As further proof that my cynicism knows no depths, let me assert that based on decades of experience, it is my belief that when it comes to personnel issues, by gargantuan enterprises like NBC/Comcast or merely big ones like Minnesota Public Radio … “It’s Money That Matters” as Randy Newman once sang.
In the matter of its summary execution of Garrison Keillor and the scrubbing of all mention and residue of him from their archives, MPR, Minnesota’s “listener-supported” PUBLIC radio “service” is staying very much in character.
The number of people who have tried to play not just media reporter but media critic in the Twin Cities don’t amount to even a handful. But for years I was one of them, and until the current management of the Star Tribune, no organization in town was more walled off, impenetrable and resistant to potentially negative inquiry than MPR. The joke among those of us who tried over the years was that you were more likely to get a full and forthright comment out of the CIA than MPR.
Despite “Public” being a central part of its name and identity, MPR has always conducted itself as the most private of media entities. By contrast, as I’ve often said, Stanley Hubbard, who truly is a “private” owner of television and radio stations, was routinely willing to take a phone call and offer some kind of an explanation for his internal controversy of the moment. With MPR, at best you were lucky to get a turgid, opaque statement from their PR desk.
(The level of fear that permeated MPR’s newsroom staff was frankly remarkable. MPR laid off a group of people a couple of years ago. Only two of the laid-off responded to requests for an entirely off-the-record, not-for-attribution conversation about what happened … and then only to plead not to ever be contacted again.)
In this Keillor situation what leaps out at me is that the only story of an offense, such as it is, comes from Garrison himself. This is the odd business of his hand slipping up a distraught employee’s bare back. In fairness, MPR may be protecting themselves and Keillor from far … far … more unsavory behavior. But we will never know, unless Keillor decides to lay it all out for his fans and the general public, something at the moment he is saying he doesn’t care to do.
In Sunday’s Star Tribune we had this all too familiar line: “MPR’s director of communications, Angie Andresen, said Friday that her organization would like to share more information, but to do so would be a breach of confidentiality that might deter potential victims or witnesses of abuse from coming forward.”
At that, the treadworn cynic in me screams, “Bullshit.”
Since MPR never shares information about anything with even the most remote potential to injure its reputation and impact its revenue stream, it is fair to conclude that it is MPR not any victimized woman who is enforcing this cone of confidentiality. Other media organizations — CBS with Charlie Rose, NBC with Matt Lauer — have seized on high-profile offenses to encourage other women on the staff and in the culture at large to come forward and speak up. The encouragement to women to tell the sordid stories is at the essence of this moment.
MPR is, as usual, taking the opposite approach. “Public” is for them is a branding scheme with no concurrent obligation to transparency.
I’ve told a few people that I’d be fascinated to get a full picture of MPR’s financial relationship with Keillor prior to this reputational guillotining. Nothing of course could be more horrifying to MPR’s executive offices. This is after all the organization that fought tooth and nail the disclosure of founder/CEO Bill Kling’s salary, firing off letters demanding the firing of reporters reckless enough to ask so basic a question of … a public organization.
With that in mind, it is easy, even logical to believe that MPR seized on the opportunity of some kind of impropriety involving Keillor and a woman/women to invoke a morals clause immediately and completely voiding contract(s) with him. Contracts it has monitored carefully and come to regard as no longer beneficial to their revenue stream.
As the saying goes, “Every crisis is an opportunity.”
I strongly suspect NBC/Comcast executives carefully assessed the financial impact of wiping $20-$35 million of Matt Lauer’s salary off the books and concluded “The Today Show” will survive just fine with Savannah Guthrie and (my bet) Willie Geist on the set fawning over pop stars and offering shopping tips.
As for Keillor, can we all acknowledge he is not an average guy, much less a “normal” human being? A bit like Bob Dylan, Garrison long ago began protecting his talent and productivity by interacting with the quotidian universe solely on his terms, as much as possible. You simply can’t be as productive as people like those two have been and deal hour by hour with the numbing, insipid bullshit of daily life. Hell, Keillor’s even said he’s autistic to some degree. So when he then says he’s remarkably awkward in personal encounters, I believe him.
Could he have had an affair with a staffer? I suppose. But even that seems a stretch. What’s inconceivable though is going all Harvey Weinstein or even pulling a Matt Lauer button-under-the-desk and sex toy routine. But in the absence of actual transparency — from an organization that explicitly demands it of the public subjects of its news gathering — everyone’s imagination is free to run wild.
Personally, I hope Keillor reconsiders his decision not to say more about what’s gone down. As a gifted writer, and just as importantly as a humorist, not mention at age 75 with the bulk of he career behind him, Keillor could help turn this current dialogue down a more nuanced, balanced path.
A path that would include the purely monetary pressures that invariably apply in high-profile matters like this.