Thursday, January 04, 2007

The $670 Million Ombudsman

Another sterling article from Mediacrity contributor Bruce Kesler, of the Democracy Project:

Kate Parry is the ombudsman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota Star Tribune newspaper. As the paper says

Kate is the Star Tribune's reader's representative, ensuring your voice is heard in the newsroom and providing a window for you on how the newspaper makes decisions.

The readers’ voices, apparently, have not been heard well enough by either the newsroom or by her, nor has she explained how or why a critical local story was ignored by her paper. Parry’s role as ombudsman, if exercised as an ombudsman should, might have alerted the Star Tribune’s management and reporters that they were not fulfilling their responsibilities sufficiently to keep the paper viable.

The New York Times’ commentary on the recent fire sale of the newspaper for $530-million, at a $670-million loss from its $1.2-billion purchase price:

Sure, the consolidation of department stores and the flight of classified ads to the Web hurt big metropolitan dailies like The Star Tribune. This summer’s downturn in overall newspaper advertising landed hard on the paper, with ads off 6.1 percent in the last year from the year before.

The McClatchy Company, which bought the paper’s parent company with a great deal of fanfare in 1998 for $1.2 billion, looked at those numbers — and the fact that it had lost 26,000 or so daily readers since it bought the paper — and decided to sell the paper for $530 million.

It’s a wider problem than in Minnesota. As Media Week reported:

Goldman Sachs said in a research note that the paper's sale price—far below what McClatchy paid for it in 1998—underscores the industry's falling circulation and advertising fortunes.

I’ve frequently written about ombudsmen. (See here for the links to my dissection of three of her leading peers.) Particularly, see this one for a discussion of the roots and self-proclaimed, although little enough seen, standards for ombudsmen. For example: (ONO = Organization of News Ombudsmen)

Chuck Stone, professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism, and for several months ombudsman at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in a 1998 speech appearing at the ONO site, expresses the role of the ombudsman as “the responsibility to help newspapers achieve five goals.”

First, “making newspapers necessary…as the most dependable and comprehensive dispenser of information.” Second, “to always be exciting” responsibly about the news without “scatology, pornography or sex-obsessed reporting.” Third, to “help newspapers achieve [a] superiority of information….governed by the highest credibility that is made possible by our reliance on the acronym, FEAT – fair, evenhanded, accurate and thorough.” Fourth, “Ombudsmen are the only professionals on the newspaper whose sole responsibility differentiates the new media – the Internet, Online, etc. – from the old media. In a sense, ombudsmen are custodians of accountability.” Fifth, “Ombudsmen can be critical to maintaining and even enhancing a newspaper’s credibility….I cannot recall any period when readers held newspapers in such low esteem.”

Congress and the Securities & Exchange Commission have seen fit to elevate internal controls to the highest importance for America’s corporations, and senior executive culpability if insufficient. The ombudsman at America’s newspapers was supposed to serve as an important internal control. The purpose of internal controls, I can say as a Certified Internal Auditor early in my career, is both proper recording of transactions and the efficacy of operations.

It is abundantly clear that most ombudsmen most of the time have gravely failed their internal control, and journalistic, responsibility. It would be going too far to hold Kate Parry responsible, alone, for the reporting and business failure of the Star Tribune, for the loss to its owners of $670-million, as her bosses all the way up appointed and tolerated her. But, she should definitely be one of those in the dock.

Powerline blog is one of the nation’s most widely read and respected, all of its three bloggers being careful lawyers and two in the Minneapolis area. In numerous detailed and documented posts by Scott Johnson at Powerline, he exhibited the indictment of prospective and now newly elected local Congressman Keith Ellison. For example, in “Keith Ellison for Dummies,” Scott Johnson summarized much of the evidence that Ellison was untruthful about his radical connections to Islamist groups.

Instead of undertaking any investigation of these assertions, the Minneapolis Star Tribune has simply reported the assertions and repeated them as facts ever since. Yet each of these assertions is demonstrably false. Their falsehood is easily established by newspaper accounts documenting Ellison's activities, speeches and beliefs over the relevant period of time….

The steadfast refusal of the local Minnesota media to examine Ellison’s public record in the course of his congressional campaign represents a striking case of nonfeasance, incompetence and willfully averted eyes that is a story unto itself.

Or, here, Scott Johnson exhibits “The Friends of Keith Ellison,” at whose convention Ellison recently spoke:

According to the invaluable report of the Chicago Tribune, the Muslim Brotherhood operates in the United States as the Muslim American Society. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross's "MAS's Muslim Brotherood problem" expands on the meaning of MAS's relationship to the Muslim Brotherood. Like the Muslim Brotherhood and the MAS, the Islamic Circle of North America promotes the establishment of the Islamic system of life. According to Steven Emerson, the ICNA also has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The two groups -- MAS and the ICNA -- hold a joint annual convention. This year's joint annual convention in Dearborn welcomed -- who else? -- Minnesota Fifth District Rep.-elect Keith Ellison as its keynote speaker. The Detroit Free Press reports on Ellison's speech this past Sunday night:
"You can't back down, you can't chicken out, you can't be afraid, you got to have faith in Allah, and you got to stand up and be a real Muslim," Detroit native Keith Ellison said to loud applause.
"Allahu akbar" -- God is great -- was the reply of many in the crowd.
Surely one of these days some bigfoot journalist will ask Ellison what branch of Islam he adheres to in reconciling Islam with the Democratic platform on abortion rights, homosexual rights, the rights of women and the like. Perhaps some bigfoot journalist might then ask a question or two about how Ellison's branch of Islam views the legal equality of Muslims and infidels and the supremacy of the United States Constitution over Sharia law. Until that time, we will have pay attention to the friends of Keith Ellison for the light they may shed on his views on these subjects.

Or, here, Scott Johnson’s fellow Powerline blogger John Hinderaker asks:

So one would think that it might occur to a reporter to ask Ellison: what variety of Muslim are you? What mosque do you attend? Where does your branch of Islam stand on Sharia? What do your imams preach? And, where does your enthusiasm for cop-killing fit into your religious principles?
No such questions, needless to say, will be forthcoming.

Or, here, Scott Johnson posts a follow-up on an editorial from Investors Business Daily posing whether there was a connection between Ellison and the “flying imams.” Ellison immediately demanded to meet with the airline.

The Investors Businesss Daily editorial formulated its hypothesis regarding the Ellison connection to the flying imams this past Wednesday. Within 48 hours Ellison has taken the first steps to prove the shrewdness of the editorial's hypothesis that the underlying incident was fabricated for the benefit of an agenda to be advanced by Ellison. I'm afraid that it's time to scream bloody murder before the flying imams and their friends in high places turn the incident into the means by which citizens are disabled from taking reasonable action to defend themselves from apparent danger.

Where has the Star Tribune and Kate Parry been through all this, on its doorstep, and much of the investigation work served up to it? AWOL, that’s where.

I wrote Scott Johnson this morning to follow-up, questioning where Kate Parry has been on this – should be – high-profile issue. Scott Johnson’s response:

I think she probably wrote a column on the Star Tribune Ellison coverage saying they were getting flack from both sides and therefore they had done a good job.

A search of the Star Tribune’s website shows Kate Parry referring to the Ellison matter only once, the day before the election. Here’s all she had to say about Ellison:

How involved was Fifth Congressional District DFL candidate Keith Ellison years ago in the Nation of Islam -- a group whose anti-Semitism he now repudiates?

Parry follows that by having the effrontery to say, “As near as I can tell, the newspaper could not write too much about this election.”

What about the Star Tribune’s reporting or commentary, for critical or investigative reporting?

A search of the paper’s website only shows non-editorial line columnist Katherine Kersten’s column discussing Ellison’s support and defense of local criminals, of radical political bents.

This is not an isolated example of Kate Parry and the Star Tribune’s closed-eyes and closed-mindedness. As Scott Johnson wrote me:

On her beat, basically, the Star Tribune does no wrong….The longest exchange I had with her goes back to the column Nick Coleman wrote that was devoted to trying to get me fired from my job. She came up with excuses for Coleman that even he wouldn’t cite….[Another example] Her treatment of the plagiarism issue on the editorial page is a great example. It’s off her beat – which is the news pages. She originally weighed in critically of the paper and cited Power Line, if not favorably, at least not critically. The second time around, the tone of her reference to us changed perceptibly in a way that I thought was laughable.

Kate Parry’s most recent column touts “A fresh way to talk about newspapers and news websites: Starting Jan. 2, readers can discuss coverage at the Omblog.”

At Omblog, readers will also be able to point their fellow readers toward something in the newspaper that shouldn't be missed.

The examples are all of a liberal’s agenda.

Kate Parry and the Star Tribune are in common with much of American journalism.

No more than I want to withdraw from the United Nations do I want to see major newspapers or their ombudsmen disappear. They are doing that to themselves. Instead, I want to see them rededicated and true to their missions.

Bruce Kesler
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