhere, from a piece by freelance journalist Lydia Howell in the May 24-30 issue of Pulse of the Twin Cities, a free publication available in most commercial districts.)