As Minnesota prepared for an early April storm that would dump over a foot of snow in the Twin Cities, Minnesota Public Radio and Garrison Keillor struck a deal.
Nearly five months after MPR and its parent company, American Public Media Group, severed ties with Keillor over accusations of sexual harassment, Keillor and MPR reached an agreement where the archives of the two programs for which he worked, The Writer’s Almanac and A Prairie Home Companion, would be restored.
In return, MPR would pay Keillor $275,000 and both parties agreed not to pursue further litigation against each other.
For MPR’s own journalists, however, this story was out of the ordinary. Though Keillor was not a journalist, his prominence in public radio was unprecedented. He put MPR on the national map and allowed the organization to flourish financially.
Still they pursued the story as aggressively as any other, and in honor of SPJ’s 15th annual ethics week, it’s a case study worth exploring.
MPR journalists spoke to more than 60 people who worked for Keillor, all the while trying to get information from MPR management as they declined requests for interviews. Jon McTaggart, MPR’s CEO, had said he had not been aware of allegations against Keillor until last year, when they surfaced.
Days after the deal was announced, MPR News published a story looking into Keillor’s behavior and the view from the corporate side.
In MPR’s stories about Keillor, there was a link to an editor’s note detailing how reporters Laura Yuen, Euan Kerr and Matt Sepic, along with Editor Eric Ringham and Managing Editor for Enterprise Meg Martin, were covering this story.
“Journalists at MPR News are working independently of their parent company’s senior leadership,” the note read. “An editorial firewall separates MPR News from the rest of the company. We make our editorial decisions without interference from other departments.”
Martin, reached by telephone, said transparency was a huge consideration while her colleagues were reporting this story.
“It was an important story that became a story of accountability,” Martin said.
Martin added that she had no conversations with anyone in the organization on concerns of retaliation against journalists who covered the story. They covered the story the same way they would any other organization in the state, she said.
Laura Yuen, one of the reporters covering this story, declined a request for an interview for this article. But in an interview on MPR’s Morning Edition broadcast, Yuen said there was shock in the newsroom when the allegations emerged.
She said Keillor’s prevalence prefaced the questions she and her colleagues wanted to ask.
“We wanted to answer the question of what MPR knew and when,” Yuen said. “After a few weeks of reporting on the story, my colleagues and I were pretty quickly able to establish Keillor engaged in years of what might be considered inappropriate behavior.”
MPR journalists did not have special access to Keillor, American Public Media Group management or other means to get the information, according to the editor’s note.
“The journalists covering the story gather such information as they would if covering some other company: by searching public records and meeting privately with sources and those involved, some of whom might be other current or former APMG employees,” the note read.
The note linked to MPR’s ethics guidelines, which further details how MPR News covers stories on itself.
That policy is similar to other public media organization policies, including National Public Radio, whose former Senior Vice President of News, Michael Oreskes, resigned late last year amid similar sexual misconduct allegations. MPR’s guidelines mention SPJ’s Code of Ethics as a point of reference.
Jane Kirtley, professor and director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said it was a positive sign that MPR gave its reporters the ability to probe into Keillor and the organization’s response.
“[It was a] positive exercise in successfully explaining to a skeptical public why this was important,” said Kirtley, who also chairs the Grant Committee of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, SPJ’s supporting foundation.
Julie Drizin, executive director of Current, a trade publication for public media, said allegations of sexual harassment and bullying were breaches of that trust, which come at a time when journalists are trying to rebuild trust with audiences.
“These [allegations] wound institutions,” Drizin said in a telephone interview. “In public media, it’s particularly troubling because listeners and viewers fund our media through their donations and tax dollars and because we have certain values, they hold us to account to them.”
MPR’s transparent and independent investigation into its own problems can help rebuild trust with audiences and news organizations, Drizin said. Kirtley added the approach made sense considering MPR’s culture of reporting.
“They quite properly hold other institutions to account,” Kirtley said. “They call them on inconsistencies. They question the wisdom and demand transparency. It is legitimate that if they demand transparency from others, they should demand it from themselves.”
Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s ethics and freedom of information committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.