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.)

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.