Credibility is early casualty in Koch probe (5×8 – 12/22/11)

What did they know and when did they know it, how to handle a crisis, comedians on a plane, the price of free speech, and bring it, Grinch!


1) WHAT DID THEY KNOW AND WHEN DID THEY KNOW IT?

There aren’t a lot of rules governing the relationship between reporters and politicians, but there’s one that has traditionally been observed by both sides as a sign of basic respect: When asked a question, don’t fib. If you don’t want to answer a question, say, “no comment.”

When four Senate leaders looked at reporters a week ago to announce that Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch had an “improper relationship” with a colleague, they fibbed on the question about when they first knew what they knew.

That revelation was contained in MPR reporters Tom Scheck and Catharine Richert’s story about former Koch chief of staff Cullen Sheehan’s revelation that he blew the whistle on the relationship three months ago.

But it’s this section of the story that raises eyebrows about whether the Senate leaders have tried to cover up elements of the scandal, while insisting they had to reveal it.


Michel acknowledged that Sheehan’s comments contradict the comments he and three other senators made to reporters on Friday. At that time, Michel said the allegations about Koch’s behavior were first reported to them a few weeks ago. Michel said he wasn’t honest about the timeline in an attempt to protect Sheehan and other staffers.

“I felt at that time that if I said two months or whatever that exact number is, that that would have very obviously pointed out who the whistleblower was and I did not want to do that and I felt it was my duty not to disclose that identity,” Michel said.

If that were true, the proper answer is “no comment,” something the senators had no trouble saying in response to a number of other questions that were asked at that news conference. Instead, Michel intended to mislead the reporters — he refers to it as being “intentionally vague” — and, by extension, the people of Minnesota. Ironically, he cited “ethical responsibilities” in announcing the Koch affair in the first place.

“We want to be as open as we can be with you,” Sen. Geoff Michel told WCCO’s Pat Kessler, a few minutes before misleading the assembled questioners.

“There were a number of stories that were being circulated that we were aware of that were absolutely not true,” Sen. David Hann told the Star Tribune this week about why the leaders held last Friday’s news conference. “Things being said needed to be corrected.”

Steering the public down a path with falsehoods wasn’t a very logical way to do it.

Reporters are really good at finding out what’s going on, even when politicians don’t want them to know. Intentionally misleading them doesn’t protect anyone. Capitol reporters will find out the fib and in the end, politicians look untrustworthy, untruthful, and unethical when they’re caught in the deceit.

True, reporters are about as popular as politicians and nobody really cares if they get their feelings hurt. But when a politician answers a reporter, they’re actually talking to the people who foot the bill at the Capitol: all Minnesotans.

Not revealing the correct timeline of the scandal also eliminated the possibility of questioning the logic of the story the four were revealing. Here’s last week’s news conference announcing the Koch affair. Listen to it armed with this new knowledge of the timeline. A great deal of it no longer adds up.

It might be time for the four senators to have another news conference and answer a new question, “Why did it take you three months to confront Sen. Koch on the relationship when both she and the staffer confirmed their relationship to Sheehan in September?” Also, why did Sheehan quit his job while, apparently, waiting for some action to be taken?

2) HOW TO HANDLE A CRISIS

Some companies just “get it” more than others.

Yesterday, a man posted security video of a FedEx delivery of his new computer monitor…

Within hours, FedEx posted its own video on YouTube:

And that’s how you handle a crisis.

3) COMEDIAN ON A PLANE

For most people, taking one flight on an airline these days is a chore. Owen Benjamin, a Los Angeles comedian, has spent the last month on an airplane, vowing to visit as many airports as he could. Fun times.

It’s been a publicity stunt for Lenovo laptops.

Which is worse? Flying on an airplane for a month or spending two hours on one flight listening to bad jokes?

Benjamin broke the record yesterday, he claims, when he ended his stunt in North Carolina.

He visited 63 different airports.

4) THE PRICE OF FREE SPEECH

How much does free speech cost? For some “Occupy” protestors, $355. In Los Angeles, the city prosecutor says he won’t press charges against protesters arrested for … let’s face it… protesting if they pay $355 to a private company for a “lesson” on free speech, the Los Angeles Times reports today.


“The 1st Amendment is not absolute,” he said, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled government can regulate when, where and how free speech can be exercised.

But a civil rights attorney who has worked closely with the protesters called the class “patronizing,” and said the demonstrators who were arrested are the last people needing free-speech training.

“There they were exercising their 1st Amendment, their lawful right to protest nonviolently,” said attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker.

5) BRING IT, GRINCH

The only bright side of these Grinch stories in the Twin Cities is we know exactly how they’re going to end.

The latest is the story of Christmas presents, ripped off from the Ottum family in south Minneapolis.


Financial times have been tough. The Ottums moved into their current south Minneapolis home after their own went into foreclosure with Jason thousands of miles away, serving with the National Guard in Kuwait. He volunteered to go because the job market was dismal.

“For someone to come into territory that is not theirs and take, it’s irksome to say the least,” said Jack Jacobs, Kat’s father.

How will this story end? Because there are still more good people than jerks among us, it’ll probably end up like Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Somebody broke into its food shelf and stole 1,500 pounds of food. In response, companies and people have been sending food and money.

Just one thing: You don’t have to wait until a food shelf has its food stolen to donate food and money to one.

Related Christmasey story: Sarah Palin is upset about the official White House Christmas holiday card.

Not Christmasey enough, she says. And there’s no Christmas tree? And what’s with the dog?

Let’s hit the Wayback Machine and set it for 2003…

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The Christmas card/message “tradition” actually started with Abraham Lincoln, who commissioned a cover of Harper’s Weekly.

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David Greenberg, a Rutgers associate professor of history and journalism, provides some history…


Not even the ascension of the religious right during Ronald Reagan’s administration upset the careful balance of Christmas cards designed not to exclude or offend. Reflecting not so much the increased power of the Christian right as the broader culture’s commitment to pluralism, the missives now bore messages studded with such phrases as “With special holiday wishes” or “With warmest wishes for the holidays” — a card no one would worry about sending to a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or an atheist. Of course, some years the White House cards did make more explicit references to Christmas, and in his official Christmas Day statements, Reagan spoke of “the Christ child” and otherwise got religious. But Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — both of whom, tellingly, grew up in the postwar years of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew”-style pluralism — made general reference to the season’s multiple holidays in their cards, though Bush’s cards also included some biblical verses.

Bonus: The staff of The Current had its holiday outing in downtown Saint Paul yesterday. It’s always cute to see them all together. They grow up so fast.

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WHAT WE’RE DOING

Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: Minneapolis Parks Foundation president Mary deLaittre discusses her vision for the future of urban parks in the Twin Cities.

Second hour: Chef and food writer Georgia Pellegrini.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler.

Second hour: “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on life with John F. Kennedy”. (the recordings with historian Arthur Schlesinger.)

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Pilot fatigue.

Second hour: Film buff Murray Horwitz talks about the beloved film, “A Christmas Story.”

Plus, the cycles we live by and how they affect everything from where we live to how we eat.

  • Bonnie

    For some unknown reason I received the 2002 White House Card from George and Laura…it’s a picture of a piano. If anyone collects these things let me know, I have kept it because it seems like someone might want it, but I don’t. It’s a lot less “Christmasy” than this year’s card ( which for some unknown reason I did not receive).

  • BenCh

    I was watching the FedEx appology video when I noticed the snowflake icon in the bottom of the video. It was hard to take it seriously when there was snow falling around him.

    I like the YouTube snow a lot better than Google’s “Let it snow.” I think I found my distraction for the next few minutes…

  • http://www.greatdiv.com Charlie Quimby

    A politician’s answer on the Fed Ex delivery:

    This video was clearly edited by someone to put us in a bad light. It does not show our delivery person ringing the buzzer at the locked security gate prior to unloading the package. Nor does it show whether there was an individual on the other side of the fence who received the package as it was dropped, or whether the package might have landed softly in some bushes. The spikes atop the fence necessitated a quick release in order to prevent injury to our driver.

    We have appointed an independent commission to investigate the customer’s outrageous claim, and we are confident we will be vindicated.

  • Disco

    “The most disappoint thing about this incident for me is . . .”

    Let me finish that line for you:

    “. . . it was caught on video.”

  • boB from WA

    Flying is stressful enough w/out some guy trying (emphasize “trying”) to be funny @ 8am. Give me my coffee and leave me alone. Harumph!

  • http://www.farces.com/ Michael Fraase

    Wondering why you used “fib” repeatedly in the Koch story, Bob.

    Michel was clearly and intentionally lying.

    Fibbing is a toddler telling mom that she didn’t take the candy bar, while holding it in her hand.

  • Disco

    @Michael Fraase

    Because journalists are not allowed (apparently by some unwritten rule) to use the L-word when describing politicians. They cannot and will not do it. Even when there is overwhelming evidence that the person flat-out LIED, journalists still won’t use the word. Remember, journalists can’t be seen to be making any sort of “judgment” — even when it’s not a judgment, it’s a fact. The hysterical rightwing media would drag them thru the mud and tar them as “biased.” Lest we forget what happened to Dan Rather.

  • Bob Collins

    Because everyone expects the word “lie” when writing about politics. It has the same impact now as “Nazi.” I don’t like writing words that go in one ear and out the other.

    “Fib” is a more interesting and fitting word.

    We can argue about a literal translation but the message is an intent to deceive. “A few weeks,” technically is not a lie, it’s simply allows for deniabiliy. How many is a “few”? Two? Four? Six? Or Fifteen? You don’t have to create a big lie to deceive, you just have to send people down a particular path that you want them to go down and you can to it with a subjective assessment of time that may well be defensible from a literal point of view.

    But Disco’s world of reality sounds like it has some pretty interesting colors in it, too, no doubt gleaned from his many years working in the news business.

  • http://www.farces.com/ Michael Fraase

    Interesting word? Sure. Especially in the form from which it probably came: fible-fable.

    But your usage is inaccurate. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary built into my Mac, a fib is “a lie, typically an unimportant one.”

    Or are you saying that what Senator Michel said was unimportant?

  • John P.

    Deceit by any other name would still be deceit.

  • Bob Collins

    // Or are you saying that what Senator Michel said was unimportant?

    Are you saying you read that entire post and that’s what you concluded?

  • Disco

    Bob, please. Journalists are afraid to use the word. You know it, I know it. That was my point. I don’t need to work in the news business to understand this concept.

    Also, I strongly disagree with your conflation of “lie” and “Nazi.” I don’t think they have become equally meaningless words. Here’s a hypothetical. Imagine if Brian Williams called George W Bush a “liar” for dragging us into the Iraq War. Every sane person knows it’s the truth, but there would be a huge outcry if Williams said it.

    Now imagine him calling Bush a “Nazi.” Williams would be on the street before they cut to a commercial.

  • Bob Collins

    //You know it, I know it.

    Here’s a question for you. How many is a “few.” Let’s say I have $14. Do I have “a few” or do I have “a lot”?

    See, that’s the problem with declaring that the “fact” that Michel stated constituted “a lie.”

    His intent, as I clearly said, was to mislead people, but did he do that with a “lie”?

    Is 14 not a few? In order for it to be a lie in the traditional sense, we have to definitely be able to say that 14 — in this case “weeks” — is not a few.

    Michel’s intent was clearly to mislead people. But he didn’t need a “lie” to do it. He needed something a little bit less. The result is the same, but the tool is significantly different.

    That’s the news business. It requires a certain precision. You may not like it because it doesn’t play well to the conspiracy theories, but that’s the way it is. A lie is an absolute and can be easily proven. Prove to me that “a few” cannot be 14.

  • Disco

    We’re getting needlessly semantic here. I don’t know anyone who would define “few” as anything even approaching the number 14. I’ll spare you the unnecessary dictionary definition.

    I agree with you that Michel was being intentionally ambiguous when he said the allegations were reported to him “a few weeks ago.” But given that every native English speaker in the world, including Michel himself, understands that “few” does not mean 14, Michel was lying.

    Furthermore, his circuitous explanation is laughable. As a result, whatever credibility the man previously had has been shot to hell. Who knows how deeply he’s entangled in this saga? The GOP would be wise to reject him as its permanent senate leader.

    Still, I have to wonder. Even with the GOP shooting themselves in the foot on a weekly basis, does anyone really think it will make a difference next November? Will anyone remember all this, or more importantly, care?

  • Bob Collins

    // We’re getting needlessly semantic here.

    It’s really not possible to discuss the meaning and precision of a word without semantics.

    Words have definite meanings which define their use. You can’t on one hand complain that not using a word was inaccurate, while on the other hand saying the inaccuracy in using it doesn’t matter.

    It does.

  • http://www.farces.com/ Michael Fraase

    Bob, as I mentioned on Twitter, I understand where you’re coming from and I’m satisfied with your position.

    I simply disagree.

    Michel did not “fib” — he lied; and 13 or 14 is not “a few” — especially in regard to a quarter of a year.

  • John P II

    Looks like Bob is feeling better!

    I really don’t grant credibility to anything said by a politician these days, particularly in a situation like this. All sides will deflect and spin the narrative, so kudo’s to MPR for shedding some more light on the timeline and sources. Other media outlets seem to have accepted or even defended the “protect the whistleblower” line.

  • Bob Collins

    OK, so nobody wants to define what “a few” is. Let me give you a definition of what a “lie” is:

    Q: Did you know about the Koch affair on or about September 22, 2011?

    A: No.

    That would be a lie, and I would certainly have no problem identifying it as such.