Mark Saxenmeyer has been known as a TV reporter who’s won a boatload of Emmys while being so passionate about long-form reporting that he started a charity to support that kind of journalism — until that day last month when Saxenmeyer decided to ease a KSTP-TV colleague’s concerns about appropriate questions to ask two gay fathers. He did that by humorously inserting inappropriate gay references into a story that ended up being posted on kstp.com. Saxenmeyer is gay, by the way. But that gaffe earned Saxenmeyer a dismissal after a year and a half with KSTP, where he won one of the 32 regional Emmy Awards in his home office. He also has one national Emmy from his days in Chicago for his 2001 documentary on race relations.
Saxenmeyer hoped that his work as CEO and executive director of the Reporters Inc., www.thereporters.org, would be the reason he’d end up with me writing about him because my column is a favorite of his mom, Ann Porth.
“A few years ago after doing television for a number of years I wanted to do things that you couldn’t do in commercial television for various reasons. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we create a means to tell these stories?’ ” he said. “We try to focus on issues of social awareness, issues that can evoke and encourage social change. Things having to do with race relations and sexuality issues. Subjects and people that fall through the cracks when it comes to mainstream media, and where we’re not constrained by time limits or by the need to attain certain ratings. TV is a business, ultimately. As much as we are covering the news, a lot of the things that could be covered don’t get covered because the thought process is they are not going to bring in the big bucks.”
Saxenmeyer has wanted to be a journalist since he was 10, when he started interviewing his Bloomington neighbors for his kiddie paper, the Drew Tribune. His interest in issues became evident a few years later; while editor of the Jefferson High School newspaper, Saxenmeyer wrote “Black in Bloomington,” interviews with most of the eight black kids who went to the school. What he learned left him “totally surprised.” “When you are absorbed with your own world you don’t necessarily focus on the minorities around you,” he said.
In my startribune.com/video for this Q&A with Saxenmeyer, I asked him to read some of the e-mail I received after writing about him getting canned. My favorite was from Steve, who wanted to know if I noticed the similarities between Saxenmeyer’s “faux pas” and “what happened to Mary Richards in Episode 92 of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In that episode, Mary Richards gets suspended after a fake obit she wrote is read on air.
Saxenmeyer declined to read the unkind remarks some e-mailers wrote about his former employer.
After taking in Saxenmeyer’s shelf full of Emmys, I told him I didn’t think I’d met anyone in the Twin Cities who had that many. “You know Boyd Huppert,” Saxenmeyer said of the KARE11 mega Emmy winner. “Boyd has me beat, I’m sure.”
Q You’ve had three weeks to contemplate your dismissal. Are you still OK with the company’s decision?
A I respect the decision. I don’t run KSTP. They have to maintain the integrity of their news content. I’ve apologized for this, I’ve owned it, I’ve taken my lumps. Success comes and goes. We all make mistakes. Integrity and character are all that really matter. I am doing my best to move through this, restore my reputation. The only way you do that is to be completely accountable for what happened.
Q Why do you think Hubbard Broadcasting decided to fire you instead of suspend you?
A I don’t know. I will say I was surprised. I assumed there would be a punishment, a consequence. Obviously there should have been.
Q TV newsrooms can be rather raucous places, although my sense is that Hubbard Broadcasting may run a tighter ship. Did you go against the grain there?
A No, I don’t think so. I had a great year and a half there. I learned a lot. I enjoyed being there. I don’t think there was anything that occurred prior that would indicate that this was going to happen. Yeah, all newsrooms can be a bit outrageous, because you cover a lot of gloom and doom and you sometimes need to joke around to alleviate the stress. Otherwise, everyone would go crazy. We have to deal with a lot of issues folks in the corporate world don’t. My partner is in HR, and I would sometimes tell him things that go on in the newsroom, and he would just look at me and say, You should all be fired. That’s all inappropriate.
Q Was there any time when you thought being gay would protect you from be harshly disciplined over this?
A No. I think if you want to be treated equal, if we want gay marriage, for example, we have to be treated equal on all levels. If I make a mistake and I’m gay, and even though it’s a gay joke, I don’t think I should be given extra consideration. I think there were many people there who didn’t want me fired.
Q I’ve been asked whether Hubbard Broadcasting was being politically correct or was this an indication that the company is uncomfortable with you being gay?
A I never got that sense.
Q Do you have a sense of how the Twin Cities gay community views your firing? Did they think your behavior hurt gays, or do people think you were punished because of your sexuality?
A I think there were gay people who were very disappointed in this. I don’t think people think I was punished because of my sexuality. When you are gay, you deal with people putting you down all the time, so the last thing you want to sense is one of your own putting you down. But I think there is an understanding in the gay community that we do use humor to connect with one another and to help people better understand us. Most gay people who are close to me totally know what this was all about, and this was not meant to be malicious.
Q I hear you contacted the dads Paul Melchert and James Zimmerman, who were the object of the humor in that story.
A I wrote them personally. They were the ones I was most concerned with offending. Obviously, this was supposed to be a great day for them, taking their kids to the White House for [the Easter Egg Roll]. This stained that and I will forever regret that. They were extremely magnanimous in their response to me saying, We understand and don’t worry, it didn’t ruin the day. Move on because we have.
Q As I understand, your partner, Adam Gower, the HR guy, thought firing you sounded like an overreaction.
A First he was mad at me because I had moved to Minnesota for this job and he’s from New York. So his [reaction was], You’re taking me where? Turns out he loves Minneapolis more than me. When this transpired, he said, You messed up. Yeah, he didn’t think this was going to happen.
Q What are your Twin Cities TV job prospects?
A I am looking at several opportunities [outside TV news]. I had a great second interview, a three-and-a-half-hour interview, for a position I am really excited about. I hope that comes to fruition. I am fearful that what occurred at KSTP is going to stay with me forever.
Q Are you ever going to engage in another office prank?
A If you don’t learn from it, you’re a real idiot. I have to ensure that moving forward I never make this kind of mistake again. I guarantee I won’t.
Q Are you sympathetic to A.J. Clemente, who got fired for uttering profanities on a North Dakota TV station?
A That’s so hard to watch. I felt terrible for that guy. He should have known [the mike was open]. I should have known not to type stupid things into a computer.
Interviews are edited. E-mail C.J. via email@example.com and watch her on Fox 9’s “Buzz.”