James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Columnist goes way over the line

Even as the worst talk show jerks and hate-spewing columnists – and those who employ them -- finally are starting to draw the fire they deserve from decent people, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten has mounted a virulent anti-Muslim campaign.

She focuses mainly on Muslims in Minnesota.

So far, she has stayed within legal bounds, but her relentless and frequently inaccurate and untruthful denigrations of all things Islamic are filled with the kind of venom that encourages the redneck thugs to scream at strangers in the street and throw rocks through windows.

She and the Strib publisher and editors need to hear a lot of backtalk.

The paper hired Kersten in March 2005 to write a column voicing right wing views. It was part of an undisguised decision by executives of the paper's then owner, the very right-tilting McClatchy Corp., to “move the Star Tribune to the right,” as some McClatchy hirelings freely admitted.

Their aim couldn't have been masked anyway: Kersten previously was an official of one of those numerous tax-exempt right wing “think tanks,” the Center for the American Experiment.

It's interesting that although her column never strays from it's neocon political thrust, it appears in the paper's local section, as a “general” column, rather than on op-ed pages.

(To be fair, the other general columnists occasionally – but not constantly – write from a generally liberal viewpoint.)

For the most part, until the anti-Islamic campaign began to overwhelm all other subjects in her columns, rational people either dismissed Kersten as being irredeemably silly – an accurate assessment – or regarded her with annoyance as the Star Tribune's bad joke on Minnesota.

You could say she did some good by bringing liberals and conservatives together, since many people on both sides of that fence freely share their contempt for the woman.

Some readers found amusement in the fact the Star Tribune apparently pays her what undoubtedly are substantial bucks to publish the output of her former employer and other right-wing propaganda mills. They could get the press releases and position papers for nothing.

There's not a damned thing amusing about the attacks on U.S. and, especially, Minnesota Muslims, however. While much of what she says on the subject is silly, it comes with too much hate and danger to be dismissed.

For the record: I am not a Muslim. I am not a Christian. I am not a Jew. I have no religious ax to grind.

Kersten is an avowed evangelical (actually right wing activist) Christian.

What is beginning to be called Kersten's Krusade in some circles, focused at first on a couple of issues that have received national attention.

One was the refusal of an airline to allow a group of Islamic Imams who had been in the Twin Cities for a conference to fly on one of their airplanes because of their “loud” praying before boarding and because other passengers were afraid of them. The Islamic clerics have since sued.

I wasn't there, the reporting thus far has been poor, and its not clear what really happened. I have no position on the issue. Kersten has written several columns declaring, on the basis of no evidence whatever, that the whole thing was deliberately set up by the Imams in order to undermine airline security in this country.

Her other starting point was the refusal of a few Muslim cab drivers operating out of Twin Cities International Airport to accept passengers carrying liquor. They say that to abet the use of alcohol is forbidden. So far, the number of would-be passengers rejected by cab drivers is less than 30, out of tens of thousands of cab riders. The Metropolitan Airports Commission decided that all drivers must accept all passengers, including those carrying booze. Kersten still is outraged.

She has never said a thing about several instances of people in other jobs refusing to serve someone on religious grounds – as, for example, the number of proved complaints about pharmacists who have refused to fill prescriptions for birth control pills because birth control offends their Christian beliefs.

Since the first two issues arose, the columnist has ranted about every example she can find of anybody in Minnesota making any accommodation to allow Muslims to adhere to their beliefs. She is especially angered by any moves by government or government-supported organizations to be so much as courteous when it comes to dealing with the religious requirements of Muslims.

She is galled by organizations that provide quiet prayer rooms for Muslims, and is especially angered by those that go a bit out of their way to make foot-washing facilities available to observant Muslims, who must wash their feet before prayer. She is even angry that the cafeteria of a Minneapolis college serves food approved for consumption under Islamic law.

(Will she also scream about restaurants and cafeterias that provide kosher food? How about airlines, which all have kosher -- and vegetarian -- alternatives to their regular entrees on long flights? Don't hold your breath. Like most evangelical Christians these days, Kersten is a vocal supporter of Israel.)

Obviously underlying her complaints is the columnist's belief that everybody who wants to live in this country should dress, behave, eat in ways that she finds acceptable and – most importantly – worship a god that has her approval. She's irate that anyone dares to be different.

As usual with those who practice Kersten's version of what politely is called conservative Christianity, she complains over and over that no comparable accommodation is made for Christians.

Yeah, right.

By now, the Star Tribune should have addressed that claim, since Kersten won't tell the truth. But it won't, so let me make a quick stab at it.

Who but Christians are being accommodated by the (failed) “abstinence only” programs that have replaced intelligent and effective sex education classes in many schools?

Who but Christians of a certain right-leaning stripe are being catered to in government hamstringing of stem cell research, or by legislative and judicial moves to make abortion illegal again.

Who but Christians of that same stripe are being served by legislators working to make same-sex marriage illegal and, if the extreme Christian groups get their way, unconstitutional? (Disclosure: as a heterosexual married man, I'm not in the least threatened by the possibility that my good gay neighbors down the street might marry.)

How about the teaching of “intelligent design” in opposition to evolution in public schools? That isn't being done to satisfy scientists.

Who has noticed that for many decades, a majority of school districts in Minnesota (and an unknown number of other states), have not scheduled after-school events or, generally, evening events on a specific day – usually Wednesday – of each week? The reason is specifically to leave that time open each week for Christian confirmation classes and other church-related youth activities. Go back far enough, and you'll find the day was negotiated between school administrators and a town's Christian clergy.

Speaking of such scheduling, Kersten apparently is the only one who hasn't noticed that school holidays and many other government and government-supported schedules are inarguably timed to accommodate Christmas and, historically, Easter observances. In fact, you can't find any place of work, government or private, that doesn't go to great length to accommodate employee and customer desire to participate in Christmas and other Christian holiday observances.

It wouldn't take a great deal of time to come up with another 30, 50, 100 ways in which our government and businesses bow to Christian beliefs and desires.

But there's more in Kersten's Chicken Little bag of fears. The “main goal” of Muslims in this country is to spread their religion among Americans, she proclaimed a few days ago.

And that makes them different from Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and the army of self-proclaimed “evangelical” Christians in what way?

Perhaps Kersten, noticing that her crowd is slipping of late, fears that the Muslims are smarter and will be more successful.

Probably the funniest of her complaints is that Muslim college students learn how they can “obtain funding, identify coalition partners and 'bodies of power' on campus, working within student government, and use the media.” Furthermore – oh, the horror! -- Kersten says Islamic students have been shown by adults how they can use marches, rallies and protests on campus to generate exposure for themselves and their beliefs.

Apparently the columnist sees no irony in the fact that those methods, down to the last detail, have been used by adult-guided Young Republicans for the past 30 years and more.

We got rid of Don Imus recently, but with luck that's only a start. We need to take the megaphones away from a whole legion of hate spewers. In Minnesota, we could begin with Katherine Kersten.

To say that will earn me the horror and disgust of some of my former colleagues. Too bad.

It is not a First Amendment issue, as many claim. The Constitution does not guarantee anyone the right to a radio or television show or a newspaper column. But the right to complain to the owners of newspapers and broadcast outlets and the people who pay them for advertising is protected speech.

Removed from their highly-paid jobs as shouters for the extreme right, Imus and Kersten and the other hate mongers can go on talking, just as we can.

Consider one more observation: The hysterical anti-Islamic rantings of Kersten and others of her ilk are most remindful of the kind of irrational panic that led this country to strip hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans of their constitutional rights and to send them to concentration camps even as their sons and husbands fought with exceptional courage for this country in World War II.

That scares me.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Times, and reporters, have changed

In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, reporters, copy editors, photographers and some lower-level line editors – assistant city editors, assistant news editors and others -- at the Minneapolis Tribune raised a lot of hell with their employers.

There were at least two byline strikes – reporters exercising their right under the Newspaper Guild (union) contract with the publisher to withhold their names from stories they wrote because of what we regarded as ethical lapses by our bosses.

Once, the news staff chipped in to buy a full-page ad in our own newspaper to berate the publisher for allowing an advertiser to run an ad falsely accusing a reporter of factual errors in an article that had the potential to harm the advertiser's business.

Another time, staff members wore black armbands for a couple of weeks to protest the refusal of the newspaper's editor in chief to publish a series of well-documented stories that, again, had strong potential to damage some advertisers' businesses. The businesses were blatantly cheating customers through bait and switch and other tactics, and using full-page, full-color ads in the Tribune to do it.

I was the reporter/author of the series. Molly Ivins wrote about the incident, and some others, when she left the Tribune. The businesses in question have long since been shut down by local and state governments.

The staff, incidentally, won about two-thirds of those battles. In the case of the advertiser who slandered the reporter, the Tribune's publisher and editor apologized in print.

At the time, the Tribune was consistently rated as one of the top 20, sometimes best 10, newspapers in the country.

For a while, some of the news staff met weekly on their own time in homes or the back rooms of bars to talk about journalism, particularly as practiced at our newspaper. Attendance at the meetings varied from about 12 or 15 to as many as 40 or 45.

Organizers of the discussions included to-be-famous Ivins, a talented photographer called Skip Heine (now long out of newspapers), a hardnosed, Mike Wallace sort of reporter by the name of Bernie Shellum who later went to the Detroit Free Press, and one Jim Fuller, a rather dour young man who had a reputation for making complex topics understandable and for pursuing the kind of crook who wore hand-tailored suits and belonged to the most exclusive clubs.

Bear with me. This has a purpose other than nostalgia.

After the first three or four unofficial staff meetings, some of the newspaper's senior editors asked permission to attend. They had heard about the discussions and wanted to participate, or at least listen. Permission was readily granted, with the understanding that their positions at the paper gave them no privileges at our meetings.

We were quite successful in avoiding the kind of day-to-day bitching that filled countless hours at the Little Wagon, a bar just down the street from the Tribune's (and Minneapolis Star's) offices and plant.

Topics included some inside baseball, such as use of photographs to help tell a story rather than merely decorate it, the construction of headlines and English usage standards. But the majority of discussion was on issues of broad significance.

One session I recall led to consensus on a subject that had long been skirted. The large majority of the staff, somewhat in opposition to the position of the newspaper's editor, held that mere title – be it president of the United States or board chairman of a corporation – did not automatically carry with it the right to exposure on the front page of the newspaper, or, indeed, anywhere in it.

More specifically, we were strongly against giving prominent display to statements or claims repeated for a third, fourth or fifth time. If it ain't news, it ain't news, in other words. We weren't in the business of flacking for politicians or other big shots.

Although there wasn't one of us who didn't love to be first with a story, we came down hard for giving accuracy powerful precedence over quick coverage. If the facts weren't certain, we should hold until they had been verified, even if the story already was on the air. (That hurt, but we meant it.)

We also required of ourselves and our bosses that statements by the powerful be as thoroughly checked as those by lesser beings. A mere statement of something as fact didn't mean it was fact until it was checked and contrary interpretations were solicited and evaluated.

There was quite a lot more along those lines.

We sometimes slipped, of course, and some of the people we worked for, solicitous of the powerful and their own positions, occasionally slipped something in on us. But for the most part those discussions helped keep us honest and working hard to achieve real balance, fairness and honesty in our reporting. The battles with our bosses helped keep them at least mostly honest. And the truth is, they mostly wanted to be honest and to foster excellent journalism.

And the point of talking about this now?

There is no chance whatever – absolutely none – that such activity involving the staff of a large American newspaper will be seen again, and there is no chance that such concerted striving for unattainable levels of performance in news reporting will return.

The often arrogant and mostly intellectually timid members of today's news staffs would scoff at such activities. Too idealistic, too high school.

Newspapers and broadcast outlets of 2007 are owned and supervised by people whose essential goals have almost nothing to do with the quality of journalism. They are about making money, and almost nothing else.

The staffs of today's newspapers are almost entirely made up of people of upper middle class (or economically higher) background who live in affluent suburban neighborhoods and have little or no acquaintance with anyone different from themselves. And, yes, that includes most of those of racial or other ethnic minorities. They were raised to believe, and do believe, that this country is pretty much run by those who should be running it. They tend to believe that although the Bush crowd is too far to the right, it's biggest crime is mere incompetence.

They are people who reject many ideas and potential truths without examination as being “too far out” and, perhaps, born of “conspiracy theories” -- a favorite way of dismissing ideas and possible facts that may prove uncomfortable or difficult to deal with.

Most certainly, those who inhabit today's news rooms would never consider banding together to butt heads with the people who run things. It just isn't done, doncha know.

Anyway, they much more resemble a basketball squad of would-be individual stars than, say, a baseball team on which everyone strives for the good of the team, standing ready to lay down a sacrifice bunt when useful although a double would look better in the individual stats.

We need some way to get facts, including facts that run contrary to the stances of those who rule, to the people of this country. We're not going to get much help from today's corporately owned newsrooms. We must recognize that and look elsewhere, perhaps establish our own journalism outlets -- blogs don't cut it -- or invent new approaches. Maybe we need to go back to the days of the American Revolution and the pamphleteers and start over.

And we'd damned well better get going.


Plan now to watch a new Bill Moyers special on Public Television April 25. Time is 9 p.m. Eastern, I believe.

The advertised topic is the lies the Bush administration told to sell the public on the invasion of Iraq -- including some which haven't been widely exposed for what they were -- but the real focus is on the active support and help the liars received from news outlets, particularly television.

One critic who has previewed the show suggests that "you'll never watch television news again -- not even on PBS, which comes in for its share of criticism."

If that's true, it probably will be a very good thing.