Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another Star-Tribune hatchet job

If you'd like to know why conservatives don't trust the media, there's a tremendous example right in front of us this week, as the Star-Tribune slimed one of Minnesota's finest public figures with shoddy, inaccurate and incomplete reporting.

Steve Sviggum is the former Speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature, the longest-serving Republican to ever hold that post. He left the Legislature a couple years ago to serve as Commissioner of Labor and Industry, and for a brief time also served as the state's budget director.

More to the point, he is one of the most honest, upright and ethical people I have ever met. I have worked in the Minnesota House and Senate, the U.S. Senate and the Office of the Governor, and in all of those years I never met anyone I respected more than Steve Sviggum. Our relationship even pre-dates my political involvement, when he and I competed against each other in town team baseball, when I played for Red Wing and he played for Dundas. I have no problem saying that I simply don't know a better person than Steve.

He was the epitome of the citizen-legislator. During his years in the House, he and his brothers continued to farm, growing corn and soybeans outside of Kenyon. In recent years, he also took a part-time job at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, teaching government.

This year there were several openings on the U's Board of Regents. It's an unpaid position, with the appointment made by the Legislature for a four-year term. A former math teacher with a long history of involvement in education, Sviggum applied for one of the positions, and won an appointment from the Legislature.

Of course, conservatives in the academic world are always treated with suspicion, and the U's good-old-boy network of liberals decided to go after Sviggum. They went to the Strib's education reporter, Jenna Ross, who mostly serves as a mouthpiece for the U's administration.

The lead on Ross' story this week would make you think there was a big scandal afoot: "Weeks after signing a contract for a half-time job with the University of Minnesota, Steve Sviggum failed to list his new gig on a disclosure form required of members of the U's Board of Regents." The story carried an accusing headline: "As new regent, Sviggum didn't disclose U job."

Except that Sviggum DID disclose his U job. In his November application, he wrote "I am an adjunct professor at the Humphrey Institute." During the interview process with the Regent selection committee, he discussed his teaching position (A $6,000-per-year, part-time post) with the committee, according to the committee's chair. Gee, even a Star-Tribune headline writer should be able to understand that.

Earlier this year, the Humphrey Institute offered Sviggum a new job. On February 4, he accepted a position as a "legislative fellow" at the school. It sounds like a nice job: An $80,000-per-year part-time position. But then you read the fine print, and you learn that Sviggum has to privately raise all but $12,000 of that $80,000 salary.

It's this fellow position that Ross' story focuses on. She writes: "On his financial disclosure form, released at a Tuesday meeting of that committee, Sviggum lists just one source of compensation: the sale of corn, soybeans and beef cattle as a part of the Sviggum Bros. Farm Partnership."

The implication, of course, is that Sviggum was trying to hide something. That he was deliberately withholding information about his fellow position and his U of M salary. Big scandal, right?

Until we learned this the next day: The financial disclose form that Sviggum submitted SPECIFICALLY SAID HE SHOULDN'T LIST ANY INCOME FROM THE UNIVERSITY! Seems like sort of an important point, doesn't it? And it seems like a responsible, professional reporter would take a look at the form before writing a big story accusing Sviggum of doing something wrong.

Of course, accuracy and professionalism at the Star-Tribune goes out the window whenever Republicans are involved. Now Sviggum has been slimed and had his reputation attacked by a careless, sloppy reporter who will not face any consequences for her incompetence.

If you can find a similar story about a Minnesota DFLer, I'd love to hear about it.

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