A timeline of the #pointergate TV station’s defense (Updated)

There's doubling down, there's tripling down, and then there's what KSTP is doing

You’ve heard all about #pointergate. And you’ve probably read or watched a few of the many, many, many pieces exploring what was wrong with a Nov. 6 local TV news segment that reported the mayor of Minneapolis had been photographed “flashing a known gang sign” with a convicted felon, and supposedly endangering her community in the process.

So at this point I don’t need to review the ways in which the initial report by KSTP, the local station, was, shall we say, problematic. And while I don’t consider myself a valuable source of information on the political context in Minneapolis, this recent column by the local journalist David Brauer is pretty consistent with my own assessment.

But what you might not know—and what strikes me as the most fascinating aspect of this story, two weeks after the initial report—is just how committed the station has been in standing by its coverage. If anything, its position has hardened in the face of criticism. Over and over again, representatives from KSTP have said their coverage was solid—often, by noting the station was faithfully reporting on concerns it had heard from law enforcement. 

Just yesterday, in a conversation with me about all this, KSTP station owner Stanley Hubbard said: “We don’t back down.”

“Yes,” Hubbard told me, “we heard about this [story] from the police federation guy and we are very well aware of the fact that they don’t get along with the mayor and the police chief. We know that. That’s why our reporters checked with five other major law enforcement agencies to see if there was anything to this.”

(Update, 11/21: Hubbard contacted me after this story was published to say he “misspoke about one thing” during our interview. “We never reveal sources unless they wish to be revealed. The man in our story from the Police Federation was not the source, rather he was a person who affirmed what our sources had to say.”)

Hubbard and I were talking a day after the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists took KSTP to task for producing a story it called “fundamentally flawed and based on a faulty premise.”

For his part, Hubbard told me he wrote the SPJ, of which he said he is a member, a “stinging letter.” He clearly feels besieged—angry at the rest of the media, and bitter about the mayor, who didn’t talk for KSTP’s initial story, and whom he blames for “stirring up” the angry response. I asked if, had she had spoken to the station at the outset, they might not have run the story at all.

“I don’t know what she would have said or what she could have said that might have changed it,” he said. “It’s very possible.”

But now, Hubbard is very comfortable with his station’s reporting. And his position, he insists, is bolstered by local public opinion.

“I’ve gotten wonderful phone calls from black leaders saying ‘Good for you,’” he told me. “We just did a major study—we wanted to find out the public reaction—I haven’t got the number exactly, but it’s something like 65 or 70 percent of the people don’t care one way or the other. But interestingly, of those who are aware of the story, 52 percent of black people say, ‘Good for you, right on.’” (I didn’t get details of how the study was conducted.)

He also read me a letter that had been written, he said, by a young black school girl whose grandmother works at the station, and who had been learning about #pointergate in social studies. “We know that the man did a gang sign, but I didn’t learn that in school,” the letter read, in part. Hubbard told me the girl learned it “on the street.”

Hubbard added that he also personally looked up gang signs on Google, and he found one that looked just like what the mayor was doing.

“It may be an uncomfortable story for some people, but we vetted it very carefully,” he insisted. He is, clearly, dug in on this.

For posterity’s sake, I thought I’d create a (probably incomplete) timeline of the rest of KSTP’s defense.

Nov. 7: A day after the initial broadcast, criticism is snowballing on the Web. So KSTP issues a statement:

“Law enforcement sources alerted KSTP-TV to a photo they believed could jeopardize public safety and put their officers at risk, especially given the recent increase in gang violence. Multiple sources from several law enforcement agencies told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the photo had the potential for undermining the work they are doing on the streets. 5 Eyewitness News blurred the individual’s face and did not name the group he was working for because police called into question only the judgment of Mayor Betsy Hodges.”

Reporter Jay Kolls, who reported the original story, had been taking heat since the evening before. He appears on a local radio station owned by KSTP’s parent company to take questions about it from host Joe Soucheray. The radio host gives Kolls a pretty hard time, calling the premise of his broadcast “preposterous,” and telling Kolls at one point, “For Christ’s sake, it’s a non-story.”

Here’s the conversation:

And here’s one exchange:

Kolls: “Their [the police] opinion is when she [the mayor] does something like this, even the perception that’s out there is bad and creates problems.” 

Soucheray: “I don’t see the perception, to tell you the truth.”

Kolls: “I totally get where you’re coming from. There’s a lot of people who obviously don’t like the story and a lot of people who do like the story, and I just put it out there because, you know, they came to me and said this is—they said this is preposterous.”

(That’s not so different from “I reported the facts I was given by the police.” Sound familiar? That was how a South Carolina TV reporter defended a broadcast earlier this year about a mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone in a park while she worked at McDonalds. There’s more defense like that from KSTP to come.)

Kolls also tells the radio host he hasn’t yet seen a YouTube video of the mayor’s interaction with the photo subject, posted on Daily Kos, that shows the mayor giving a thumbs-up, which awkwardly turns into a finger point with her thumb raised—the “gang sign” in the photo. Kolls says he’d been trying to get the mayor on the record about the incident for days, and was surprised no one had shown him the video (which was not online prior to the original report). “Nobody offered any explanation to me,” he says. Soucheray suggests the video might be an opportunity for the station to do a follow-up story explaining it in the full context of a clumsy photo-op.

Kolls does produce a follow-up later that day, and the segment does include a fleeting bit of  video of the interaction. But the web headline? “Law Enforcement: Criticism of Mayor Hodges’ Photo Report Misses the Point.” The headline is true to the spirit of the segment.

Nov. 13: Station owner Hubbard is invited to speak at nearby Augsburg College to talk about business leadership. Instead, about 100 protesters show up, and a heckler interrupts Hubbard to demand an on-air apology at KSTP.

“Of course not, that’s ridiculous,” Hubbard responds. Then he goes off script, taking and answering hostile questions. According to KSTP’s account, Hubbard “told the group multiple, credible law enforcement sources told reporter Jay Kolls the sign Mayor Hodges held up was indeed a gang sign.”

Hubbard tells the crowd that KSTP’s initial report didn’t mention the man’s name, and the station had blurred out his face. Hecklers give him hell.

The station owner also offers some media criticism of his own:

“I’ll tell you what reporters should do. If the reporters at MinnPost and the Star-Tribune are really good reporters they will find out who started this so-called Pointergate and started a Twitter site and who that person is associated with. There’s a story. Because you people have been sucked in. You’ve been sucked in, folks.”

You can watch the full exchange below:

That night, KSTP airs a new segment and publishes a corresponding piece on its website. The web headline: “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Defends Story, Reveals New Details Surrounding Controversial Picture.” In the story, Stephen Tellier reports that KSTP was initially skeptical after receiving the photo:

So our newsroom spent four days vetting the story. 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has taken the picture to eight active police officers with multiple agencies, as well as a retired Minneapolis officer who is often critical of police. All strongly agreed the picture was problematic.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS admits, and reported, that the poses struck by Hodges and Gordon appear to be playful — simple pointing — and it’s hard to understand why such a seemingly innocuous photo could be potentially dangerous. But police say the mere existence of it could put the public, and possibly police, in danger.

Multiple law enforcement sources tell 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the hand gestures in the photo are known gang signs for a local group called the Stick Up Boys. The same gesture is identified as a gang sign in a gang training presentation used by the Texas Attorney General’s office. And the president of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association says it’s used by various gangs across the country.

The rest of the story deals with the man in the photo with the mayor, running down his rap sheet, which includes a recent arrest, and detailing an Instagram account in which he says unfriendly things about the police and “repeatedly” displays “the hand gesture that sparked all the outrage.”

“Others can interpret the facts as they see fit,” Tellier says. “But these are the facts.” He adds: “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has a history of reporting on police abuses and successes. But we believe this is an example of police simply doing their job to protect the community.”

Nov. 14: Hubbard again stands by KSTP’s reporting in an interview with Steven John of MPR News. He says, in part:

This isn’t something we did. You can blame the police and you can yell at them. Don’t blame us. We’re only reporting the news, and we will continue to report the news. We’re very sorry if somebody was offended. The facts are the facts. We only report the facts, and the facts are that multiple police agencies said this was a bad thing.

Nov. 17: MPR News reports that health insurance company Ucare has pulled its advertising from KSTP because of the station’s reporting.

“It would feel wrong to continue advertising with an organization that broadcast something that truly offended, we felt, many of our members, our coworkers, business partners, friends and family members,” the company’s marketing director says, adding that Ucare wouldn’t rule out future advertising with the station.

Responding to the news, Hubbard calls it “unbelievable.”

Nov. 20: Hubbard tells CJR he’s still comfortable with his station’s report, no matter how much criticism it’s faced.

“We aren’t involved in trying to hurt anybody,” he says. “We are only involved in telling the truth. And when the mayor meets with an ex-convict—a public amnesty with her arm around him—and this man had been arrested just a little over two months before for aggravated… robbery, I think it’s fair for the police to say—we’re not saying it—for the police to say that’s bad judgement.

“We didn’t say it was a gang sign, the police said it was a gang sign.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at [email protected].