Sven Sundgaard didn’t lie, cheat, grope or steal. The longtime KARE 11 weather guy was dismissed for expressing an opinion.
The NBC affiliate said May 1 that Sundgaard was terminated for “continued violations of KARE 11’s news ethics and other policies.”
While KARE did not specify Sundgaard’s violations, it is believed station brass disliked his recent repost on his Facebook page of a high-octane comment by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of Minneapolis. Latz castigated those protesting coronavirus stay-home directives as “white nationalist Nazi sympathizer gun fetishist miscreants.”
I saw no Nazi symbols in coverage of protests at the Capitol and the governor’s residence in St. Paul, but a related protest in Illinois included those repellent emblems. Latz had reason to opine as he did, especially after we all saw nominally grown-up protesters here and elsewhere displaying assault weapons like so many sixth-graders playing at war.
The question, however, isn’t about Latz. It’s about whether Sundgaard violated his station’s ethics policy when he opted to share, and thus endorse, Latz’s sentiments. He was predictably scorned by recently de-elected congressman and former radio host Jason Lewis.
Many others gave Sundgaard’s social-media post a “right on!” and said they would stop watching Channel 11 after his firing. Some weighed in that the firing had elements of homophobia and anti-Semitism.
The homophobia charge is a tough sell, given that Sundgaard, who is openly, even exuberantly gay, has been a prominent on-air talent at KARE 11 for 14 years.
As someone who has worked at both alternative and mainstream newspapers and in both gay and straight media, my first reaction is to support a suddenly unemployed gay journalist (yes, broadcast meteorologists are journalists who gather, write and present sometimes very important news).
Trouble is, I accept the notion that journalists covering news (as opposed to opinion columnists and editorialists) should try to remain neutral when it comes to political expression. At most mainstream media companies, that means news journalists agree to avoid donating to campaigns, participating in protests, posting lawn signs and publicly airing their own political views.
Sure, critics of this mind-set argue, journalists can just say no to Twitter tirades and candidate come-ons, but they still have their biases. This is true.
Neutrality is partial and imperfect and even something of a charade, but asking journalists to refrain from political expression (and conflict of interest) is a good idea at media outlets that seek to report and present stories for readers across a wide political bandwidth. Not requiring political neutrality from news-side journalists (and I mean all of them, not just political reporters) has a corrosive effect on the practice of ambitious, well-rounded journalism.
I would prefer to work in a newsroom where colleagues are focused on gathering data and viewpoints to report a story from multiple angles. Anything less is like putting a half-baked loaf of bread in the display case each morning. Anything less and one becomes Fox News or MSNBC, both of which tend to insult one’s intelligence.
Journalists’ political pronouncements tend to hack away at the confidence of a news consumer, who may say, “Hey, there’s that weather guy who thinks we’re Nazi sympathizers because we want to reopen our failing small business sooner than Gov. Walz says we should.”
It was difficult at times to remain politically silenced while working as an editor at the Star Tribune. In 2013 I attended a fundraising party for a group seeking to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota, and I made a small donation to the cause. Months later, an intrepid Strib reporter combing state records saw my name and included the fact of my giving in a page-one story.
I wasn’t fired over it, but neither did I disagree with editors’ decision to disclose my donation.
The firing of Sundgaard seems to me a stiff sanction for his offense. KARE’s terse announcement makes it appear that there may have been other transgressions. In any event, Sundgaard’s ability to speak his mind freely is not the same as that of a non-journalist.
KARE’s written “Principles of Ethical Journalism” includes this one: “Do not engage in political commentary on any platform.”
Friends sometimes wonder why I would allow myself to be muzzled by a similar policy at the Star Tribune. I mostly did not view it that way. In truth I grew to see a lot of value in the brand of journalism favored by a great, old, supposedly objective daily newspaper.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.