Ethics Case Studies | The Media School

Of publishers and politics

Byline protest threatened at Star Tribune

Reporters at the Minneapolis Star Tribune say their publisher’s outside activities compromise the newspaper’s appearance of objectivity and make it hard for them to do their jobs.

By Paul McEnroe

Paul McEnroe is national reporter for the Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1990), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


The odd couple — the stumbling populist governor of Minnesota and the former Green Beret turned newspaper publisher — pulled it off. But after the Russians split town, there were many who thought they’d witnessed a new low in Minnesota journalism. And there’s a reporter — me — still wondering if he did the right thing by saying he’d pull his byline off a story in protest of what the publisher was doing.

For months, Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich had been suffering a popularity drought, his bid seeking the endorsement from the Democratic Farm Labor party growing tougher each day. It hadn’t helped that his erratic behavior was so embarrassing that it caused Newsweek magazine to nickname Perpich “Governor Goofy.”

The convention was to begin June 8. It would be four days after the whirlwind plunge into the heartland by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who had accepted Perpich’s invitation to see how the high-tech state surrounded by farms really worked.

Gorbachev knocked the socks off the normally staid Minnesotans, and Perpich rode that fresh euphoria to victory at the convention days later, getting the party’s nod on the first ballot.

And Roger Parkinson, publisher of the Star Tribune helped ensure it, even putting up a $300,000 letter of credit on the newspaper’s account to guarantee a loan to pull off the biggest political event in the state’s history.

The journalism hat he wore as publisher was left on the coat rack. Instead, he reached for the familiar one of civic booster. He cleared his desk of newspaper work to direct the governor’s task force coordinating Gorbachev’s visit.

The newspaper’s guild, mistrustful of Parkinson because of his demand during last year’s contract talks that wages be frozen despite record profits in the company’s history, saw Parkinson’s working for the governor in an election year as just another example of how out of touch he was journalistically.

In 1985, Parkinson worked on bringing the All-Star Baseball Game to Minneapolis. Then he was a key player on the governor’s task force to bring the 1992 Super Bowl to Minnesota. He was chair of the U. S. Olympic Festival which was brought to the Twin Cities this summer and involved in the attempt to get the 1996 Olympic Games staged here.

In protest, the threat of a reporters’ byline strike swept through the newsroom a week before Gorbachev’s arrival. The guild told Parkinson: “Your role as a key player in news-making events makes it difficult for us to explain to our readers that our newspaper is an effective watchdog. It is difficult for us to claim objectivity in covering the governor’s race when our publisher is working hand-in-hand with the incumbent.”

Star Tribune Reporter Dennis McGrath, was one of many assigned to cover the visit. He felt stonewalled. “He (Parkinson) said, ‘I can’t tell you anything.’”

The perception of an objectivity problem was worse. Since Parkinson controlled the newspaper’s editorial board and the board was faced with endorsing a candidate in the fall, wouldn’t it look to the public and rival politicians like the governor had the publisher in his pocket?

Parkinson apparently felt it was the newsroom’s problem to dispel the perception by 8,000 visiting journalists that the Star Tribune was an inside player. “There the ultimate proof will lie in our treatment of the visit and Minnesota’s judgment about its objectivity,” he said.

I’d been assigned to cover the San Francisco portion of the Gorbachev tour. After a week of indecision, I finally decided I couldn’t put my name on the story and the only professional thing to do was tell the editors that before I got on the plane, not when I was sitting in a $175 hotel room overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Executive Editor Joel Kramer was extremely angry at first. Outrageous, he said. Is your disagreement worth harming the paper’s image?

I said something about not wanting to be 70 years old and have regrets about not standing up for something I believed in, that there comes a time when you’re stuck in a traffic jam and you wonder who you are, and how Parkinson should have first considered the position he was putting his reporters in.

If that was the case, Kramer said, then I was off the plane. I spent nine hours on “Gorby Day” doing rewrite. Meanwhile my wife, a reporter for the competition, was sitting in the kitchen of a Minneapolis family entertaining Mrs. Gorbachev and having a great time. (Besides her, there were two representatives from the Star Tribune’s public relations department while Star Trib reporters had to stand outside and wait for information.)

By a 4-l margin the reporters surveyed decided a byline strike of the Gorbachev stories wasn’t worth it. They didn’t want to embarrass the newspaper in front of national reporters, even though their publisher had embarrassed them. It was, in reporter Tony Carrideo’s words, “what kept Joel Kramer from going ballistic.”

The motorcade swept through the Twin Cities, Roger Parkinson in one of the lead limos. At one point when the motorcade stopped, Parkinson got out and, along with KGB agents, pushed the crowd away from the Soviet entourage as Gorbachev worked the crowd.

Weeks after what is known cryptically around the newsroom as “the visit”, copies of a doctored picture still hang. The photograph of Parkinson has been transposed — from a full head of hair, the publisher has suddenly become bald in the same fashion as Gorbachev. There is a birthmark imprinted on Parkinson’s forehead, in the same spot as Gorbachev’s. The birthmark is a perfect outline of the state of Minnesota.

Nobody in the newsroom is expecting Roger to find religion after all this. But it’s assume he got the message.