Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Where should Minnesota Republicans get their news?

I can't recall how many times I've heard Minnesota Republicans tell me the same refrain. They want better news coverage of party politics and gossip. The mainstream media keeps getting it wrong. The bloggers that exist either don't do enough or are too biased. There's a hunger for an alternative, if only somebody would step up.

Easier said than done. Most of us who might think about serving such a role have lives outside of politics that take up our time. For those that don't, they don't want to reveal sensitive information and start brawls with politicians and operatives whose help they might need on some future campaign. In the end, the complaints continue.

Michael Brodkorb

One person who did step up was Michael Brodkorb, the author of Politics.MN and now a blogger for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His history as a party and caucus operative lends him some authority on the machinations of Minnesota Republican politics. However, his particular history also provides a specific lens on his writing. At times he appears to fixate on only one side of a story, whether it was the shortcomings of Jeff Johnson's gubernatorial campaign or internal squabbling within the MNGOP.

Brodkorb appears to draw from a relatively small stable of well-connected sources to inform his stories. This makes sense- he has his own history, with allies who supported him during his 2012 scandal and others who spurned him during that drama. Those personal relationships necessarily alter his coverage of the party.

But it's not hard to imagine Brodkorb's response: So? Brodkorb never promised to be a journalist. He is a professional political operative who provides a specific set of insights on party politics. It's a useful, if particular, perspective.

To be clear, I'm often skeptical of Brodkorb's articles. They do not always represent all of the relevant players in Minnesota Republican politics. But that doesn't, in and of itself, condemn the efforts he has made to cover the circus. He could do better, but he's already doing more than most. Brodkorb makes such a splash because he was one of the first to make an effort to regularly cover the minutiae of party politics in the state.

The fault, then, isn't with Brodkorb so much as the fact that others aren't consistently providing alternative voices. There are some great bloggers and podcasters in this state, including Walter Hudson, Andy Aplikowski, and Mitch Berg, but they tend to focus on more than just party politics. Before it grew beyond its format into a morning show, The Late Debate provided a great voice in this area, providing excellent interviews with Capitol players and digging into party politics with gusto. But now it has a bigger audience and cannot focus on the niche of party politics.

Brodkorb may sometimes be wrong, but he appears right to uninformed readers if nobody provides a contrary voice beyond a 140-character tweet. He'd probably lament the lack of contrary voices too.

Alpha News MN

That's why I was excited when I saw Alpha News MN. A little digging from Brodkorb shows the organization (and likely its funding) is connected to the Freedom Club, a conservative donor organization founded by Bob Cummins. Some might criticize an organization like Alpha News because, as a conservative-funded organization, its news coverage will probably have a conservative slant. Spokeswoman Julia Erynn described the organization as biased towards "the Minnesota taxpayer" in a recent interview with John Gilmore. This slant isn't necessarily a problem. A conservative-funded organization might be able to provide a unique lens to issues facing Minnesota Republicans, and perhaps do so with more resources and writers to throw at research questions than Brodkorb or other bloggers could afford (remember, our country is kind of facing a financial journalistic crisis).

But such a slant also requires some concessions from its practitioners. For one, writers should be transparent about their potential conflicts of interest. Second, they should be honest about the limits of their claims and knowledge. Finally, they should be sincere about wrestling with their own personal biases.

None of these things seem to be happening with Alpha News. The organization has avoided publicizing anything about its operations, relying on Erynn as its sole public voice. There is no public information listed about staff, including the individuals writing some of the organization's articles.

In addition, Alpha News articles lack bylines. In her interview with Gilmore, Erynn compared the practice to that of the esteemed magazine The Economist and founding father Benjamin Franklin. She further said they wanted the articles to be about the content, not the author. The problem with this mentality is that the lack of bylines actually detracts from the content in this instance. The mystery of Alpha News prompts undo speculation about its motives when it makes sweeping claims without much substantiation.

This happened recently with an article from the organization about Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) and his voting record. Could it have been motivated by Cummins' backing of a challenger to the congressman's chief of staff back when he was in the state legislature? Could it be the organization's seeming friendship with the MN Tea Party Alliance, whose leaders have repeatedly attacked the congressman?

Or maybe there is a story here, and Alpha News as a news organization tried to cover it (Personally, I think this is the case). But they covered it poorly and in a manner that created more speculation than answers. The article threw the kitchen sink at the congressman, listing a series of sins in his voting record. The only source is a vague attribution of discomfort from unnamed "activists." One piece of data is cited, but it's a public Facebook poll of Alpha News readers. Readers are given no attempt by a reporter to ask the congressman about these issues or to gauge the sentiments of his constituents. With faulty reporting like this, it's no wonder critics attributed impure motives to the organization.

A byline could have protected Alpha News from these claims. It could have been listed as an editorial, as even the sympathetic Gilmore described the piece, or attributed it to a single author who would then be accountable for the reporting.

It's not too late for Alpha News though. The organization has done some good, including its recent series on education funding and coverage of new water buffer restrictions in the Minnesota legislature.

But the organization displays enough problems to cause serious concern.

To fix these issues, I recommend a few changes for the organization:

  1. List the names of staff. Even if there is a lot of overlap with Cummins-affiliated institutions, so what? The relationship is already easy to see, but acting like there is something to hide only encourages further digging from people like Brodkorb.
  2. Start adding bylines to articles. The reasons are already listed above.
  3. List potential conflicts of interest at the bottom of articles. The organization could make this policy fairly limited, only when the subject of a story has had a financial relationship with an author or editor who worked on the article.
  4. Publicize your efforts in the mainstream media. We've all heard the complaints about legacy media, but most news stories still start on the pages of a newspaper rather than on a blog or Facebook post. Reach out to easily-accessible Minnesota political press and start shaping your publicity. Don't let Brodkorb's investigative reporting be the end of Alpha News' public perception. 
Why It Matters

Since 2010, the mainstream media in Minnesota has presented a very negative view of Republicans in the state to its readers. Much of the problem is our own- from the party's finances and some flailing statewide campaigns to Brodkorb's scandal and the 2012 marriage amendment, we caused our own problems in this state. Throughout that time, our side has lacked a definitive voice to spin those problems in the media.

And let's be clear: the mainstream media is watching. In the 2014 campaign, Minnesota's political reporters took notice when Brodkorb posted a story. Sometimes, if the story became big enough, it could break into the mainstream media. But Brodkorb is one person, and sometimes we need a different perspective. Alpha News could theoretically fill that role.

I thought the organization did a great job injecting the MNGOP's Give It Back campaign into the narrative last legislative session. Brodkorb pushed back on that party program, making some points that were worthy of consideration. And in the end, that's what I want to see- diverse viewpoints from Minnesota Republicans on the right that help us defy stereotyping from the mainstream media. If Alpha News is serious about its cause, the best thing it can do is prove itself to be a real news organization, with all the transparency that entails.

Full disclosure: Julia Erynn and I both worked on a group I founded, the Youth Leadership PAC, during the 2014 election cycle.

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