Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Nuts Stop Here

Criticism of Nick Coleman has become a bit of a growth industry of late. Which is great. Many of us veterans in the cause have been suffering from an acute case of Nick Coleman fatigue and have largely abandoned him to his own devices.

It's pointless reading the guy anymore. Three times a week, every week, this wealthy son of privilege writes the same self-righteous, holier-than-thou commentary, trying his hardest to find any angle which he can use to denigrate the average, middle class Twin Citizen. (I know professional journalists have been indoctrinated to the notion that afflicting the "comfortable" is their highest possible calling. But how long can a paper endure featuring as their star columnist a guy dedicated to insulting the majority of its readers? Since they're a virtual monopoly, maybe forever.)

But how many times can we say "he sucks" before the readers naturally rebel with "WE KNOW, what else ya got?" Unfortunately, we aren't a monopoly, so we have to actually care what the readers think.

I also wonder how much Nick Coleman criticism feeds the pathology of the editors at the Star Tribune, leads them to believe he's edgy and controversial and stirs things up, and therefore adds value to their product. It doesn't matter what reaction he gets, as long as he gets a reaction, that proves people are reading him. Throw in all those readers who write in gushing odes to the guy (liberal masochists who love his insults and the thousands in line to profit from Coleman's profligate social spending remedies), and I can see where management at the Star Tribune might think Nick is a hot property. Since they agree with Coleman's political views, all the better. He's granted the position of Columnist-for-Life, drawing a six-figure salary while merrily afflicting this community three times a week, in perpetuity.

In the spirit of the truth setting one free, I have to believe there is a greater good in the blogs voicing their objections to this man. I'm sure we'll all continue to do it to some degree. In the short run, if that means Nick's position is enhanced, so be it.

But, there is another outlet for Nick Coleman criticism that may not have such a positive consequence for his career. Because that outlet has the potential to threaten the monopolistic news cycle of abuse that sustains him. I speak of the Pioneer Press. The St. Paul paper, which hasn't been much of a rival for the Star Tribune. Traditionally, they've been more the junior partner of the liberal establishment press (their record includes being a past employer of Nick Coleman). They've been dominated by the same political perspectives and biases, only with less resources available. As a consequence, they've never been able to make inroads in the Twin Cities in terms of circulation size and ad revenues, and have complacently accepted their subservient role.

Over the past year or so, there have been signs of an ideological change coming. Most prominently, the hiring of Mark Yost on the editorial board and Craig Westover as an editorial contributor. I've been hesitant to declare the Pioneer Press as a legitimate alternative to the Star Tribune. They still have a dominant hard left influence on their editorial board and their news coverage, bolstered by reams of material from the AP and New York Times, is every bit as slanted as the Star Tribune's. But some of their editorials, the work of Westover and usually unattributed work of Yost, have been outstanding. Not just for the "right" political perspective, but also for their quality of prose, intellect, and logic.

A Westover editorial in today's Pioneer Press provides a great example of this. Better yet, it directly refutes a Nick Coleman column. Apparently, newspaper professional courtesy prevents him from naming names, but the references are undeniable. Nick Coleman's column of Nov. 14 started this way:

This is how nuts we have become. In order to teach kids to read, it helps if you have books. But when Zelma Wiley walked into Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul and took over as principal a couple of years ago, there were hardly any books on the shelves of the school's 21 classrooms and not nearly enough books -- or the right mix of reading levels and subject matters -- in the school's library.

Today's Westover column begins this way:

Preparing for a speaking engagement in St. Paul, Sol Stern read about a situation in the St. Paul Public Schools that was described as "nuts."

And Westover proceeds to analyze and refute Coleman's arguements. A mainstream media editorial page doing to Nick Coleman what the blogs have been doing for years. And doing it a little better (there is something to be said for a professional tone).

Read the Nick Coleman column first. Then the Westover column. (Also posted on his blog.) Compare and contrast the use of logic, facts, and evidence, versus racially-charged, naive, emotional blustering and ill-conceived knee-jerk scapegoating. (What was I saying about a professional tone? There goes my chance to be a community columnist.)

Examples, first from Coleman:

How did we get to the point in Minnesota that we have a school in a minority neighborhood of our capital city where there aren't enough books? If you don't find that situation outrageous, you are part of the problem.

When you are trying to teach reading in a climate of spending cutbacks, hostility from political leaders who control the purse strings and public indifference toward the poor, you are between a rock and a hard place.

We know what happened, don't we? The poor are being punished for being poor and the politicians, instead of doing their damnedest to get things solved, are doing their damnedest to pass the buck. Highways are more important than kids.


Now Westover:

"Instead of accountability for the problem being placed where it belongs, on the school administrators," Stern told his audience, "I read that the problem is not enough money - the last refuge of failed policy. I checked. St. Paul educates a student for about $11,000 a year. This situation is not 'nuts' because we're not spending enough on public schools. The situation is 'nuts' because we're not holding the public schools accountable."

To avoid facing the accountability problem, racism, legislative insensitivity and a public refusal to accept that we don't pay enough for the education of our children have all been offered as excuses for government schools. Ignored is the obvious: that here is a St. Paul school spending more than $11,000 per student per year that let a book shortage problem fester for more than two years until it erupted into a crisis. And all the while, the school is spending that $11K per student somewhere. Makes one wonder: What priorities did the school system place above buying books for kids?

I can't imagine that situation," Molly Whinnery, principal of [private, Catholic school] St. Mark's, told me. "We receive $62 per student from the state to purchase non-religious books. And we have a line item in the annual budget for classroom books and a separate account for library books."

St. Mark's spends a little less than $4,200 a year per student


The ability of this column to expose Nick Coleman, not for being a blithering leftist apologist, but for being a lazy researcher and lousy writer, well, it's like a miracle. Bravo Westover and Pioneer Press management for publishing it.

Conservative subscribers to the Star Tribune, I encourage you consider the Pioneer Press as a better option (and if you cancel on them, make sure to tell them why). I also encourage any readers of this Westover piece to send a note to the editors (letters@pioneerpress.com) expressing your feelings about it. They've taken a bold step by publishing it and they need to know it's appreciated.

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