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Correspondence with the Publisher of the Star Tribune related to Coverage of the Independence Party Primary for U.S. Senate in 2002
(1) William McGaughey’s Letter to Keith Moyer, Publisher of the Star Tribune
September 13, 2002
J. Keith Moyer, Publisher
425 Portland Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55488
Dear Mr. Moyer:
The primary election returns are in. I placed second in the Independence Party primary for U.S. Senator, gaining 8,483 votes or 31.01% of the total. The winner, Jim Moore, gained 49.43% of the total. This should be of some interest to you since the Star Tribune failed to inform readers in its news reporting that the race was contested.
The Star Tribune ran its first and only story on the Independence Party (and Green Party) primary race for U.S. Senate on Wednesday, July 31th, beginning on page 1 and continuing to occupy two full columns on page 8. Neither I nor Ronald E. Wills, the other nonendorsed candidate running in the primary, was named. The article was about Jim Moore, the party-endorsed candidate. It did not mention that he faced opposition.
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Star Tribune, calling attention to that omission. It was not printed. I then contacted the Reader Representative, Lou Gelfand, to complain of incomplete coverage. He left a message on my answering machine to the effect that, while he had no influence over decisions whether or not to publish letters to the editor, he would contact the news department to suggest that the Independence Party race receive additional coverage. Apparently, his powers of persuasion were limited.
Political candidates who are deprived of news coverage usually have the option of placing paid advertisements in newspapers (or running commercials in the electronic media) to get their message across straight to the public. Accordingly, I attempted to place an ad in the Star Tribune. The text was as follows:
“ Dear Primary Voter: I oppose the the Republicans’ core value of squeeze working people and the Democrats’ core value of political correctness. I’m for shorter work time and dignity for white males (and all others too). A strong third party can be built on this foundation. Vote for Bill McGaughey for U.S. Senate in the Independence Party primary on September 10th. www.billforsenate.org”
In discussions with the advertising department, I soon learned that the Star Tribune has imposed special rules for placing such ads. There is heavy involvement from the “legal department”. The rules substantially restrict advertisers’ freedom to craft the message which readers will see.
One questionable practice, presumably demanded by the “legal department”, was to require that political advertisements placed in your newspaper contain not only the words “PAID ADVERTISEMENT”, as required by Minnesota law, but also the disclaimer required for campaign literature. In my case, it was: “Prepared and paid for by McGaughey for Senate Campaign, P.O. Box 3601, Minneapolis, MN 55403.” If there are competent attorneys in your legal department, they would know that this redundant disclaimer language is not legally required in newspaper advertisements.
Nevertheless, I submitted my ad to your newspaper. The advertising representative told me that the copy would have to be reviewed by the “legal department”. After several days of presumed deliberation, the lawyers reported back that my ad was unacceptable in its present form and would have to be changed. I learned this from a message left on my answering machine on the day of the deadline to place advertisements in the September 6th Voter’s Guide. Unfortunately, I was up north campaigning and did not come home that day. So I was unable to make the required changes in time.
Still, I was interested in placing the ad on another day before the primary election. I called the Advertising Representative to ask what the legal department had found objectionable in my ad. It was too negative, I was told. The Star Tribune wanted to keep a positive tone in its political ads. I therefore proposed that the first sentence be cut which read: “I oppose the Republicans’ core value of squeeze working people and the Democrats’ core value of political correctness.” The rest of the ad said what I was for. Run this, I suggested.
The advertising representative called me back shortly to report that another part of the ad also might not pass muster with the legal department. That was the reference to “dignity for white males”. The term “white males” was too negative. I told the representative that I was not ashamed of my birth-determined group, pointing out that the ad declared that I was for dignity for “all others too”. She conceded that this softened the impact, but it might not be enough. Eager to get back on the road, I left instructions that the newspaper should either run the ad in its present, albeit abbreviated, form or not run it at all.
On September 6th, the advertising representative left a message on my answering machine that, with the “white male” phrase included, the text would not be acceptable. Therefore, I did not run an ad in the Star Tribune before the primary. Even so, your newspaper charged my credit card for the rejected ad which never ran. A credit has been promised. (It has now been received.)
I must say that I am dismayed by this experience, both by your reporters’ failure to provide balanced coverage of the election contest and, especially, by the rules imposed by your advertising and legal departments. In my view, legal departments have a legitimate role in screening materials for possibly libelous content. My advertisement, though containing negative elements, could not possibly provoke a lawsuit for libel. Lawyers have no business screening advertisements for style and tone. Writers on your copy desk are better qualified to do that. But really you should not be censoring paid political ads at all.
I can cite a model of alternative treatment in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Pioneer Press ran a major story on the Independence and Green Party primaries for U.S. Senator two days before you ran yours. While the article devoted more space to the endorsed candidates (which was appropriate), it did give several paragraphs of reporting narrative to each of the nonendorsed candidates and contained a box of comparative information for all candidates. The Pioneer Press also ran the ad which I submitted to you without alteration.
Perhaps this letter can provide constructive criticism for Star Tribune editors and managers. You cannot be proud of the fact that you wrote nothing about a major-party U.S. Senate primary contest where the party-endorsed candidate, outspending his opponents by large margins, ultimately received less than half of the votes. Were Ronald Wills and I such unpromising candidates? In my case, your editors may have disagreed with my issues (which do, indeed, run contrary to the core values of many of your editors and reporters) and not wished to “dignify” them by giving my campaign any coverage.
There is a perception among broad segments of the Twin Cities public that the Star Tribune practices politically biased journalism. There is a perception that your editors and reporters aspire not only to report the news but to shape it. In many cases, you can indeed control an election result by depriving certain candidates of coverage or by reporting campaigns in one-sided ways. If the Star Tribune chooses consistently to slant the news to promote certain social or political objectives, its reporting will then cease to be believed. You will then slide farther into political irrelevance and our community will be poorer for it.
I do want to acknowledge two positive elements in your coverage of the primary race. First, the Voter’s Guide, published on September 6th, did give all candidates an opportunity to present their campaign issues in their own words. This was an important service in communicating the candidates’ messages to the voters. Second, also on September 6th, you published my letter to the editor criticizing your earlier article which attacked Green Party candidate Ed McGaa for his involvement in a failed project to move sludge to South Dakota. Both McGaa and I had doubts that your editors would publish the letter. We were wrong about that.
Even so, you did my and Ronald Wills’ candidacies a disservice in creating a “black hole” of news coverage of our campaigns in the west metro area. If your newspaper aspires to “make the news” in political races as well as report it, you then become a legitimate target of criticism. In my opinion, the Star Tribune has pushed the envelope in politically tendentious reporting. Though no longer a political candidate, I will now seek to push the envelope in bringing your questionable policies and practices to public attention.
cc: others who may be interested in this case
(2) Keith Moyer's Response to McGaughey
Dear Mr. McGaughey:
I’m responding to your letters to me and to Bob Weil, McClatchy Co. vice president of operations.
I regret that you take exception to our political coverage and our advertising policies. Clearly, your beliefs are strongly held and I doubt there is much I could say that would change how you feel.
I have reviewed the issues you raise, and I stand behind the decisions we have made. I realize that you are no longer a candidate and that you are writing for the purpose of offering constructive criticism. We thank you for this.
I do appreciate your taking the time to write, even if the outcome is that we still are on different sides of the issues.
J. Keith Moyer
(3) McGaughey’s Response to Moyer
October 28, 2002
Mr. J. Keith Moyer, Publisher
425 Portland Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55488
Dear Mr. Moyer:
Thanks for your letter of October 25, 2002, in response to mine. In effect, you are saying that you reviewed my complaint, disagreed with it, and intend to do nothing to change Star Tribune policies and practices in those areas.
The wording of your letter suggests that nothing you could possibly write would change my mind, so hardened is my opinion. I can assure you that I am open to persuasion. However, you have given no reasons at all to justify your decisions. My somewhat biased view is that this was because your position was untenable. If I were in your shoes, I would not have exposed myself to further embarrassment either, in attempting to defend what the Star Tribune did. However, I might have looked for ways to avoid repetition of those practices.
My complaint centered around two issues:
(1) your newspaper’s obligation to provide readers with a fairly accurate, balanced, and complete description of election contests which you decided to cover. To cover a primary contest for U.S. Senate exclusively in terms of one candidate, without mentioning that this candidate faced opposition, does not meet anyone’s standard of fair coverage. Ronald Wills and I proved, in retrospect, that we were significant candidates in winning more than half of the vote.
(2) that your newspaper had an obligation to accept and run paid advertisements on behalf of political candidates without censoring the content unless it was libelous or otherwise violated laws. To use your near monopoly position in the Minneapolis area to censor ads because they offend your staff’s political sensibilities is not a good reason. Most people would recognize this as an attempt to control the results of an election. A newspaper should not be doing this.
Your advertising/ “legal” department was offended by the statement in my proposed ad that I was in favor of “dignity for white males”. If our society is what it claims to be (against discrimination and for human rights), then such a statement ought to be greeted with a big yawn. Of course, every human being, regardless of gender, race, or another personal characteristic, ought to be treated with dignity. The fact, however, that your staff thought dignity for a particular group of people to be so offensive that professions of such by a political candidate would sully your reputation shows that racial and gender extremists run your newspaper. That is precisely why I raised this issue in my campaign for U.S. Senate.
You are, I assume, a white male. Don’t you want personal dignity? Don’t you think you deserve this as a human being? Then, why don’t you support dignity for other or all white males? Do they deserve it any less than you? Don’t all people - and I said this in my ad - deserve human dignity? What exactly is your position on this question? Do you think the phrase “white male” is a collection of dirty words?
Your letter indicates that you take personal ownership of decisions made in the Star Tribune’s news reporting and advertising/ “legal” departments. Let’s be clear about this. If the Star Tribune endeavors to participate as a player in electoral politics and not merely report the news, then you and your actions become a legitimate target of political criticism with an eye to possible action. First-amendment protection or not, you become the subject of possible actions to force the newspaper to be more responsible and accountable to the public if it fails to do this on its own accord. The integrity of the electoral process cannot be compromised.
The press is like a fourth branch of government. As such, it is the only branch that is privately owned. It becomes, then, a matter of grave public concern when newspaper reporting is flagrantly and consistently biased especially in covering electoral politics. I have sometimes jokingly proposed that the City of Minneapolis condemn the Star Tribune under its powers of condemnation by eminent domain and then use this property for a public purpose.
Public opinion polls show that journalists stand lower in public esteem than politicians or used-car salesmen. This ought to be taken as a warning that people are fed up with biased reporting and the attitude that, morally, you know what is best for other people. The whole profession has its head buried in the sands of political correctness, thinking this to be a beautiful posture. It is not.
There will be repercussions. I do not intend to take legal action but will, instead, in my own way, appeal directly to public opinion, which is the most powerful force in this society. You may be a big fish in our community but you are not so big that you cannot be adversely affected by public discussion and awareness of your deeds.
There was no response from Moyer to McGaughey's second letter.