Covering Kin: Market journalism and unequal treatment of political families

[Part 2 of a series on media coverage of political families. See Part 1.]

When politicians’ family members show up on the stump, it’s understood they’re fair game for the media. But recently relatives of two Minnesota leaders had run-ins with the law and got vastly different treatment by the Twin Cities dailies. Why did the 2004 arrest and eventual acquittal of Mike Hatch’s daughters on disorderly conduct charges merit ten times the ink as the recent story of Norm Coleman Sr.’s citation for public sex? The second in this two-part series ponders the elephant in the newsroom--is it political bias or the looming power of the media marketplace?

Almost immediately after his father was cited for lewd and disorderly conduct in late July, Sen. Coleman made a statement, while Norm Sr. remained silent. By contrast, after his daughters were arrested for a scuffle with police outside a Chicago bar, Hatch was active in his daughters’ case, and they made many public statements, in and out of the courtroom. “He wasn’t just commenting on their situation from afar,” says the Star Tribune’s readers representative Kate Parry. “He was involving himself very much with the way their case made its way through the justice system in Chicago.” So it was the reaction of Hatch, and not the merits of the case, that determined its newsworthiness?

Brian Lambert, a media critic who spent 14 years at the Pioneer Press, suggests “They were waiting for Hatch to do the Bigfoot thing”—that is, to see if Hatch would exert his influence to the benefit of his daughters.

Additionally, the story became the story: the aggressive Chicago media, says Parry, is “like the Twin Cities media on steroids,” and both local papers reported on how they covered the case. Perhaps they also took a cue from their Windy City colleagues: Strib columnist CJ likened the young women to Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, and George W. Bush’s twin daughters; both local papers included multiple photos of Anne and Elizabeth Hatch shot during the proceedings, while the very few images of Coleman Sr. that were published were file photos from the campaign trail.
"No matter how high-minded the reader may say he or she is, their eyes will go to a picture of good-looking women in some kind of legal trouble with a famous dad. You can’t miss in terms of readership."
The coverage may have a lot to do with “market journalism,” news production that targets the broadest audience and in doing so runs the risk of prizing entertainment over substance. Lambert says, “It’s always a bona fide question to raise how these stories are being chosen. On a national scale, you see it in stark terms with the JonBenet Ramsey thing—any missing blonde generates headlines,” he says (a phenomenon so prevalent, it has its own Wikipedia entry). “And of course, the Hatch girls look good in pictures. No matter how high-minded the reader may say he or she is, their eyes will go to a picture of good-looking women in some kind of legal trouble with a famous dad. You can’t miss in terms of readership.”

Did the attractiveness of the Hatch sisters drive the coverage? Not at all says Parry; the real issue is how we as a culture view familial relationships: while parents are seen as responsible for the behavior of their children, the same can’t be said for a politician and his father, explains Parry: “It’s a different relationship between a parent and a child.”

But the market may have dictated the coverage in another way. According to a writer at the Star Tribune, the paper’s editors were debating the appropriateness of covering the Coleman citation at all when their rivals across the river beat them to the punch and posted its story online--they followed suit. This might explain Parry’s “odd” headline. “That story had been out for significant hours online before anyone had picked up their morning newspaper and so, at that point, you’re trying to spin it ahead to what’s interesting now,” she says. “It had the feel to me of someone straining to do something like that.”

With the well-known partisan backgrounds of Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten (a former fellow at the Center for the American Experiment and a member of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transition team) and political editor DJ Tice (once a conservative columnist at the Pioneer Press), it’s fair to ask if politics motivated the disparate coverage. Parry says there was no political pressure, internally or externally—neither from Tice nor from Sen. Coleman.

Lambert, however, has his doubts. “Norm’s got contacts all over the place. Any time you really take a shot at anyone like that, you jeopardize a whole trail of things.”

While no direct evidence exists that Sen. Coleman weighed in on coverage of his dad, he does have a record of downright belligerence with the press. During the campaign of 2002, WCCO’s Pat Kessler mentioned on-air that Norm Coleman’s wife Laurie, an actor in Los Angeles, was “visiting” Minnesota. Coleman called the anchor at home and reportedly shouted, "I have never been so outraged in my life! What you did to me and my family?" Kessler recounted:
“He yelled at me for a couple three minutes. I still didn't understand what this was about. I said, 'What's the matter? What are we talking about?' And he says, I'm going to give the phone to my wife," Kessler said Thursday.

"The first words out of her mouth are Visiting! Visiting! Visiting! I visit my in-laws. I don't visit my husband. I visit my friends, I don't visit my family. I vote here, I don't visit here. Those are all but direct quotes," said Kessler.

"She was just very upset because she thought it was, and she said this, a devious political shot, a way to embarrass her and her husband. A way to paint their marriage as something that it wasn't."
Given Mike Hatch’s much-publicized pre-emptive complaint to the Minnesota News Council about Star Tribune reporters’ questions about his family he deemed “the most sleazy type of innuendo,” Laurie Coleman’s parting threat is apropos. She promised to “take this story to the News Council” (she never did).

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