MY FORTY YEARS OF DNT REPORTERS AND EDITORS

PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT I WOKE UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT TO WRITE A FUND RAISING LETTER AND IT BECAME THIS EXTENDED STREAM-OF-THOUGHT PIECE ON MY EXPERIENCES WITH THE DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE. PLEASE ALSO UNDERSTAND THAT I HAVE NO DESIRE TO TIDY ITS 1903 WORDS UP WITH A COUPLE PROOF READINGS. IT IS AND WILL REMAIN IN ROUGH DRAFT CONDITION PROBABLY FOR AS LONG AS THIS BLOG CAN BE FOUND ON THE WEB. BTW – I RECOMMEND SKIPPING IT AND CUTTING TO THE LAST PARAGRAPH.

I have had a long relationship with the News Tribune which began when I first ran against Mike Jaros as a 25-year-old in 1976.

They have covered all sixteen of my campaigns for public office. Considering that I’ve only one three of them I have never been able to fault them when their editorials and even news stories call me a “perennial” candidate. I have even earned their editorial endorsement a couple of times even in one of my two runs against Mike as I recall. (They were closer to a liberal Republican paper back then under the ownership of the Ridders) On that occasion the paper was irritated at Mike more than it was enchanted with me. But, an endorsement is an endorsement and I was glad for it. It didn’t help. Mike won.

It is understandable that the “paper of record” in a town would be reluctant to put its editorial reputation at risk by endorsing perennial candidates who often have the reputation of being cranks. Better to go with the flow and endorse candidates that seem to have the public’s backing.

One of the first reporters I recall was an equally young Ann Glumac. She would later rise to become a close aide of Governor Rudy Perpich. The other was Jim Heffernan who would soon be elevated to the position of Editor of the paper. I learned early that there were some walls built into journalism. The first was a tricky wall. That was between the editors and advertising. An honest story about an advertiser could mean lost revenue from an unhappy client. For a big news organization in the glory days of Newspapers this was survivable but for small town weeklies with a single big commercial operation it was risky to provoke retaliation.

Another such wall was that between the Editors and the Reporters and yet another was the one between the owners, represented by their Publisher, and the Editors. In the end it was the owners who wielded final control over the biggest editorial endorsements for offices like President of the United States. A Rupert Murdoch could, if he wanted, require all of the newspapers under his or her control to endorse a favored Democrat or Republican presidential contender. Or he could cede that decision to the local editors. In the case of the latest owners of the News Tribune, Forum Communications, they seem to make that call. I suspect all their papers made the same call in the 2016 presidential election – this one. Its what the News Tribune did.

Taking no stand was one way Forum Communications could avoid alienating its tens of thousands of rural Trump supporters. But I think it was stupid as one candidate was so deeply flawed they should have taken a stand against him. In this way Forum Communications was as much a dupe of Vladimir Putin as the gullible folks on Facebook. I know the Trib editors simply followed orders in not taking a stand. In this they simply were claques for Forum but they do have the authority to make local calls like for the School Board. And in bestowing one they don’t want to look stupid.

We no longer live in the glory days. Newspapers are hanging on by their fingernails hoping against hope to figure out a way to stay healthy in the Internet age. Today’s News Tribune is a scrappy and lean organization compared to what it was when I first arrived in town but its still the loudest voice in news. Without it its hard to imagine what our local television news shows would cover every night – press releases from paid spokesman I guess.

When I first tacked to the Duluth School Board Anne Bretts was the education reporter. She was universally feared by school board candidates because she seemed to hold the Mark Twainian attitude toward the school board: “First God created the Idiot…” It took me a couple elections to win what I suspect was her grudging respect at least for my perseverance – three failed runs before wining the fourth time. But she never did my any favors in her coverage.

My first really favorable column came from the DNT’s Art’s Critic Dominic Papatola later to head to the big market Twin Cities press.

In my first eight years on the Board I was consumed with one issue that was not of my making – the charter schools. A new series of reporters took over Brett’s beat. The covered me fighting with the Union. Being part of a narrow 5-4 majority. Our hiring of the School District’s first minority School Superintendent, Hot community discussions of school closings and finally the temporary of a popular hockey coach. The editors were disappointed in 2004 when I filed for the Board but later repented and told them I would not be campaigning because I didn’t really want to remain on a Board that kept three small high schools operating which I thought was an extravagance the City could not afford. I also had vision of pursuing higher office, an unlikely avenue for me as I was increasingly heading in an Independent direction without party support.

And then the Red Plan reared its ugly head. I was genuinely outraged that voters had no say in it.

But by this time the Newspaper had moved on and threw in its lot with the community leaders who were taken in by a sales pitch reminiscent of the one that convinced the emperor that his new clothes were spectacular to those smart enough to claim they could seen the nonexistent threads. From that day to this the Trib’s editors have generally taken a dim view of my contrarian attitude although they gave me a grudging endorsement four years ago. I was listed as “who” in the endorsement’s headline and their editorial went on to justify an endorsement they seemed to think the powers in Duluth would consider peculiar.

Except that it wasn’t. I may not be conventional but I have long experience and keen, if imperfect, insight as my eight loyal readers can attest. Of millions of words I’ve written about our schools and the people running them in this semi-controversial blog very few have ever been thrown in my face or used against me. Oh there are quibbles and I’m usually quick to acknowledge their validity but in the larger scheme of things I stand by every word I put down for posterity.

It took me three years on the Board to discover the single most damning thing that the Red Plan brought about: Twenty years ago our School Board spent $14 million out of the 23 million locally raised tax dollars in the classroom. Today it only spends $2.5 million out of $31 million locally raised taxes in the classroom. Its no wonder that we have kindergarten classes of 30 students and high school classes of 40.

In the years since I saw this coming the Trib’s editors have routinely looked for salvation in pretty “fresh” faces. One of them turned out to be a venomous ignoramus. Another saw an assault that never happened. Both of them were the true villains of the “ugly” times the DNT’s editorial board now hold Art Johnston, Loren Martell and me accountable for.

I hope that my coverage of the Trib is clear on several competing points. I revere the free press even while I despair of its occasional editorial clumsiness.
I have always gotten along with the reporters who covered me. When Anne Bretts made me look foolish a quarter century ago by humorously describing my juggling tennis balls at a candidate’s forum for the school board I couldn’t find fault with her. Even them I was reaching too far to find a way to make a point just as I did two years ago when I stopped a school board meeting insistent on acting out a pantomime of what was being called an assault.

I have liked every ed reporter I’ve met. I like the two that tied Supt Almanza in knots demanding that he give them details of a tentative proposal on the closure of five schools. They hung around in his office for hours like birds of prey and madder than hell at him for his stubborn refusal to turn over what they regarded as public data.

I liked Tom who I gave a front page story too when I gave him the incendiary (and well deserved) letter I wrote to the teacher union president. I think Tom disapproved of it but it needed to be reported.

I even liked Sarah Horner, who I gave a lot of grief to because she couldn’t get over being one of Supt. Keith Dixon’s true believers who took Let Duluth Vote, my organizations, objections to the Red Plan as far fetched. I took it as a point of pride that I could get her to laugh when we talked on the phone even as we needled each other, her in news articles and me in my blog posts.

I have nothing but respect for Sarah’s successor Jana Hollingsworth. I first met her when Jana was thrown into the educational maelstrom during a meeting in which an aggressive School Board attorney was laying the case for Board member Seliga-Punyko that Gary Glass could be removed from the Board. Was I ever pissed off.

For ten years I was both an underdog and right at the same time. For the past four years of my term of office I have been in a minority. In the first two years it was a lethal majority that tried to remove an ally and when it overreached settled for starting a “Censorship of the month” club with Art Johnston and me as charter members. That was the “ugly” that the current editors of the Trib are hiding behind oblivious to the reason why our District is struggling. Its all been caused by the reduction of local taxes into the classroom from $14 million to $2.5 million.

I sometimes wonder if the editors of the Trib even read their own reporter Jana Hollingsworth’s stories. She has written many excellent pieces with nuance while covering a wild world of education far beyond the sometimes dysfunctional borders of the Duluth Public Schools. She recently pointed out that the million dollar energy savings promised by the Red Plan were one tenth what had been promised. She has written many articles about the inequities between east and west which critics of the Red Plan warned in advance would result. Time after time Jana’s coverage exposes the errors and omissions of the folks the Trib’s editors once lionized as builders of schools for the twenty-first century.

I can’t blame the owners of Forum Communications for the thin skin of the Trib’s editorial board. I just know that the Trib’s editorial board prefers to endorse folks that know less than the editorial board does about our public schools instead of seasoned veterans of the bullshit some of our supposed educators soft soap the community with.