Star Tribune nails trees, misses forest in Minnesota United stadium coverage

There’s a certain category of stadium-proposal news coverage that we see time and again: the “How do we solve the problem of funding a new stadium?” article. It technically falls within the constraints of journalistic standards — that is, if you consider journalism to be “reporting on the concerns of local elected officials and business leaders,” which is all too often the case — while reframing the issue not as whether a new stadium is a good idea, but how to pay for one without straining the local owner’s pocketbook.

I could go on like this, but easier to just point you to today’s Minnesota Star Tribune, which offers a perfect specimen of this article type. Let’s start with the headline:

Finding funding for proposed soccer stadium is complex

Why, yes, it is complex. Especially when you want to build one but have somebody else pay for a large chunk of it, as the article quickly makes clear is the case with Minnesota United:

Several of the county’s top officials have wondered whether a countywide sales tax now paying for the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field could also be used to help pay for a $150 million soccer stadium that the former UnitedHealth Group chief executive wants to build.

But the obstacles, according to legislators, county officials and an examination of records, are daunting. The roadblocks can be traced partly to a set of obscure, late-night hearings that occurred at the State Capitol four years ago — and which significantly decreased the likelihood of using the Target Field sales tax for a soccer stadium.

Damn those backroom deals that force the county to stop collecting sales taxes that were levied for a Twins baseball stadium once the stadium is paid off! Now you’re hamstringing county officials from taking money approved for one purpose and using it for another, which as we know is how the appropriations process is supposed to work! (Hamstringing them without getting the state legislature to change the law, that is, which the state can do, but it’s so awkward to have to ask, you know?) How are the United owners (who, incidentally, include the owners of the Twins) supposed to pay for a new soccer stadium now?

Though [county chief financial officer Dave] Lawless declined to speculate how hard it would be politically to change state law to use the ballpark money, the tax is hardly the only avenue open to McGuire. He could opt for a series of lesser public subsidies — asking that property taxes and sales taxes on construction materials be forgiven, as an example — or could simply privately finance the stadium.

Well, there’s an idea. Not an idea that is mentioned anywhere else in the article, mind you, but at least it got a mention somewhere. But then that undermines the headline: Finding funding for a new soccer stadium isn’t “complex” if it’s just a matter of writing a check, which the group that owns Minnesota United could do, given that it includes the billionaire owners of the Twins and Timberwolves (the latter of whom also bought the Star Tribune last year). It might not make financial sense for them to build a new stadium if they had to pay for the whole thing themselves, but then that would raise the question — if the article went there at all — of why build a new stadium at all, if playing in an existing one would make more business sense?

This is one of those cases where media analysis — and, really, media self-analysis — needs to go beyond whether an article is “biased” in the sense of taking sides to the more nuanced question of whether the news media, by adopting one side’s assumptions, is subtly skewing the conversation. After all, there are many other ways to cover a story like this that would be equally accurate: “Legislature’s action should protect county taxpayers from sales tax grab,” say, or if that seems too anti-stadium-funding, then “Twins sales tax surplus a likely no-go for soccer, thanks to 2011 law.” Neither of those, though, would shift the debate to be about how to find public money for a soccer stadium, not whether to do so, which is clearly what Minnesota United’s owners and their political allies want — and what sports teams are all too often able to use news coverage to accomplish.

I emailed the author of this piece, Mike Kaszuba (who’s interviewed me before on stadium topics), this morning to ask him if he didn’t think the article ended up reinforcing the idea that public money was necessary, and he said that wasn’t his intent at all: “There had been a lot of speculation here over the past few months on whether the countywide sales tax used to build the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field could be used. With this article, we wanted to point out that trying to do so would run counter to what had been recently done at the Legislature on this topic.”

I don’t doubt that that’s true; and unlike some other people I could name, I’m guessing Glen Taylor didn’t use his ownership of the Star Trib to pressure Kaszuba to write a certain way. But articles like these can end up being even more pernicious, precisely because they don’t technically color outside the lines of objective journalism: This is a well-researched article that could nonetheless end up shifting the debate in the direction of what team owners want, just because of the way it frames the problem needing to be solved. It’s something that journalists — and I count myself here as well — need to be constantly vigilant about, especially when the default position for so many newspapers seems to be that the agenda of sports business is sports business coverage’s agenda.

8 comments on “Star Tribune nails trees, misses forest in Minnesota United stadium coverage

  1. Looks like the Star Tribune will have to write a retraction for this poorly written non-story. Minnesota United just made an official announcement stating that they will privately finance the stadium:

    BREAKING: Minnesota United Committed To Private Finance Of Stadium Plan

  2. No “direct” subsidies. Every word in a press release is there for a reason.

  3. John, might be good to wait until that “commitment” is actually backed by bank loans and actual spending. And of course, we’ll likely get to experience the strange phenomenon of having certain sports fans argue that not paying $20 million in taxes is somehow different than the government giving you $20 million.

  4. And sure enough:

  5. GDub, not paying 20 million in taxes IS different than getting a 20 million handout.

  6. How’s that, Dave? If I’m getting money from the government, I don’t especially care whether it’s via a check or a rebate on April 15.

  7. GDub, not paying 20 million in taxes IS different than getting a 20 million handout.

    That has to be the silliest statement I’ve ever heard. No one would argue that getting a refundable credit from the government is different than a direct payment; it still drains the treasury and encourages a investment behavior in a certain direction. Its why the government has things like IRA’s and 401k’s and other credits that encourage you to spend in other areas where you get not only a deduction but often a refundable credit back.

  8. The Star Tribune does a wonderful job carrying water for every big player in town who needs a stadium. Quit slagging those fine folks! Without them, public stadium cash itself might be impossible… the horror! Gives me nightmares.