The Minnesota News Council quietly announced the end of its 40-year run last week. Even if you've never heard of the council, this news is bad for you. Bad for us. Bad for anybody who values media accountability and civility in public discourse or, at least, a noble attempt to achieve those things.
The council was imperfect, but its presence, and its longevity, set it apart from anything like it in the country. Its nonprofit mission was to promote fairness in news coverage, to hold news outlets accountable, to encourage dialogue between news consumers and newsmakers.
More practically, it kept media complaints out of the courts, with its own system for addressing grievances -- a panel equally divided between journalists and those outside the profession. In the end, the council sided with news outlets and the aggrieved equally.
The irony is that when the council was formed in 1970, we didn't need it as desperately as we need it today. Many newsrooms had full-time ombudsmen or women, who listened to disgruntled readers or TV viewers confused or furious at us for identifying an incest victim, or reporting on their neighbor, or seemingly skewing a story to make it sexier than it deserved to be.
Today, the disgruntled are turning to the anonymity of the Internet for recourse, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
The council "was an idea whose time was good many, many years ago, when people were much less media-savvy," said current chairman of the board Tony Carideo. "They did not understand how the media worked. Letters were delivered in envelopes, and telephone contact with editors was, or was thought to be, impossible. Now we have e-mail, Twitter, blogs, comments sections. It's instant gratification, instant feedback, instant corrections."
The council took the opposite approach -- thoughtful and considered -- asking tough questions of news people who, not surprisingly, often recoiled at the implication that they had compromised professional standards. In fact, many refused to come to the table.
"The media are thin-skinned," Carideo said. "These things will not work unless the media are willing to participate in the conversation."
Gary Gilson, who ran the News Council from 1992 to 2006, agrees. "The great irony in all of this is that the news media, who insist on accountability from all the institutions they cover, too often shrink from accountability when they have been challenged. The exceptions are noteworthy and heartening."
Noteworthy, certainly, is former WCCO-TV anchor Don Shelby, who found himself on both sides; as a council member and, less pleasantly, "on the losing, humiliating side."
In 1996, Northwest Airlines complained that WCCO-TV sensationalized a story about airline safety, and created promotional spots in which a cameraman tilted his camera to imply that a plane was about to crash. The council voted 19-2 in favor of NWA.
Shelby, an investigative reporter, knew he would lose in front of the council, although he believes WCCO would have prevailed in court. Still, Shelby admired the council's work so he did a gracious thing. He joined the council and served two terms.
"There were some issues I thought needed to be addressed," Shelby said this week. That included asking questions beyond, "Was this story fair?"
"One was a simple question to the reporter: 'Taken as a whole, if you had a chance to write your story again, would you have done anything differently?' Had they asked me that question," Shelby said, "I would have told them all the things that needed to be fixed.
"The [council's] finding would have been the same, but we would have advanced the cause of journalism by saying to reporters, young and older, 'Listen up. Here are some things we could have done better.'"
The council's death, Shelby said, "comes when it is most needed. People are feeling more and more disenfranchised from access that a citizen should feel. They don't have a voice, don't have a direct way to complain."
That's unlikely to change anytime soon. "The disappearance of so many reader representative positions around the country also has hurt the kind of conversations the Minnesota News Council has fostered," Gilson said, noting that a handful of states, including Colorado, Hawaii and Wisconsin have experimented with councils. A national attempt failed. Washington state (http://wanewscouncil.org) and the New England News Forum, inspired by the Minnesota News Council, are among the few still running successfully.
Ours was the sharpest and longest-lived, so we can be proud of that.
"Oddly enough," Carideo said, "the News Council in recent years was beginning to get closer to the true essence of its purpose. We were starting to figure out that journalism had become so much more complex."
The council will be missed.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org