Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) is one of my favorite corporate media reporters in the Twin Cities. He’s usually quite careful and articulate and generally has a point of view (as opposed to the view from nowhere). That’s why I was genuinely curious about his use of “fib” multiple times, in multiple forms in his “What did they know and when did they know it” piece this morning. After all, the head for the package of unrelated stories is “Credibility is early casualty in Koch probe.”
Collins’s usage of “fib” was in relation to Minnesota State Senator Geoff Michel‘s (R-District 41) comments to the press regarding the resignation of Minnesota State Senate Leader Amy Koch (R-District 19) over an “improper relationship” with a colleague.
Upon being asked when the four Minnesota State Senate leaders knew about Koch’s improper relationship, Michel told reporters—on the record—“the allegations about Koch’s behavior were first reported to them a few weeks ago.” That was not true, and Michel knew it. Tom Scheck and Catharine Richert, reporting for MPR, note Koch’s former chief-of-staff, Cullen Sheehan, revealed details of the improper relationship to the Minnesota State Senate leadership three months ago. “Three months ago, I became aware of a potential relationship between Sen. Koch and a staff person,” Sheehan told Scheck and Richert. “I then spoke to the staff person and he confirmed the relationship. We both then met with Sen. Koch and she confirmed the relationship. The next day I met with Sen. Koch to discuss the situation. I subsequently met with the Deputy Majority Leader” [Senator Geoff Michel]. Sheehan left employment at the Minnesota Senate in November, refused to identify the staff member, and refused to tell Scheck and Richert why he left the Minnesota Senate.
I was really curious why Collins chose to use “fib” to describe Michel’s outright lie to reporters asking what the leadership knew when. So I asked him, both in a comment on his piece, and in a tweet. Collins responded similarly on both Twitter and in a comment to his original piece. He finds “fib” a more interesting word. Fair enough. Except in his initial comment on his MPR blog, partially in response to another commenter, Collins writes, “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.”
Whoah, conflating “lie” with “Nazi” seemed way over the top to me, so I became even more curious. I looked up the definition of “fib” and according to the Oxford American English Dictionary, the word means “a lie, typically an unimportant one.” I referenced the definition in Twitter and in another comment on Collins’s article, asking if he was saying that what Senator Michel said was unimportant. Collins dodged the question in a subsequent comment on his article and told me in a tweet that I was “free to use whatever definition you wish.”
Have we really reached the point where were all entitled to our own definitions as well as facts? Really? When did that happen? I reject the premise (both premises, actually) on its face. I told Collins in a tweet he was being dismissive/disingenuous.
Since when is proper usage and accuracy partisan? I asked Collins in a tweet. (A quick perusal of the writings contained here indicate I’m as disgusted with the Democrats as I am Republicans, but truth be told, I find the Republicans much easier targets.) Collins dodged the question by responding, “‘Accuracy’ is acknowledging that ‘a few weeks’ could be 13 or 14. Unless you have a specific definition of a ‘few.’” Well, yeah, I’d hope most everyone would sensibly agree that “a few” means three or four—maybe five—certainly less than 10 or a dozen; especially in reference to what turned out to be a quarter of a year.
It was just sad—really sad—when Collins tweeted to me that he was “not comfortable saying a few cannot be 14, which is what it would take to constitute a ‘lie.’”
Koch, Michel, and a host of other Minnesota Republicans campaigned hard on forbidding gay marriage by putting a constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The gay community has sent an apology to Koch for ruining her marriage.
I’ve been really careful to not identify the rumored subordinate in Koch’s “improper relationship” because I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the subordinate’s identity nor has anyone claiming to have first-hand knowledge communicated with me. To date, no one’s confirmed the rumor. City Pages and WCCO-TV are the only corporate media outlets I’m aware of that have acknowledged the rumor. MinnPost.com‘s David Brauer has an excellent piece on the matter, with a quote from University of Minnesota professor and Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Chris Ison:
“I’ve been fascinated by how careful the media have been. I have always been pretty conservative in these situations. If I don’t have it, I don’t have it. If circumstances make me 99.5 percent sure, but no person or document says it directly, I still don’t have it. I can use those circumstances to try to leverage someone to give it to me. But if no one will, I’m stuck. I don’t make that tiny leap based on circumstantial evidence. It’s somewhat of a principle—Don’t say what you don’t know. Don’t guess or assume. But it’s also pragmatic—I’ve seen reporters get burned when they take what seem to be tiny, safe leaps. I still have to get someone to say it directly, or find a document to show it.”
Collins says that he’s uncomfortable “saying a few cannot be 14.” I take him at his word—he didn’t have it, using Ison’s parlance—and am comfortable with his erring on the side of caution, I suppose. I just don’t agree.
I expect fairness and accuracy in the reporting I consume—corporate or independent—and I demand neither be abandoned for supposed objective balance. And I prefer media with a point of view. If that’s “partisan”—and I don’t believe for a minute that it is—so be it. In this case I believe Collins sacrificed accuracy and precision in his use of “fib” and subsequent defenses devolving to parsing that term and “a few.” In the best case, it’s a matter of over-cautiousness; in the worst case, it’s something else entirely.