When is a suspect’s politics newsworthy?

Is the political affiliation of alleged perverts a legitimate part of a news story that’s not about politics?

The Star Tribune thinks so. In today’s story about Twin Cities businessman William Wanner, who is charged with fondling a 10-year-old girl at the Minneapolis Club, this paragraph stood out:

Records show that Wanner is affiliated with Wanner Engineering Inc., a maker of industrial pumps, and has been a significant contributor to local and national Republican candidates.

There is no further mention of Wanner’s politics, so it’s not clear what the point of identifying his political donations are to the story of his arrest on molestation charges.

The description as a “significant contributor” also invites inspection. He gave $1,000 to the Mitt Romney campaign, far less than the $2,300 a person is allowed to give. He gave $8,000 to Norm Coleman’s PAC, far less than $42,700 a person is limited to in a two-year cycle.

This isn’t the first time the Star Tribune has linked political connections to the Republican Party with an arrest on morals charges. I pointed it out in an August 2007 Polinaut post (“Does the Strib think Republicans have a thing for hookers?“) a similar situation. When a man was arrested in a prostitution sting on St. Paul’s East Side, the Star Tribune said:

“Recently, he publicly supported a candidate seeking to replace state Rep. Steve Sviggum. All three elected officials were Republicans.”

But the Star Tribune wasn’t alone in connecting today’s story to the suspect’s politics. Fox9 News did the same thing:

Wanner is licensed to practice law in Wisconsin. He contributed $8,000 to the Norm Coleman Victory Committee and $1,000 to the Mitt Romney For President campaign in 2008.

The Star Tribune turned the Web site comments off on today’s story, so we don’t know if anyone has noticed the assertion.

Incidentally, the arrest of Tom Petters was arguably one of the top crime stories in Minnesota in 2008. Petters, since convicted of running a Ponzi scheme, contributed $14,200 to Democratic candidates in 2008. When he was arraigned in October 2008, the newspaper made no mention of his political contributions.

Emails to editors and reporters at both institutions have not yet been answered.

  • jfh

    Well, the nickname for the StarTribune is the RedStar for some reason.

    It’s apparent that the liberals left writing–or editing–for that rag still have some way to castigate conservatives.

    Wanner’s political affiliation has nothing to do with the criminal issues he has committed. I look forward to the day when the MSM routinely follows any mention of sick Willy Clinton as “Clinton, a convicted perjurer…” or “Clinton, a sexual predator….”

  • Karl Bremer
  • twk

    Well, when you support the party that makes “Family Values” and morality a significant part of its platform, isn’t it newsworthy when you don’t practice those values yourself?

    And jfh, it said that Fox News also reported his political affiliations…are they also “librul”. Sorry to disrupt your ideological narrative with reality.

  • Bob Collins

    But none of those articles makes it “newsworthy.” It just mentions the donations. It doesn’t make any further point. It expects you to draw the conclusion.

    If it’s newsworthy, why not develop it as an angle?

  • Bismuth

    twk – it wasn’t Fox News Corporation (TM) that reported the story… it was the local news crew for the Fox 9 station.

    Not that that means jfh has a healthy outlook on the state of bias in the media…

  • Bob Moffitt

    I would call it more “column fodder” than news, Bob. It is an interesting factoid, but had they tried to explain it, they might wander into the dreaded “editorializing” of a straight news story. So they let the readers connect the dots.

    Recently, I saw a news item (at the MinnPost Daily Glean) that actor Tim Robbins had donated $500 to Rep. Michele Bachmann. It also mentioned the politics of bother donor and recipient.

  • Al

    Thanks for catching and calling the news organization on this. It will be interesting to hear the comments from each.

  • Bob Collins

    Why do you think it’s an “interesting factoid,” Bob? But whether it’s an interesting factoid really isn’t the issue. The issue is whether it’s a relevant factoid.

    You know that old guy who had $300 stolen at the bank? If you were writing that story, would you check his political donations and, if there were some, would you write that into the story? Why or why not?

  • BJ

    I think that if the story is on the front page, everything about the person could be newsworthy.

    Page 2, leave it out. Unless they are a politican or known to general public as a politcal person. For example if Evie Axdahl, David Sturrock, Susan Rego, or Lori Sellner were arrested you would bring up that they are state party leadership. Most people don’t know who they are and putting the political context with the story would make sense, to me.

    Many business people donate and are not really into the party’s so not fair to the parties.

  • bsimon

    I agree with Bob C. What’s the relevance?

    For Bob M, the Robbins donation _is_ the story – known liberal activist donates to conservative firebrand. That’s man bites dog stuff.

  • Bob Collins

    When I was an editor, I recommended to reporters they use the “news conference scenario” to gauge relevance in stories like this. Envision the guy holding a news conferece and then envision you raising your hand, being recognized, and asking “what candidates did you donate to last year.”

    If your fellow reporters roll their eyes and the question sounds stupid, you probably have a factoid that doesn’t belong in the story.

  • Theresa

    Its hardly surprising for a Republican to be in a sex scandal. I’m glad they mentioned it because people have a right to know how hypocritical these people are when they preach hell and damnation about the sexuality of others. The Republican party has embraced hate as its central tenet, with those not conforming to their fundamentalist christian ideology being “d@mned.”

  • Bob Collins

    Supporting Mitt Romney or Norm Coleman — two candidates who might well fit closer to the RINO mold — does not indicate a far right ideology.

    But, again, if the goal of mentioning it was to bring the reader to the conclusion you reached, why would you not just say it?

    And if you think that was the purpose behind the line, doesn’t that pretty much confirm the allegations of bias in the media?

  • BJ

    Looking on the FEC’s web site I think He has made a $2100 donation to Ford Bell – a DFLer. In his last three donations.

  • Jamie

    First — Norm Coleman a RINO?!?!? It’s absurd that you would say that.

    I think it’s totally relevant to mention the guy’s Republican ties, for the reason stated by a couple others. It’s kind of like in court, when someone “opens the door” to a topic or issue, the opposing attorney gets to pursue it. Republicans have used “family values” as a major plank in their platforms for a long time, so it’s makes sense to point it out when one of them violates their supposed value system.

    p.s. to jfh: Clinton is not a sexual predator, and he should never have been forced into a situation where he felt he had to lie.

  • Bob Collins

    //Norm Coleman a RINO?!?!? It’s absurd that you would say that.

    Which is why I didn’t say that, I said he’d be closer to the RINO mold (than the far right). Google Bill Cooper’s comments on Coleman.

    And for the umpteenth time, I’ll ask again. If you’re a news organization, and the reason you invoke a single sentence is to suggest that all Republicans are perverts, why would you not continue on and just say all REpublicans are perverts?

  • kennedy

    I see the political connectedness as more important than the particular party. Someone who is affecting our political process with cash has been caught in a scandal. Wanner may not be an elected official, but he has more political clout than someone who only casts a ballot. Calling out his connections makes me want to pay attention to be sure he doesn’t get special treatment.

    Not buying the argument that party platform choices justify treating affiliations differently.

  • Jamie

    “You know that old guy who had $300 stolen at the bank? If you were writing that story, would you check his political donations and, if there were some, would you write that into the story? Why or why not?”

    It’s not the same thing. For one thing, the guy’s a crime victim, not a perpetrator; nobody should be looking into his “business.” I don’t think a perpetrator should have his whole life opened up to the public, either. But if a reporter Googles a perp and finds relevant info, then she should report it. Which, incidentally, is probably how the Strib found out about Wanner’s contributions, as opposed to your suggestion that they looked specifically for political contributions.

  • Jamie

    “…and the reason you invoke a single sentence is to suggest that all Republicans are perverts, why would you not continue on and just say all REpublicans are perverts?”

    I don’t believe they were saying that all Republicans are perverts. They were saying that here’s a guy with connections to a party that holds itself up to be above or opposed to what the contributor (allegedly) did.

    The reason they might not just SAY that is probably the same reason MPR and other media report all kinds of stuff and let us draw our own conclusions. When I’ve complained about your giving Tim Pawlenty so much air time without opposing views being represented, I’ve been told a few times that you want to have him on or report from his press releases because he’s a major public figure and MPR listeners are smart enough to draw their own conclusions from what they hear him say.

  • Bob Collins

    Why is a contribution to a Republican newsworthy, but his contribution to Ford Bell, a DFLer, is not?

    He also contributed to the campaigns of Jim Ramstad, the very defiinition, by the way, of RINO, according to the people who bestow it.

  • Bob Collins

    //They were saying that here’s a guy with connections to a party that holds itself up to be above or opposed to what the contributor (allegedly) did.

    Really? Where did they say that?

    I’m going to guess, jamie, that the DFL is also opposed to fondling 10 year old girls. I’m going to guess that the outrage that Mike Freeman, a DFLer, had in his interviews on this case yesterday was genuine.

    And yet, this guy contributed to the DFL, too. Why not point it out.

    I’m going to guess he belongs to a church that also is against 10 year old girls being fondled. What is the name of that church? I’m going to guess his family is against 10 year old girls being fondled. What are the names of his wife and children?

    What we have here, it would appear, is a story about an alleged pervert veering off into a story about a political party. If it were a legitimate angle, it should have been developed as such.

    But it’s not a legitimate angle, which, I suspect, is why one reporter and two editors couldn’t be bothered with defending it today.

    It’s rather a shame the Strib got rid of its ombudsman position.

  • Jake

    In answer to your question, unfortunately, many people do draw the conclusion that all Republicans are perverts (see some of the above comments). There’s enough political hate around that a story about a child molester doesn’t need to fan the flames.

    It’s disappointing to see such a cheap shot in a news article. It’s hard to believe the inference wasn’t intended. I can understand that the reporter may come up with the fact that the guy made certain political contributions, but a good editor should understand that it’s not relevant and delete it before the article is published. Your example of a “news conference scenario” is right on. It makes no difference if the guy gave to Norm Coleman or Al Franken…it’s unprofessional crap journalism.

  • Jamie

    It is relevant because it is such a big issue. Republicans wrap themselves in the cloak of so-called family values, and they have continually been showing that there’s (sometimes literally) nothing under that cloak. Their hypocrisy in that regard in recent years has been astounding, and big news.

    I concede though that the Strib can be faulted for not developing the angle (maybe they ran out of space?) and for not mentioning the contribution to a Democrat (maybe they didn’t find that info?). I’m guessing they were trying to provide a sort of profile of the guy and just did it clumsily.

  • jfh

    The intellectualizing of jamie (among those who defended the Strib’s editing here) as a rationalization to defend shoddy journalism is truly stunning.

    The relevance to you liberals exists only because you live in an imaginary world.

    I’m still gonna wait for the MSM’s “…Clinton, the sexual predator…. to show up.

  • Jake

    I didn’t realize that Wanner may have also contributed to a Democratic candidate. If this is true, the Strib article is either a shoddy piece of journalism or manipulative journalism.

    If it is the former, shame on the Strib for not doing enough digging to ferret out the facts (which would have changed the tone of the contributions comment in the story or, more likely, probably would have killed it). A shoddy article needs to be addressed between the reporter and the appropriate editor to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

    A manipulative piece (the reporter had the facts but selectively used them) is far more serious. As an old City News Bureau alum, two points (among others) were pounded into my head. One didn’t plagiarize and one didn’t selectively use facts to shape a story a certain way. If you were guilty of either offense, your personal effects were put in a cardboard box out by the elevator. You were toast.

    I hope the Strib is comfortable that it is the former and not the latter. If a story is manipulated, it destroys the credibility of the institution.

  • Brian F

    A lot of commenters seem to assume that a financial contribution is an indicator of one’s own beliefs. And yet this discussion alone mentions situations where that is clearly not the case. Since it is clearly not the case, it is not relevant. The only way this “factoid” would be relevant to the story would be if the perpetrator were a vocal proponent of, say, life sentences for paedophiles, and premised his political donations on that fact.

    As Bob C said, if it’s relevant, develop it. If you can’t develop it, it’s not relevant, and should be left out.

    Journalism may not be dead, but I could make a strong argument that it’s in a persistent vegetative state.

  • John O.

    I’m in Bob C’s camp on this one. It’s not relevant–especially since there seems to be some evidence the guy has contributed to both parties.

    Maybe the reason it is included is simply to start another brushfire in the blogging community and increase the number of visits into the Strib website.

    If the yardstick for selling web-based advertising is based in large part on the number of visitors to the website, it would seem logical (in theory, anyway) that the more titillating the story, the more visits occur. A more sinister view might be that the reporter filing the story has his or her job performance review based, in part, on web traffic to their stories.

    My hope is that we do not find ourselves saying that the difference between the National Enquirer and the Strib is that the Strib has better crossword puzzles.

    My fear is we are not too far away from that.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Depends. If I found the old guy who had $300 stolen at the bank had donated $10,000 to a political party in the last election I might find that newsworthy.

    If I were writing the story about the old man at the bank, and I found out he was a Navy veteran, I might include that tidbit, just to paint a more complete picture of the victim and his story. Perhaps the Strib had the same thing in mind when they mentioned the political donation.

    In a sense, this is a bit of a “man bites dog” story too, as child molesters are often sterotyped as the “perv in the park” in the trenchcoat, not a CEO, The site (a pricey private club) where the molestaion allegedly occured also adds to the news value of the story.

    I am speculating, but I would imagine that Xiong came across the donation fact while doing a quick check on the accused molester’s background, and it was not part of any “fishing expedition” or ongoing effort by the Star Tribune to defame Republican politicians and their supporters.

    Sometime a cigar is just a cigar.

  • Bob Collins

    Even a cigar needs context.

    Without it, it would appear to link a political party to the molestation of 10 year olds and that’s the sort of thing you’d find on a partisan blog; it shouldn’t be the sort of thing you find in real journalism.

  • jfh

    The RedStar’s reporter did a much-more balanced story with a lot more context, so to speak, late yesterday. But if you go deeper down into their list of current news, the original one is still there. unchanged. Do you suppose they have no Editors now?

    John O’s comments about the probable business issue involved–needing hits for higher revenue–shows the prostitution issues inherent in journalism.

    This story has become a win-win for them–they get more hits from those of us checking the original report, not to mention reading the newest one.

    Does MPR do this, Bob?

  • Alison

    I’m with you, Bob, and I am a Democrat. Further, I’m appalled that there are left-wingers defending this. This sort of behavior is what is wrong with the extremely polarized political climate today. You need to be able to criticize someone when they screw up, even if their screw up harms your political opponent.

  • Bob Collins

    Most reporters, Jim, don’t give a damn about page views. It’s true, of course, the Strib has always played games with page views — like spreading a story out over four pages — but adjust content to inflame bloggers to get page views? Nah, every blogger in Minnesota links to the Strib for everything anyway, even when other news organizations have the same story… only better. (g)

    It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the copy editors have been among the most targeted when it comes to layoffs. Good editing simply isn’t an important and valued part of newsrooms anymore.

    Reporters screw up, and editors are the last line of defense.

    What has proven interesting in this exercise — for me — is the way we view the world through political filters. We simply cannot separate politics from the rest of our lives, even those parts of our lives that really have nothing to do with politics.

    On Twitter the other day, I made a joke about people who got fleece for Christmas are happier now than people who got diamonds. One of the area’s more popular conservative bloggers pointed out that I’d just proven some conservative economic theory.

    Politics will be the end of us. Probably soon. It’s the new religion.

  • Jamie

    I just re-read the story. The first time, I just skimmed it. And I still don’t think it’s that bad. Xiong was listing some of the things that define Wanner: not-practicing attorney, affiliated with a certain company, major political contributor… I don’t think it’s so out of line. If he were a major ARTS contributor, maybe that would have been one of the characteristics mentioned.

    Are we to believe that the Strib was implying that not-practicing attorneys and CEOs are also perverts? I don’t think so. And they were not implying that all Republicans are perverts, either, Bob.

  • Jamie

    Looking on the FEC’s web site I think He has made a $2100 donation to Ford Bell – a DFLer. In his last three donations. Posted by BJ

    BJ doesn’t sound so certain about this. I don’t have time to research this. Do we know for sure that this is true?

    If it is true, it’s a small fraction of the amount he has contributed to Republicans. And if Tim Robbins can make a mistake, maybe Wanner could too, by contributing to Bell.

  • jfh

    Jaime: You don’t have time to research this–but you have time to do two posts on the topic? And you say with certainty that “…it’s a small fraction of the amount he has contributed to Republicans.” And you know this how.?

    I’m not a very good shot any more, but even I can’t miss those sitting ducks.

    Your rationalizing is exceeded only by your partisanship. Do you know Theresa? You two sound compatible; maybe Bob can arrange for you to meet–perhaps in the lobby of the Strib Building, and you can spend the evening drinking lattes with the Strib non-Editors. Bob can buy.

  • Jamie

    It took maybe 5 minutes MAXIMUM to write each of those posts. I don’t know where to begin to look for the info on political contributions.

    I know it’s a fraction because I saw the amount he contributed to Republicans in just one year, 2008.

    P.S. SOME Democrats and progressives drink lattes, some don’t. Some Republicans drink lattes, too. Many, many of the people who frequent MY Starbuck’s are conservatives. Republicans were using worn-out and/or faulty stereotypes and descriptions of THEMSELVES when they came up with that hyphenated description for Democrats that included “latte-drinking.” The media loved it because it was decent word-smithing; the sheep-like public ate it up because the media shoved it down their throats. And that was the PLAN. Republicans are all about marketing (which, of course, often excludes the truth).

  • Bob Collins

    Reminder to all – Discuss the issues. Leave personalities and “shots” at other commenters out of it.

  • jfh

    You are right, Bob. My vitriol about irrational Liberalism does get away from me.

    Jamie, I apologize. Sincerely. I made a mistake on calling you out on being latte drinking.

    But, IMO–maybe Jamie should buy the lattes. Or I will, as long as I can have real-man’s espresso shots.

  • Brian

    It took me less than 5 minutes to go to Google and type “fec political contributions” and then do a search by name to find Wanner’s donations. And aside from the 2100 to Ford Bell, his donations have been exclusively to Republicans.

    Regardless, I still don’t see how his political views are relevant. Does the story mention his marital status, sexual orientation, ethnicity/race, or whether he has children? What are his religious beliefs? How long has he owned his home? Does he live near a school or playground? What was his net income for each of the past three years? What was his childhood like? Does he have any siblings? Is he a veteran? A veterinarian? A vegetarian? A humanitarian? A Unitarian? Enquiring minds want to know!

    Yes, it’s ironic to see GOP figures in sex scandals because of the “values” platform the party as a whole espouses. And if someone wants to editorialize, they are certainly free to do so. But legitimate journalism must be free of that sort of commentary, else it becomes useless.

  • Bob Collins

    You’ll note, though, that there weren’t THAT many political donations and they were given to Republican candidates closer to the middle — like Ramstad, for example.

    Clearly, the guy is NOT a big political insider not a “significant” donor.

    To the point that it’s just a factoid that further defines the man, maybe. Why not include his home address, then? That’s a factoid, too.

  • Jamie

    I don’t think we should try to ascertain Wanner’s right-wingedness by the specific candidates he contributes to. Maybe Ramstad was the only Republican running in his district at the time. Maybe he feels that ANY Republican is better than a Democrat.

    Also, he COULD be an insider. We don’t know. He has at least business connections with Brian Sullivan.

    Xiong probably ran out of room for more factoids.

  • Bob Collins

    That’s EXACTLY right. We don’t know. Which is why the sentence has no place in the story. It provides no insight and has not relevance because it tells us nothing that has anything to do with the story.

  • Jimmy

    Poor old Karl Bremer . . . still riding that dead mule and too dumb to know the difference.