Fractured Fairy Tales

As I explain below in “Who was that masked man?,” the Star Tribune runs a lame “clarification” of Nick Coleman’s sinister query in his recent column asking whether “Powerline or its mighty righty allies take money from political parties, campaigns or well-heeled benefactors who hope to affect Minnesota’s politics from behind the scenes?” On December 13 we specifically responded to Coleman’s similar line about us on Air America that we are not paid for our work on the site. I can’t find the “clarification” on the Star Tribune Web site, but it appears in today’s paper. The Star Tribune otherwise refused to run corrections of Coleman’s numerous misstatements about us on extraordinarily thin grounds.
A highlight of Coleman’s column attacking us was his walk down memory lane back to 1990 when Coleman worked for the Star Tribune’s cross-river competitor, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Coleman only had to go back 14 years in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to find an example of his work that proved his “commitment to serving the public[.]”
Coleman’s account of his 14-year-old moment of glory reflects poorly on the Star Tribune, if you think that a paper’s editorial board rather than its ownership has a sacrosanct right to wield the paper’s endorsement power. I don’t, but deep thinkers of Coleman’s type do, and it provides the key to the grandiosity of his retrospective. Here’s Coleman’s account of his 14-year old service to the public:

In 1990, I reported that this newspaper’s endorsement of DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich was decided by then-publisher and Perpich crony Roger Parkinson. He had quashed the decision of the newspaper’s editorial board, which had voted in favor of the Republican challenger, Arne Carlson.
The truth got out, the Republican won and the public was served. If Extreme bloggers, who know nothing that happened before last Tuesday, had the same commitment to serving the public, I wouldn’t have a problem. But like talk radio, they are dominated by the right and are only interested in being a megaphone without oversight, disclosure of conflicts of interest, or professional standards.

It turns out, however, that Coleman’s tribute to his 14-year-old public service is more or less fictional. And because it is fiction that reflects poorly on the Star Tribune, the Star Tribune has rushed to print this correction in tomorrow’s paper:

In a Dec. 29 Nick Coleman column on Page B2, a reference to the involvement of former Star Tribune publisher Roger Parkinson in an endorsement decision should have said the two editors of the editorial page decided, against the recommendation of the editorial page staff, to endorse DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. Parkinson concurred.

In other words, in 1990 the Star Tribune editors exercised their prerogative to endorse incumbent Governor Rudy Perpich over Arne Carlson against the wishes of the editorial page staff.
Coleman’s heroic public service is not apparent. Nor is his ability to promote himself without defaming an innocent third party. In this case, however, the innocent third party is a former publisher of the Star Tribune and Coleman’s freedom with the facts merits a correction. The Star Tribune’s refusal to correct Coleman’s misstatements about us together with the Star Tribune’s correction of Coleman’s misstatement regarding the paper’s former publisher allow us to draw several conclusions.
First, Coleman will apparently have to reach back further than 14 years into the past in order to establish his superiority over bloggers in providing a public service to readers. Second, Coleman has severe difficulties playing straight with basic facts. We already knew that, but here the paper’s own correction establishes it. Third, when Coleman’s misstatements unfairly impugn the reputation of the paper’s former publisher, a correction is in order. Fourth, when Coleman’s misstatements unfairly impugn the reputation of outsiders, however, the columnist operates within a zone of privilege.
Every day we learn a little more about the rules under which the mainstream media operate. Today we learn that neither shame nor embarrasment imposes any limits on their conduct.
HINDROCKET adds: Many readers have written to us over the last few days, expressing support in the wake of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s attack on us and appreciation of our coverage of that story. A much smaller, but still considerable, number of readers have expressed annoyance with our commentary on the column that Nick Coleman wrote about us, and the Star Tribune’s response to our complaints. Most of these emails have pointed out that Coleman is an obscure local columnist whom few of our readers have even heard of, and have urged us to get back to covering national and international news. Many of them have pointed out that we have far more readers than Mr. Coleman does.
This is true. Nevertheless, our discussion of the Strib’s attack on us is not just a personal “wrestling match with a pig,” as more than one reader has termed it. This is, in our view, a paradigmatic episode that exposes the mainstream media’s bias, arrogance, willful inaccuracy, and resistance to correction. The fact that it involves us, and a columnist who can charitably be described as second rate, is really secondary. The issue is an institutional one. What is on display here is the viciousness, the arrogance, and the cluelessness of mainstream media when confronted with a challenge to its monopoly power. On that basis, the story is well worth covering.
UPDATE: Reader Michael Hertzberg adds:

The Strib’s correction of St. Nick is incorrect when it says that the column “should have said” the endorsement was decided on by the two editorial page editors. While such a statement would have been correct, it would have failed to support Nick’s “once upon a time I served the public,” so the correct version would never have appeared in the column at all. It is therefore fatuous for the Strib to adopt the inappropriate “should have said” locution.
More broadly — and I have written more than once to the NY Times Public Editor about this — the print media are inevitably disingenuous when they print this kind of correction, because they never explicitly say what the incorrect statement was, so the reader (who hasn’t memorized the now-corrected statement) can’t really judge the nature and egregiousness of the error. Thus, the Strib’s correction in this case should have read something like: “A Dec. 29 Nick Coleman column on Page B2 incorrectly stated that in 1990 Strib publisher Roger Parkinson overrode the editorial board’s decision and had the Strib endorse DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. In fact, the two editorial page editors overrode the recommendation of the editorial page staff, a decision with which Parkinson concurred.” That wouldn’t have been so hard, would it?

UPDATE 2: The Star Tribune publishes a letter to the editor by Roger Parkinson today as well:

Nick Coleman made a big mistake in his Dec. 29 column, ” ‘Blog of the Year’ goes to extremes.” He said that I, as publisher of the Star Tribune, quashed an editorial board decision to endorse Arne Carlson for governor in 1990, deciding that the paper should support Gov. Rudy Perpich.
Editorial writers did not vote to determine endorsements or other positions. Bob White, the editorial page editor then, might take informal polls of the writers, but he made the decision subject to the approval of the publisher. White and Jim Boyd, who was then and is still deputy editor of the editorial pages, had decided to endorse Perpich. I said OK.
The Carlson campaign was shocked and upset. Someone started spreading the rumor that I had overruled the editorial board. Apparently Coleman believed it then and still does. I assume it is still true that columnists are free to write their own opinions but not free to get their facts wrong.
Roger Parkinson, Toronto.

UPDATE 3: The Parkinson matter is a “correction” online, but a “clarification” in the hard copy of the paper–which seems odd, since Coleman got the key fact that was the basis for his alleged point exactly wrong. If that’s not a “correction,” what is?

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