Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MPR's managed coverage

Here's a piece Mike Tronnes and I wrote in 2001, after Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch's investigation of the health giant Allina had essentially been resolved in his favor. The AG had reported much earlier in the year that Allina was a cesspool where insiders were raiding the company. For the entire period of the story, MPR, which has extensive connections with Allina, basically ignored it. Mike and I wrote this for the Strib, which in its infinite wisdom, refused to run it. Now, with much criticism of MPR on the burner, I offer it up as more evidence of the worthlessness and corruption that permeates Minnesota Public Radio, and, for that matter, much of the Trib.

I might add that this is no ordinary issue. Health care is the number one or two issue for most voters this year - and MPR is one of the prime news sources for Minnesotans, yet the network completely ignored this important and revealing story, then guiltily refused to even discuss their crappy behavior after the story was resolved. Their corporate connections with Allina go the heart of their fundraising strategy, and so call into question just about everything that goes on at MPR.
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When Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch announced in late-March (2001) that he was suing Allina Health System, he handed the Twin Cities news media a potentially great gift: the opportunity to provide a public service by advancing a complicated story that's of paramount importance to its audience.

As part of his ongoing investigation of the state's largest health-care provider, Hatch charged that Allina had misspent tens of millions of dollars Minnesotans had paid it in health insurance premiums. The federal government was also alleging that through billing fraud Allina had cheated it out of at least $19 million.

According to Hatch, Allina was acting more like an out-of-control corporate behemoth than the tax-exempt charity it is. He promised to get to the bottom of the situation, intimating that there was much more to be known about Allina. Having laid out such an inviting scenario, Hatch might have assumed that the media, another traditional watchdog institution, would pick-up where his investigation had left off.

But instead of joining the fray, our local media left the heavy lifting to Hatch, reporting his news rather than digging up much of its own. On the days that he made news, it was prominently featured, appearing above the fold and leading most evening newscasts. The reporting though, was mostly just news about Hatch's news. The investigative resources necessary to support, refute or advance his claims were not forthcoming.

Then, on July 11, Hatch again sued Allina, claiming that it was withholding documents needed for his investigation. But this time the story wasn't just about Hatch and Allina, it was also about the media, and a $300,000 bet by Allina that high-priced "crisis" consultants could help the company gain control of the story and spin its way off the front page.

Hatch was suing for communications between Allina and Bloomington-based GCI Tunheim, the public relations firm it had hired in late March to do damage control. Allina was trying to keep these documents from Hatch by claiming attorney/client privilege, a transparent legal charade executed when Allina's attorney, Doug Kelly, informed GCI Tunheim on June 21 that it would now be working for him, instead of Allina.

But even without these "protected" documents, Hatch had already amassed enough material to fill a pair of three-ring binders, containing hundreds of pages that revealed the nuts and bolts of a major-league spin campaign -- a 90-day "war room" effort with week-by-week itineraries of purported news themes, and reporters to target them with. Its goal was to cast Allina in the most positive light leading up to the attorney general's final report, due out in August.

All of this was reported with great emphasis on July 11 and 12, but once again the local media failed to make any news of its own, refusing even to defend itself against a direct challenge to its honor and integrity. Instead of reporting on, or editorializing about the relationship between public relations and journalism, the Pioneer Press published only a follow-up article on the growth in crisis management, while the Star Tribune gave six PR professionals, including GCI Tunheim President, Kathryn Tunheim, -- who was "unavailable for comment" when the story first broke -- a chance to defend crisis counseling. The predictable headline? "Consultant and PR industry defend Allina work."

In muzzling itself on this important issue, one that hits close to home, the local media passed on an opportunity to address a lingering public perception -- that it's bought and paid for by corporate sponsors, with whom it works closely to create content. In a 1999 survey of journalists conducted by the Pew Research Center of the People and the Press 54 percent cited "lack of credibility" as a reason for declining audiences, second only to "information overload."

While Allina's strategy didn't work this time around, the success of corporate PR campaigns is evidenced by Tunheim's ability to command up to $450 per hour for its expertise in advancing clients' messages via sophisticated media strategies.

Even Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), usually the most reliable of conversation starters, passed on discussing the role that corporate public relations plays in shaping the news. In fact, from mid-March to mid-July, MPR's civic-minded voice was all but silent on Hatch's investigation, providing markedly less coverage than its competitors.

In that time, MPR produced only one significant news feature on Hatch's inquiry -- a late-March report that included Cathy Wurzer interviewing Hatch and Allina CEO Gordon Sprenger. Even more incredibly, MPR ran 80 Midmorning and Midday shows during this period -- 320 hours of programming -- without devoting one segment of one show to Hatch's investigation.

Because MPR is the local news organization most closely tied to Allina, one might assume that it would have bent over backwards to provide adequate and balanced coverage of this story. After all, Allina Chief Operating Officer David Strand chairs MPR's board of trustees, which includes Thomas R. McBurney (chairman of the Allina Foundation board) and Addison (Tad) Piper (a member of Allina's board of directors). Add in Allina's and the Allina Foundation's sponsorship arrangements with MPR, and the connection between these two non-profits exceeds anything to be found in local commercial broadcasting.

KSTP-TV 's alliance with Allina, while less tangled, is more public. They co-sponsor a weekly show that KSTP also airs. Health Matters is hosted by Kalley Yanta, who was Kalley King when she worked as the station's lead news anchor. Like MPR, KSTP downplayed Hatch's investigation, ignoring breaking stories on its 10 p.m. newscast in both late-March and again in early-July. Each time, failing even to mention developments that were headlined in the newspapers and featured on WCCO's and KARE's 10 p.m. newscasts.

Whether these news judgments were driven by corporate cronyism, or some less obvious consideration, the evidence shows that on the Allina story, MPR and KSTP brought up the rear of a slow-moving pack. And as two of only three major locally-owned and/or operated media outlets -- TPT-TV being the other -- KSTP and MPR stumbled badly on a story about a local company that they do business with.

Fortunately the attorney general seems to be aware of the local media’s distaste for this story of malfeasance by their corporate brother. Just prior to Allina’s decision to split-off Medica, Hatch announced that he will be releasing the results of his investigation in a series of “five or six” reports. Shrewd guy that Mike Hatch.

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