Mankato billionaire Glen Taylor’s likely purchase of the Star Tribune will put one of the state’s biggest political donors at the helm of Minnesota’s largest news organization.
The printing magnate and owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves has given more than $1 million to candidates and causes, favoring Republicans like U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline and former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, according to a Star Tribune analysis of Taylor’s political contributions since 2001.
The former GOP legislator also has supported a handful of Democrats, though to a far lesser extent financially, and his donations show a propensity toward the least divisive candidates from either party.
“I look at people who are closer to my viewpoint,” Taylor said in a Star Tribune interview. “It is kind of a group that represents the 60 percent in the middle of the population, in either party, that I relate to pretty easily.”
Taylor’s political leanings and contributions are expected to face increasing scrutiny once the sale of the Star Tribune is completed, either later this month or in early July.
Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that while there is a trend toward wealthy individuals purchasing newspapers, Taylor has an unusual profile.
“Obviously, this guy is a political player, which puts him outside the standards for newspaper owners,” she said.
The media landscape has become more diffuse in recent years, McBride said, and newspapers no longer have a monopolistic grip “on the marketplace of ideas.”
Owners of news organizations do not have to be politically neutral in such an environment, she said, but “it is crucial that they are committed to the standards of accuracy and good journalism.” The question, she said, is not “does the person have political bias, but is he willing to distort the truth to advance his agenda? That’s where we get into a dangerous place in this democracy.”
Taylor said he has no intention of coming into the Star Tribune and directing news coverage.
“My expectations of the paper are my principles of accuracy, consistency and that both sides of the picture are there; let’s show both sides,” he said.
Taylor also believes the Star Tribune’s columnists and its editorial board, which is separate from the company’s newsgathering operations, have staked out more moderate editorial positions than in past decades, when the newspaper had a more liberal reputation.
“That is consistent with the direction I would go,” he said.
For someone who has never been a media mogul, Taylor is wrestling with the idea of political endorsements on the editorial page.
“I think there are cases that they shouldn’t, and I think there are cases that they should” make candidate endorsements, he said.
An editorial distance
On big races, such as governor, the editorial board should definitely weigh in, Taylor said. But when stakes are lower and both candidates appear solid, he said, the editorial board should lay out candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and say, “Here’s how we see them.” Taylor said he might even offer his own opinion to the editorial board if he felt strongly about a candidate.
Taylor said he does not expect the opinion page to mirror his own views or beliefs. He still expects to read things he does not agree with.
“I don’t view that as bad,” he said. “I don’t view my opinions as the right ones, they are just different.”
Taylor long has had a reputation as a quiet, thoughtful dealmaker dating back to his days in the Minnesota Senate, where he served for a decade until 1990 and rose to become Senate Republican leader. He lost his leadership post by a single vote after fellow Republicans chose Duane Benson, a former NFL linebacker with a sharper tongue. At the time, some Republicans felt Taylor had become too friendly and willing to cut deals with then-Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, a DFLer.
Not a partisan
Benson, who is still in occasional touch with Taylor, recalls him as “very measured, very organized, very well prepared and very much to the point. But he was not a very partisan legislator.”
Taylor left the Legislature in 1990, but stayed active in politics and continued to give money. By 2012, he had contributed more than $700,000 to the state Republican Party and related groups. He stopped giving directly to the party that year, he said, after he lost trust in its leadership.
Taylor is not known for taking strong stands on divisive social issues. He gave no money to either side during the two-year fight over whether to legalize same-sex marriage. Taylor said his Minnesota Lynx women’s basketball franchise emerged as a strong supporter of the successful effort to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013.
“To me, it is a social issue I have evolved on,” Taylor said, adding that his lack of giving “doesn’t mean I don’t care, it just means I wasn’t going to put money into it.”
Taylor said he generally makes campaign contributions based more on a candidate’s personality and temperament than on ideology. Sometimes he donates simply because the candidate made a personal appeal. He said he prefers contributing to emerging candidates scrapping in close races, not guaranteed victors who do not need the money.
In the last Minnesota gubernatorial race, Taylor made just one contribution: $2,000 to Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, who tried to wedge himself between Republican Tom Emmer and the eventual winner, DFL candidate Mark Dayton.
Taylor said he has come to respect Dayton as a political leader, but has not decided whom he will support in the election this fall.
Dinners with Dayton
Taylor and the governor have dined together at least a couple times, once at the Bachelor Farmer, the downtown Minneapolis restaurant owned by Dayton’s two adult sons.
“I think he has done better than what I thought he was going to do,” Taylor said of the governor. “There are a couple of things I like about him; he certainly stands up for principles he believes in. Politically, I understand how he makes his decisions. In that area, I think he has read the people pretty well.”
Dayton, Moe and other longtime DFLers support Taylor’s purchase of the Star Tribune. They said they have no worries Taylor will try to bend the organization’s journalistic sensibilities to meet his political philosophy.
“He said he wants the paper to be fair, accurate and consistent,” Dayton said. “That would be my measure, as well.”
Taylor knows his political contributions and any changes to the Star Tribune will be examined closely once he is the owner. For now, Taylor said, he has no plans to reduce his political giving.
“Once the sale is completed,” he said, “I do think there will be one more layer of thinking before I give.”
Star Tribune staff writers Glenn Howatt and Curt Brown contributed to this report.