I'll warn you right up front: If you're not from Red Wing, or interested in Minnesota legislative politics, then you might find this simply a long, boring blog post. Consider yourself warned:
I've written before (click here) about my affection for what was once a great newspaper, the Red Wing Republican Eagle. It was the first newspaper to hire me out of college, the place where I won my journalism awards and for years after I left the paper, I was proud to have it on my resume.
The editor/publisher was a tremendous fellow named Phil Duff, who took incredible pride in producing a high-quality daily newspaper in a town of just 15,000 people. Phil's commitment to journalistic excellence - and that of his co-publisher, Arlin Albrecht - was evident in every issue. The R-E was an important, vibrant part of the community and Phil delighted in having lively, involved opinion and op-ed pages in which local, state and national issues were discussed.
Its decline, to be fair, largely parallels that of the newspaper industry as a whole. First the R-E stopped Monday publishing, then it went down to two days a week, with delivery only by mail. Eventually it was purchased by a chain headquartered out of state, and it no longer has the resources to really function as a full-fledged newspaper. It's mostly now just a glorified shopper that also publishes obituaries and a local calendar of events.
It does, however, still have a letters to the editor section, which is where our story takes off. Last Saturday the section contained a letter from a local DFLer that contained a bald-faced lie about a local public official, State Senator John Howe.
(Full disclosure: I do some volunteer work for, and have made a financial contribution to, the Howe campaign.)
The DFLer said that Sen. Howe "received full pay and per diem" during last summer's state government shutdown. The fact is that Howe did not take any per diem during the shutdown, and he donated his pay for the entire month to the food shelves in Goodhue, Wabasha and Winona counties. Both these things are a matter of public record. So the accusation was a lie. But it was a lie about a Republican, so the R-E just put it right into print without checking anything.
This bothered me on a couple different levels. As I said, I'm a supporter of Senator Howe, so I don't like seeing him unfairly attacked. But more importantly, as a R-E alum, I'm embarrassed by the kind of sloppy, lazy editing that has become all too common in the paper. It was particularly disturbing because, in this campaign season, the R-E hasn't made any effort to investigate Senator Howe's opponent, a guy named Matt Schmit, who is a real piece of work. (More about him later.)
So I fired off this letter to the editor:
To the editor:
On one hand, it’s very hard to understand the
logic in Nona Nelson’s Sept. 15 letter. She criticizes Sen. John Howe
for having his Legislative Update printed by the Senate – something that
is perfectly legal and has been done by senators from both parties for
years – and she criticizes him for answering a reporter’s question.
only way the letter makes sense is if you understand this: The DFL has
chosen a horrible candidate to run against Sen. Howe, and the only way
they think they can win is by trying to slime and attack an honorable
In Matt Schmit, the DFL has chosen a candidate who:
* Has lived outside the district for most of the last decade
* Has never paid a dime of property taxes in his life
* Has a recent criminal conviction
DFL understands that if voters know who Schmit really is, they’ll never
win this race, so they are choosing to use lies and distortions to
attack Howe’s record of bipartisan accomplishment, hoping voters are
dumb enough to fall for their attacks.
I’m sure more of these
cheap attacks are coming in the next few weeks from a desperate DFL and
Schmit campaign. Voters should recognize attacks like this for what they
are: Slimy politics from a campaign that has nothing else to run on.
Red Wing, MN
Schmit, as I said, is a real beauty of a candidate. His web site says he is a "lifelong resident of Red Wing" even though he hasn't lived here in more than 10 years. He claims to be a small businessman since 2007, but the Secretary of State's office shows that he only legally organized the business last December. And in 2008, he was arrested and charged with drunk driving.
His arrest report is comical. He was pulled over on Hwy. 52 in Inver Grove Heights at 10:30 at night after weaving over both the fog line and center line, and when asked how much he'd had to drink, he lied to the officer and said, "None." Schmit had to be told three times not to move his head during the field eye test. He had to have it explained twice how to stand to take the walking test. The report says he "missed heel to toe on all nine steps," and was unable to turn around as requested or stand on one leg for more than eight seconds. He tried three times to blow into the Preliminary Breath Test (PBT) device, and was unable to successfully do so. The officer asked why he had lied about not having anything to drink, and Schmit said he "didn't understand the question."
Finally, the officers handcuffed and arrested Schmit, and took him to jail, where he finally managed to successfully provide a urine sample, which later showed him to have a .131 blood alcohol level, more than 60% over Minnesota's legal limit.
For reasons unknown - and I'd love to hear the Inver Grove Heights prosecutor's office explain why - Schmit was later allowed to plead guilty to "Careless Driving." He paid several hundred dollars in fines and was placed on probation, underwent chemical dependency evaluation, etc., etc.
Which brings us back to the Republican Eagle and my letter to the editor. Editor Anne Jacobson emailed back to say that she was unable to find any evidence of Schmit having a criminal conviction, and did I have any proof? I told her that it could be found on MN/CIS, the Minnesota Judicial Branch's web site. She wrote back to say that she still couldn't find it, and did I have a case number? So I gave her the case number and a copy of the MN/CIS summary.
(Just picture that: A private citizen having to do the newspaper's research for it. You would think an editor would be embarrassed to say that they can't undertake a basic search of public records, but I'm not sure modern "journalists" are capable of embarrassment.)
The next issue of the paper came out, without the letter, and then an email came from Jacobson, saying that they wouldn't run the letter without a couple of major alterations. First, they objected to the assertion that Schmit - who's never owned a home - had "never paid a dime of property taxes."
"He likely would pay taxes as a renter," Jacobson wrote, which is stupid on its face. Renters don't pay property taxes.
Secondly, they would only print the letter if the line about Schmit having a "criminal conviction" was softened to say he was convicted "for careless driving," as though he had simply been arrested for rolling through a stop sign or checking his cell phone.
It's an interesting contrast: The R-E printed a letter with a demonstrably factual lie in it, and when that letter was responded to with a letter that contained documented facts, they refused to run it.
Liberal media bias is such a given these days that it's not worth complaining about. But this instance strikes closer to home, because it illustrates again what a shallow excuse of a newspaper the Republican Eagle has become, and each instance makes me a little less proud of the countless times my byline appeared in it.
And it leaves one more question: Will the Republican Eagle ever getting around to doing a story on the real background of a candidate who, after all, claims to be a "lifelong resident of Red Wing" and who is running for a fairly important office? Given their efforts in the past few days to shield him, I doubt it.
9/22/12 UPDATE: In the spirit of fairness, I've emailed Anne and asked if she would like to respond, particularly to explain her assertion that renters pay property taxes. I'll let you know if I hear anything.
10/27/12 UPDATE: Anne never chose to respond, and to this date the R-E still has not written a word about Schmit's DWI, his residence questions or his employment history.