Minneapolis hopefuls criticize media, seek participation in debates

by Shira Kantor

A 22-candidate ballot awaits voters Sept. 11, when a primary election will narrow the laundry list of Minneapolis mayoral hopefuls to two.

But only four candidates – Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, City Council Member Lisa McDonald, business and community leader R.T. Rybak and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein – are recognized as “major” by most media organizations. That leaves 18 candidates not invited to participate in certain forums and debates. And at least a few of them say they are upset about it.

Protect the Earth candidate Leslie Davis was arrested twice in August after protesting exclusion from debates sponsored by the Star Tribune, Twin Cities Public Television and WCCO radio. He said he has also been denied access to some church-sponsored debates.

Davis appeared in court for charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct after he sat in an oak tree in protest of his exclusion from one debate. He was arrested at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday when he picketed a debate involving only the four major candidates. Davis said he held a handmade sign reading “Let Leslie Debate” as well as a printed campaign yard sign.

“I think the issue is so important, so strong, that I have to put it all on the line,” Davis said. He had never before been arrested.

Davis said editors at the Star Tribune told him he met their criteria to be covered as a major candidate, but because he has run repeatedly for public office, he would not be included in the forums.

In an Aug. 13 e-mail Davis forwarded to The Minnesota Daily, the Star Tribune’s assistant managing local news editor Scott Gillespie wrote, “We reached a decision late last week not to include you in the Forums … Our decision on the candidate forums came down to the fact that you are a perennial candidate who is seeking multiple offices.”

Davis said his persistent political involvement should be considered positive, not a reason to deny him coverage. He also noted Sayles Belton has repeatedly run for public office without penalty from media organizations.

“The mayor, who’s run more times than me for city council, city council, city council, mayor, mayor, mayor now; they’re not saying that she’s a perennial candidate,” said Davis.

Davis said he thinks he’s being excluded for a different reason.

“The Star Tribune, they just don’t like Leslie Davis because I exposed some of their ill-conceived projects that they support,” Davis said. “Like the light rail, like the garbage burner that they supported and promoted downtown.”

Pam Fine, managing editor at the Star Tribune, said the news department is independent of the editorial page, and any support the Star Tribune might have given the projects has nothing to do with campaign coverage.

She added that the newspaper covers campaigns “to the extent that they are newsworthy.”

In July, the Star Tribune printed the criteria it would use to decide which candidates to include in debates and news features. The paper said candidates should:

ï Wage a campaign beyond the candidate’s immediate family

ï Compete for endorsements

ï Maintain a continuing presence in the community, including literature, yard signs, advertising and public appearances

ï Participate in community forums.

Fine added that the Star Tribune still reserves the right to make decisions based on news judgment.

“We did lay out four criteria that we felt were a minimum standard to be met,” Fine said, “But we still wanted to look at things fresh every so often and make decisions about who we wanted to pay more attention to.”

Former Minneapolis Alderman and Vietnam veteran Dick Franson, another candidate who has repeatedly run for public office, issued a statement last week claiming the Star Tribune was deliberately sabotaging his campaign.

Franson said other media organizations have given him adequate coverage – KSTP, KFAI and MPR have all featured Franson in recent weeks.

“The Star is anti-Dick Franson and anti-veteran,” he said.

Fine responded, “That’s untrue.”

According to a Star Tribune poll taken in June, Franson had 22 percent name recognition – equal to that of Rybak and Stenglein. Franson, 72, attributed his exclusion to his age and status as a disabled veteran.

“My name recognition is pretty darn good around the state. They know that,” he said in reference to the Star Tribune. “They don’t want me to succeed.”

Republican candidate Rodney Johari said he also believes coverage is slanted, but it’s symptomatic of the media’s inclination to cover only DFL candidates.

“I think if you look at the makeup of the media-anointed candidates, it’s indicative of support of a single-party system,” Johari said.

Rybak said he prefers debating with a larger number of candidates because it leads to a more diversified discussion. However, he said he recognizes the need to narrow the field.

“Clearly there has to be some standard that separates a person who throws down 20 dollars and has ‘Bill’s Excellent Political Adventure,’ versus someone who’s out there with something to say and may not have the backing of a major party,” he said.

The Minnesota News Council, an independent media review board, discussed fair candidate coverage in a 1998 forum. Representatives from several Twin Cities news organizations attended, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, City Pages, KSTP, KTCA, MPR and the Associated Press. Gubernatorial candidates and members from various political parties, including Davis, also attended.

According to the news council report, most attendees agreed campaign coverage of third party candidates was weak, and some media representatives said they would attempt to improve coverage in the future.

The report also indicated, however, candidates are partially responsible for generating their own coverage. Gary Gilson, executive director of the news council, advised, “It is the responsibility of the media (to cover campaigns) … They voluntarily make a pledge to do public service journalism. They must take it upon themselves to do that, but it’s up to you to prod them.”

Davis is doing just that.

He said he plans to visit the University this week.

“Maybe we’ll bring an amp or something, just set right up on the Northrop steps,” he said. “You know, try to get the buzz going, ‘let Leslie debate’; why don’t they want me to debate? It’s not nice.”


Shira Kantor encourages comments at [email protected]